While they may not appear to be parents to those around them, since no children are pictured in family photos or follow them into the pew at Sunday Mass, Christine and Nick Ostendorf, from Cape Girardeau, Mo., consider themselves blessed to be the mother and father of a little girl, Frances. Christine, 24, calls her "the daughter I always wanted."
The Ostendorfs married in July 2013 and were overjoyed at the news of immediately conceiving their first child. Two short months later, their joy turned to grief, when they discovered they had miscarried.
"It was a roller coaster of emotions," Christine explained, "from the excitement of this new life as husband and wife to becoming parents and losing our child."
The young couple immediately turned to their Catholic faith for help sorting through their pain.
"Nick and I entered Frances into the Book of Life at the Shrine of the Holy Innocents in New York," Christine said. "We’ve since framed the certificate with the one picture we took of me showing pregnancy growth, along with a journal entry I wrote. It is on my dresser and is a daily reminder of my maternity."
A Grieving Process
According to the American Pregnancy Association, 10% to 25% of clinically recognized pregnancies result in miscarriage, the term used to indicate a pregnancy that ends on its own. For couples who have lost a child and are left with unfulfilled hopes, the Church extends consoling arms.
Father Henry Atem, pastor of St. George Catholic Church in Newnan, Ga., presided at a funeral service for the child of a couple who had two earthly children but had lost three babies due to miscarriage. "It was tough, because they really wanted more kids, but she kept having miscarriages," Father Atem described. "But the Catholic faith always draws us back to the mystery of the cross. In death, we see new life. This is great consolation in moments like these. I remember the dad telling me, ‘Father, if we can’t populate the earth, at least we are populating heaven, which is the ultimate goal.’ I thought that was very insightful."
Catholic couples have options to help in the grieving process, including having a funeral Mass for their child and a Catholic burial, requesting the "Blessing of Parents After a Miscarriage" from the Church’s Book of Blessings, and, perhaps most simply and importantly, naming their unborn child.
"I encourage couples who suffer from a miscarriage to always develop the baby’s identity by giving him or her a name. When the couple names their baby, he or she truly becomes a part of their family and gives them a real sense of having made a significant contribution to the heavenly family," said Father Atem.
Elizabeth and Michael Sobczyk, from Gilbert, Ariz., suffered a miscarriage in 2010 of their daughter, whom they named Evangeline, meaning "good news." Evangeline was buried at Queen of Peace Cemetery in Mesa, Ariz. "We did this because, as Catholics, we know that our Evangeline was a person and felt it was right to lay her remains to rest," said Michael, 28.
Elizabeth, 31, noted that the burial was a helpful way to complete their grieving process: "It was just us and the priest. He said a beautiful prayer. I got to decorate her little coffin how I wanted, in gold stars, with her name on it. She’s my little star."
Support From the Church
Parishes and dioceses around the country are better equipping themselves to help couples who have experienced a miscarriage find comfort, bringing the message to grieving parents that "the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit" (Psalm 34:18).
Outreaches like Embrace, a new ministry in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, offer "life certificates," like the one the Ostendorfs received, as well as comfort to parents, guidance for friends and family of couples who have lost a child and clergy training for ministers to better serve families whose lives have been affected by the tragic death of an unborn or newborn child.
Additionally, ForYourMarriage.org, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, provides resources to grieving parents.
"Contact your pastor right away. You must grieve with the support of the Church," recommended Deacon Jeffrey Kowitz, who is also a medical doctor. Deacon Kowitz, 57, serves at Holy Name Catholic Parish in Watertown, S.D., and is the father of seven earthly children. He and his wife, Lorraine, 55, suffered three miscarriages between 1991 and 1995.
"Couples need to understand that they not only have a right but a need to go through the grieving process of this loss," Deacon Kowitz advised.
"I think spending time face-to-face with Jesus in Eucharistic adoration is where to begin. Just sit quietly and cry as a couple. Jesus knows all your feelings towards him; if you are angry, don’t be afraid to share this with him."
When asked what he and his wife teach their earthly children about their miscarriages, he reflected, "I think it is more what they taught us. Our children expressed that they would give up anything to have their siblings back. It is just as St. Pope John Paul II expressed during his pontificate: ‘The best gift to give your children is another sibling.’"
Despite the pain, couples can find hope and consolation after miscarriage. The Church’s "Blessing of Parents After a Miscarriage" promises, "For those who trust in God, in the pain of sorrow, there is consolation; in the face of despair, there is hope; in the midst of death, there is life."
After going on pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy, and praying for the intercession of St. Francis, whom her daughter is named after, Christine Ostendorf started to find a sense of peace. "I began to see that the Lord wanted to create in me a clean heart and give my grudge to him, so I could be filled with his grace, love and mercy," she admitted.
"We brought life into the world with the help of the Lord and will forever be changed. I had not miscarried my baby; I carried her, with love and strength, to the place we all aim for — heaven."
Katie Warner writes
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