Not long ago my husband, Patrick, and I suffered a miscarriage. Most of the women in my family have had miscarriages, so it was not unexpected. When we were engaged, I even told Patrick there was a good chance we might have a miscarriage along the way. Still, nothing could prepare us for the experience.
Weeks earlier, we were excited to see a positive pregnancy test. At seven weeks along, we made a video call to our parents and a few family members. Our 1-year-old held up a crayon-drawn message declaring, “I’m gonna be a big sister!” and the excitement burst through from the other side of the screen. Other than that, we kept the news to a small group of people. It was too risky to tell more.
Two days after we announced the big news to my husband’s family, the bleeding started. A blood test confirmed what we feared: My pregnancy hormones were dropping. The ultrasound clinched it. There was no spinal cord. No heartbeat. Nothing was developing.
Walking out of the ultrasound room at the hospital, I racked my brain thinking about what I had done to cause this. We had an event at work, and I lugged tables and chairs, running around to set up for a small reception. Did I overexert myself? I felt fine at the time, but maybe this is why pregnant women are not supposed to lift heavy objects. Guilt washed over me. God bless my nurse practitioner, who emphatically told us that there is nothing we could have done to cause or prevent this. The miscarriage was caused by a chromosomal abnormality. With that lesson, the guilt was lifted off of my shoulders, but the grief remained.
I knew miscarriages were sad. I had always tried to comfort my friends and family who had them, but I had no idea of the intensity of that grief. Looking back, my words to friends who had suffered were so inadequate.
I struggle with how to think of this little being whose life outside the womb was not to be.
Patrick and I struggle with how we should think of this little being whose life outside the womb was not to be. As Catholics we have been taught and believe that, from the moment of conception, that cluster of cells is a human person. What does it mean now that the cluster of cells, that little person, is no longer growing? At such an early stage, the miscarriage resolves itself, but not without pain and bleeding as my body went through the stages of labor. Going to the bathroom was the worst part. The blood that accompanied each time was not painful, but flushing the toilet felt like I was literally flushing my baby down the drain. If this being is a person from the moment of conception, where is the dignity in this death? How do you commemorate a life that was loved but not lived? How can so much emotional pain and sadness be warranted for this person we never met?
Trying to make sense of it all, we reached out to others. A wise friend, who herself has experienced multiple miscarriages, offered these words of consolation: There is a kind of holiness in being both womb and tomb for our babies. Maybe she is right. Maybe our child did receive a dignified death, engulfed in a safe space, buoyed by our love, nestled in the warmth of my womb turned tomb.
But where was the dignity in this for me?
We humans are spiritual beings, but we are worldly creatures, too. We yearn for creature comforts—food, warmth, a human touch. After my miscarriage, I yearned for some tangible sign of healing. As Catholics we are able to find comfort in the embrace of mother church in times of suffering, especially in the sacraments. We feel God’s healing love in the tangible signs of funerals and the sacraments of reconciliation, and anointing of the sick. But what do you do for a miscarriage? We did not know.
Physical signs and rituals help us to feel in our hearts what we know in our heads, that God loves us and cares for us.
As the bleeding worsened, I yearned for something to strengthen me—an anointing perhaps. But, no, I thought, that is silly. I was not sick. I was not dying. In retrospect I know I should have asked. Surely my pastor would have obliged. When I told him about the miscarriage, after attending to my emotions, he asked how I was physically. Did I need food? What were my nutritional needs? I did not have any special nutritional needs, but his attentiveness to my physical needs was immensely comforting.
After consulting friends, Patrick and I decided to hold a prayer service using the Catholic Blessing of Parents after a Miscarriage. We would pray for ourselves and our child, who is hopefully in heaven praying for us. We also intend to remember this baby by placing some sort of sacramental in our home—maybe a special cross or a sacred image—something to remind us of the life that briefly lived and died within me. Physical signs and rituals such as these help us to feel in our hearts what we know in our heads, that God loves us and cares for us.
Having now endured the ordeal of miscarriage and knowing the healing power of sacramentals, I hope to be better about offering tangible support to others in their time of need. As a pastoral minister, I can offer to arrange for a priest to anoint parishioners. I can remember to ask how they are feeling physically as well as emotionally and spiritually.
I am fortunate in a way. I gain strength from Mary’s example. Mary did not get to hold her dying child as I did. But she stood by, as I imagine all mothers do when watching a child die, feeling hopelessly helpless. There was nothing Mary could do to save him. There was nothing I could do to save my child. But what matters, is what I do now: I can rely on the power of prayer to strengthen me and my husband and family, as we strive to serve as sacraments of God’s love to one another.