Mourn With Those Who Mourn: Helping Parents Grieve Child Loss

How to comfort parents who have lost babies.

The ministry of Compassionate Burials for Indigent Babies hosts funerals for grieving families.
The ministry of Compassionate Burials for Indigent Babies hosts funerals for grieving families. (photo: Compassionate Burials for Indigent Babies)
Jane and Patrick married in their early 20s and were eager to start a family. They both imagined children would come easily and that they would have a home full of children.

After about eight months of marriage, they conceived a child. Each week the couple read about how their baby had grown. But at a routine 10-week checkup, Jane discovered that their child had died.

“We were devastated, but no one else really cared,” she said. The couple were offered reassurances that they were young and could try for another, and the midwife said miscarriages happened often.

Jane delivered her child at home, and she and her husband gave their child a name and conditional baptism. A priest helped them make arrangements for a burial in a cemetery section for children lost during pregnancy, and they held a funeral.

The couple “found a lot of peace in those familiar motions of grief,” Jane said.

They were hopeful for the next pregnancy. Five miscarriages later, Jane learned she had an untreatable medical condition that gave their children only a 10%-20% chance of being carried to term.

“We promised to be open to children on our wedding day, and we have lived that promise out, even though it requires so much openness to death,” she said.

The death of a child is a tragedy that has no resolution. But for the Church, it is an important witness to the dignity of life — that each human person is created in the image of God — and of the vital need that couples have for support in their suffering when they have lost a child through miscarriage, stillbirth or early infant death.

Miscarriage and perinatal death, which includes stillbirth and early infant death, affect thousands of families every year.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists estimated miscarriages occur in 15%-20% of known pregnancies. Around 24,000 children are born stillborn each year in the United States, and 23,000 infants die per year — 20% due to birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

A poor prenatal diagnosis devastates parents, who have to grieve for a child who will die shortly after birth. Be Not Afraid is a nonprofit that seeks to comfort and support parents as they carry children who have received negative prenatal diagnoses to term.

The organization follows Catholic teachings and was formed in part through the encouragement of Bishop Peter Joseph Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Tracy Winsor, a co-founder of Be Not Afraid, told the Register her organization provides parents with bereavement support, birth plans and assistance for a year after the child’s birth.

She said the ministry also tries to provide someone to be with the parents at the birth of their child.

Winsor noted that their ministry includes recognizing how men and women uniquely grieve the loss of a child. While every situation is different, she said, in general, “men do their grief, and women feel their grief.” Men focus on being busy, while women find help through talking through grief.

Parishes can play an important role in helping these Catholic families. But Winsor said clergy and staff should be trained. The loss of a child, she said, is “the most difficult” kind of loss to deal with, and most people don’t know what to say.

“It’s not just the Church — it’s co-workers; it’s their families and friends. Nobody knows how to handle something as horrifying as this.”

Winsor’s advice for comforting parents is to “give up” on having an answer. Instead, “it’s just enough to be present.”

“As difficult as it is, one of the great solaces to families who lost a baby are the people who knew that child,” she said.

Be Not Afraid has helped the Archdioceses of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Omaha, Nebraska; and Galveston-Houston, Texas; and the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, develop their own services for these families.

The Archdiocese of Omaha has been building a retreat to help parents grieve the loss of a child. Whitney Bradley, the archdiocesan respect-life apostolate coordinator, told the Register the one-day retreat would connect parents who have lost a child, offer some ways to help them with their grief, and create a community that could support them in the future.

Denise Carlson, the archdiocesan coordinator of family, life span and bereavement, told the Register that it is important to acknowledge the loss of a child, even if it was an early miscarriage. The milestones a couple’s child would have gone through, from the first day of kindergarten to high-school graduation, “are always a reminder.”

“The grief maybe gets a little easier, but it’s always there and doesn’t go away,” she said.

The archdiocese has an annual remembrance Mass around the Nov. 17 feast of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a patron saint of the death of children, and Bradley said that several parishes have begun hosting similar Masses.

Formed 26 years ago in a parish in Appleton, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Ministry provides several resources for parishes and families and has 700 chapters on five continents.

Jeannie Hannemann, founder and executive director of Elizabeth Ministry, told the Register that the name comes from the Visitation, in which Mary and Elizabeth supported each other during their pregnancies. Their chapters establish peer-to-peer support for women in all stages of childbearing.

“They try to continually bring people to be ‘Elizabeth ministers,’ to help [and offer] support in whatever circumstances” they find themselves in, including miscarriage. Hannemann said that one of the most important resources the ministry provides is its “Pastoral Guide for Miscarriage, Stillbirth or Newborn Loss,” which outlines ways for parishes to support families who have lost a child, whether through an annual memorial or through bereavement groups.

Elizabeth Ministry also provides miscarriage delivery kits, which include a burial kit so families can bury their child properly. Hannemann said that a proper burial for a child not only witnesses to the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the dignity of the human person, but can also act as a pro-life witness. At a funeral for a miscarried child, a man told her that he had become pro-life after seeing the 12-week-old child in the casket.

It is “vital,” Hannemann said, that infant funerals are given “the same dignity and respect” as other funerals.

Nicholas Wolfram Smith

writes from

Rochester, New York.

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Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

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Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

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