After decades of suffering alone, couples are finding support as they grieve the loss of an expected child
“Everyone kept telling me not to worry. I'd have another baby. But they didn't understand. I didn't want another baby, I wanted that baby.”
Cries like this are nothing new to those who minister to women who experience a miscarriage. And thanks to the efforts of some in the Church, those cries aren't being ignored. Instead, they're being heard, recognized, validated, and understood.
Losing a baby before its birth through a miscarriage isn't rare. Statistics reveal that 20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. For decades, the women and families who experienced a miscarriage often suffered alone. People didn't know what to say or would unintentionally inhibit the grieving process by minimizing the experience. Fortunately, women experiencing miscarriage today are finding more resources—and more compassion.
Christine Cina miscarried a baby last year in her sixth week of pregnancy. Her baby, whom she and her husband named William, would have been the Cinas' first-born child. The miscarriage took Cina and her husband by surprise. While they had prayed for a child since their marriage in 1993, William was the first child conceived. Shortly after taking a home pregnancy test, she began miscarrying. After two painful weeks, Christine went to a Catholic hospital seeking medical attention.
What she experienced there disturbed her. Practicing Catholics active in the pro-life movement, the Cinas chose a Catholic hospital for specific reasons, namely because the Church recognized and affirmed the humanity of their unborn child. Instead of a warm, compassionate environment, however, the Cinas say they found the hospital doctors and staff insensitive and cold.
“I was shocked,” said Christine. “I was never offered a priest, and when my husband requested the baby's body so we could bury him, we received his body in a container labeled ‘POC’—meaning products of conception.”
“That really upset me. We left and that was it. They never sent me anything, and there was no follow up at all.”
As they prepared for the burial, the Cinas asked if any Catholic cemetery in the area offered plots for miscarried babies. They were told nothing was offered. With the help of a priest, the Cinas buried their son on the grounds of a local parish.
While she is still upset by the experience, Christine does-n't blame the Church—even though she wishes it would offer more for women in her situation. Instead, she insists that more sensitivity needs to be instilled in the medical profession, especially among Catholic health professionals.
“There needs to be training in how to mourn with someone, to pray with someone who's going through this,” she said. “They didn't recognize that he [William] was a gift from God, not some fluke of science.”
Christine's experience has prompted her to take steps to assist in the formation of a ministry in her diocese to specifically reach out to women and families who lose babies before birth. She describes it as part of her own healing process.
“You're almost made to feel like you're an abnormal person if you go through this,” said Christine. “To help another person who has lost a child, to reach out, that helps me.”
One place the Cinas turned to for assistance in their grieving process was the Shrine of the Holy Innocents in New York City. Located inside the Church of the Holy Innocents, the shrine is a memorial to all children who have died by miscarriage, abortion, or stillbirth. Dedicated by Cardinal John O'Connor on the (Dec. 28) feast of the Holy Innocents in 1993, the shrine includes a Book of Life where the children's names are entered.
Loraine Gilchrist, program coordinator for the shrine, says that 1,500 people have contacted her office since the shrine's dedication. The families are given the opportunity to name their child and have a Mass celebrated in memory of the child. Each family receives a package with a letter, a certificate of enrollment bearing the child's name, prayer cards, pamphlets, and books on healing from the shrine.
“Our feeling is that the child has an immortal soul and the families will be reunited with their children in heaven,” said Gilchrist.
Gilchrist feels that Catholic hospitals are often much better than secular hospitals at acknowledging the loss associated with a miscarriage, however she agrees that more education is necessary.
“There's more knowledge today as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago, but more education for doctors, nurses, and staff is necessary,” she said.
Gilchrist points out that there are some “Do's” and “Don'ts” to follow when speaking to a woman who has just suffered a miscarriage.
“Never say, ‘Don't worry, you'll have another one’ or ‘It was God's will,’” she said. “If someone lost a spouse, you wouldn't say, ‘Don't worry you'll get married again’ or ‘It was God's will.’”
“Listen to the woman. Ask her about the child. What she felt for the child. You don't have to say much, just a few compassionate words.”
While other Christian ministries—such as the Sharing Network and Elizabeth Ministries—are growing rapidly and reaching out to women and families, secular sources of healing are also popping up—even on the Internet. One parenting web site offers a question and answer bulletin board where women can post questions for a family therapist to answer. While offering families an outlet for their grief, the therapist routinely refers to the lost child as “the pregnancy” or a “potential child” in her responses to the grieving parents. Gilchrist and Cina see this as an impediment to the healing process.
“When I hear someone say ‘potential child’, it sets me off,” said Cina. “My child wasn't a potential child. He was a child.”
“Language like ‘the pregnancy’ or ‘potential child’ harms the grieving process. William existed, and it wasn't a potential existence.”
Gilchrist agrees. “By calling the baby a ‘potential child’ it nullifies their grief,” she said. “It diminishes the whole experience.”
Cina admits that the grieving process is a lengthy one that won't produce total healing in a few weeks or months. In the midst of that healing process, however, the Cinas received some good news. Prior to the miscarriage, the couple had completed their application process to adopt a baby girl from China. In November, they received word that their little girl, Maria, was waiting for them. The next day, Christine's pregnancy test turned out positive. In February, Christine's husband and sister-inlaw flew to China and brought Maria home. And Christine's second pregnancy is progressing well—her unborn baby is entering his or her fifth month.
Even with all the excitement of new life, Cina says she still feels the loss of her son. “I always think of William,” she said.
For more information, contact the Shrine of the Holy Innocents: Church of the Holy Innocents, 128 W. 37th St., New York, NY 10018; tel. 212-279-5861.
Greg Chesmore writes from Bloomington, Ind.------- EXCERPT: