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Colleen JurkiewiczMay 06, 2024
Photo by Claire Kelly on Unsplash

​This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The first thing they tell you when you have a miscarriage is that it happens all the time.

Statistics vary depending on what source you’re looking at, but anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent of pregnancies will end in what the mother’s medical paperwork will dispassionately call a “spontaneous abortion.”

That number is getting higher, as medical technology makes it possible for more and more women to become aware of their pregnancies earlier.

“This happens all the time.” I heard it over and over again when I lost our third child four years ago, very early in the first trimester. I heard it so much that I started to repeat it whenever I had to share the news with someone new, parroting what I had been told, trying to seem like I understood, like I was coping well: “I know this happens all the time.”

Like a paper cut, or a stubbed toe.

I began to wonder if I was losing my mind to be so profoundly mourning something that happens all the time. I needed someone to tell me that it was okay that I could not sleep and that I burst into uncontrollable tears when I saw strawberries and tomatoes (which I had craved during the pregnancy).

I was the only one who knew that baby. I was the sole witness to his life. There were no pictures, no keepsakes, no locks of hair. When he was gone, everything changed for me…and very little changed for anyone else. And everyone said: “I’m so sorry,” but they were only looking at me when they said it. I so desperately wanted them to be able to look at the baby, to look at the void he left in the world. I so desperately wanted them to think of him as something that existed outside of my mind. As something more than what happens all the time.

‘This Is a Person in Your Parish’

Miscarriage and stillbirth have been solitary experiences for most of history. Earlier generations of women refrained from talking about the experience openly, even among close friends and female relatives. It is a topic that existed—and to some extent, still does—behind a veil. I know my own grandmother suffered miscarriages only because I heard the advice she passed down to my mother: Be sure to bless the remains with holy water.

What a short, succinct missive—and yet, what insight it gives into what she felt. What she lost.

But the world is changing, inside the womb and out. Miscarriage may not be anything new, but knowledge of it is increasing. Medical technology enables women to learn of their own pregnancies even before a missed period. Millennials, in stark contrast to Baby Boomers and even Gen X, grieve transparently. They are talking about their miscarriages not only to their mothers and friends. They are posting about it on social media. And increasingly, Catholic families are turning to the church for accompaniment in their loss.

Is the church ready to give them the support they need?

Not often enough, says Dr. Abigail Jorgensen. A birth worker and sociology professor based in St. Louis, Mo., Dr. Jorgensen started offering her services as a bereavement doula when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Notre Dame. A bereavement doula provides nonmedical support to clients who are experiencing a miscarriage (medically defined as a loss before 20 weeks of gestation) or stillbirth (a loss after 20 weeks’ gestation).

Dr. Jorgensen’s book, A Catholic Guide to Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Loss: Compassionate Answers to Difficult Questions, was released by Ave Maria Press in April. The book’s audience is primarily families who have experienced a loss, but Dr. Jorgensen has also included information in each chapter that she hopes is helpful for church ministers who are being called on to provide pastoral support.

“One in four pregnancies ends in a loss—you can’t statistically have a parish that isn’t impacted by perinatal loss,” she said. “This isn’t just a hypothetical person, it’s a person in your parish. You don’t know which one it may be, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.”

Over the years, Dr. Jorgensen’s clients have looked to her for both spiritual and logistical support during their losses. “A lot of the times it was people who were like, ‘I really don’t know where my baby’s soul is, and I don’t want to ask my priest because I don’t really know him’—or it was, ‘I don’t know if I get to have a funeral [for my baby] in the Catholic Church; can you help me figure that out?’” she said.

For her Catholic clients, Dr. Jorgensen has often acted as a go-between for the families and the church, reaching out on the family’s behalf so they can focus on their grief. But too often, she said, the response from priests or parish staff has indicated a gross lack of pastoral insight into the gravity of this issue, and a lack of understanding about perinatal loss in general.

One client called her pastor seeking baptism for her stillborn son, Dr. Jorgensen said. The client’s pastor refused, correctly noting that a dead person cannot be baptized, but he did not follow up with the woman in any way or offer to visit the hospital. “To know that information [about baptism] and then to share that information in a pastoral way are two really different things,” said Dr. Jorgensen.

She gets one or two calls a year from women who are confused because a priest has told them their miscarriage is a sin. “I had one client recently whose priest told her that she needed to confess her miscarriage,” she said, noting that the priest used a comparison: “If you accidentally drove over someone with your car, you still have to confess that.”

Catholic teaching is very clear that miscarriage is not a sin, said Joseph Weiss, S.J., a professor of the practice of liturgy at the Clough School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College.

“The definition of a sin is that you consciously, knowingly choose to do something against the will of God. And a miscarriage is a spontaneous response of the woman’s body to something that has gone wrong with the pregnancy,” he said.

Father Weiss said that he has never, in his more than 40 years as a priest, heard of a confessor counseling a penitent to confess their miscarriage. He acknowledges that it may be possible that, if a penitent expresses feelings of guilt and anxiety because of a miscarriage, that a confessor may, out of compassion, allow her to confess it. But the priest’s first response, he said, should be to clarify that the miscarriage is not a sin.

“But his first response should be: ‘No, it is not, because it is an involuntary action. You did not choose to do this,” he said.

‘I Think You Should Name it’

It took me a week after learning that my baby had no heartbeat to get up the courage to send a text to a family friend of ours who is a priest. I wanted to reach out sooner, but I was embarrassed by how upset I was.

It happens all the time, after all.

He called me within a few minutes. I found myself dissolving into tears as I explained the situation, including my fears about whether or not I was blowing this all out of proportion.

He very calmly told me that I was not. “This was yours and Matt’s child,” I remember him saying reassuringly.

I had previously been put in touch with a very helpful organization, Life’s Connection, that would assist us in burying our baby’s remains, and I asked if he thought that was an appropriate thing to do.

I held my breath and wondered if he would scoff and tell me that I was crazy to think about giving a burial to what my midwife had called “the products of conception”—or if he, a celibate man, would even understand how that could be possible (it should be noted that I had several friends and family members who did not).

“I think you should name it, and I think you should bury it,” he told me when I asked him what he thought I should do, adding that he would make himself available to assist us, and had done so before for other families. He even shared with me that his own mother had suffered several miscarriages, and said he felt blessed by the intercessory prayers of his siblings in heaven.

He gave me exactly what I needed—validation in my grief, reassurance that I was not insane to be so upset, and hope for my child’s salvation.

When we did bury the baby’s remains, my husband and I were the ones to shovel the dirt on top of the small urn that was placed in a family plot. It was hard.

It was also inexpressibly liberating.

As we drove away from the tiny mound of disturbed earth, I felt OK for the first time in weeks.

No Path for Us’

After I spoke with Dr. Jorgensen about the negative experiences of so many of her clients, I admit that I felt confused. The church had actually been the source of my healing—was I just lucky to get a “good priest”? I wanted to hear what other Catholic women had experienced when they reached out to the church during their times of loss.

What are we doing well? What can we do better?

Ellen Smith was the first woman I interviewed. She and her husband, Matthew, live in northeastern Iowa. They have two living children and have lost 14 children to miscarriage in the first trimester.

One of the particular issues that Mrs. Smith found painful to deal with is the ambiguous language that the church uses when discussing the salvation of unbaptized babies. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI de-emphasized the concept of limbo in the document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.” The document states, “there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.” And later: “The church entrusts to God’s mercy those infants who die unbaptized.”

Mrs. Smith feels that this language “leaves a lot of room for fear and interpretation” and for misuse of the term limbo. “It leaves a lot of room for errors or awkward counsel or clueless responses from priests,” she said.

She is also dismayed by the lack of visibility around resources that are available to help families like hers. Her archdiocese has a well-developed parish-based ministry program for families of perinatal loss. However, she did not hear about the ministry until she was at a women’s retreat after her miscarriages had occurred, despite having been in regular contact with her parish every time she suffered a loss.

“I feel like we were just kind of left to figure it out on our own,” she said. “If every diocese has an exorcist, why can’t every diocese have someone who has [information on grief and pregnancy loss] and provides updated information once a year to every church?”

That is a sticking point for Dr. Jorgensen, too. She also believes church leaders and staff members more generally need to have more access to training in how to minister to people experiencing this particular type of loss, as well as greater knowledge of the resources available to families who have experienced it.

“The parish secretary is not the role you would think needs a ton of pastoral care [training], but it turns out, when someone has a miscarriage or stillbirth and they call the parish, who is the person administering emotional first aid? It’s the parish secretary,” she said.

Christine Sherman found herself in a situation like Mrs. Smith’s. Mrs. Sherman lives in Dallas, Tex., with her husband, Michael, and their son. For her third miscarriage, in 2023, she had to be prescribed misoprostol to pass the baby at home. She wanted to bury the remains of the child, but when she called her parish, it didn’t have any information to offer her, not having a cemetery of its own.

She spent countless hours over the next few weeks calling funeral homes, cemeteries and local organizations trying to find a place to lay her child to rest. Several places quoted her fees in the thousands of dollars. Finally, a priest friend located a cemetery an hour away from the Shermans’ home that would bury the baby for free.

“We just felt like we didn’t know where we fit into the church,” Mrs. Sherman said. “It seems like there’s no clear path for what to do when this happens to you. Most other things, if you call your church, they tell you you’re going to do A, B, C. There was no path here.”

Jessica Hobbs was working for the Diocese of Charleston in South Carolina when she experienced her miscarriage in 2009. She did not know at the time that she had the option to collect the baby’s remains and bury them. She still regrets not doing so, she said.

“I think that’s where the Catholic Church fails, is that women don’t know what to do,” she said. “We catechize [on the dignity of all human life], we do all these things, but we never tell people what to do [when miscarriage occurs]…. The couple who has just lost a baby, their first call should be the church. It just didn’t dawn on me—that should be my first thing that I do.”

‘This Generation Is Different’

This seemed a consistent refrain of the women with whom I spoke: The resources, if they existed, were complicated to access if you were not already “in the know.” Almost every woman who finally found the support she needed found it only because she was already personally friends with a priest.

Too often, “the church is being reactive instead of proactive,” said Kelly Breaux, president of Red Bird Ministries, a Catholic grief support ministry that accompanies couples who have lost children at any stage, from pregnancy to adulthood. “We miss those opportunities to be able to tell people ahead of time—if this has happened to you or if it happens to you, we are here to support you, and we want to walk with you.”

In recent years, church leaders have begun to take note, though the information does not always make it to the parish level.

“Ten to 12 years ago, in the national conferences [for pro-life directors], we’d start seeing presentations about miscarriage ministry and things like that—meaning the church has to be aware of these children and that their lives are equally precious and need to be commemorated and mourned as well as the children lost to abortion,” said Lisa Everett, director for marriage and family ministry in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

I reached out to Ms. Everett because I was impressed by the resources for perinatal loss that were offered on the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend’s website. Those resources exist under the ministry Ava’s Grace, which Ms. Everett developed in memory of her stillborn granddaughter.

The Ava’s Grace web page also includes a document that details liturgical rites that can be used in cases of miscarried or stillborn babies.

“Over the years I had noted that most Catholics—whether lay or clergy, including very devout families—simply were not aware of all the liturgical and funerary options that are available in the case of miscarriage or stillbirth,” said Brian MacMichael, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who created the document. “We seem to be talking more openly nowadays about miscarriages.... I do think there’s an increasing pastoral need to make these rites known, because they provide both a spiritual balm and a sense of closure, just as a funeral does after any death.”

“The previous generation, they didn’t even talk about it,” said Amy Huschka, a mom of five who lives in Wichita, Kan. She said her own mother told her: “I didn’t even tell my mom I had a miscarriage—it was a silent thing. Nobody spoke about it. You just didn’t talk about it.” Ms. Huschka said she told her mother: “This generation’s different. Our generation talks about things a lot more. I’ve got people coming up to me telling me their story…and they’re not getting the support they need from the church.”

Ms. Huschka was living in Houston, Tex., when she experienced her miscarriage in 2011. At the emergency room, where she was being treated for blood loss, medical staff kept asking if she wanted them to take away the baby’s remains. “We just kept saying no, because I knew it wasn’t a Catholic hospital, and I had no idea what they were going to do with the body,” she said. “I said, ‘No, we’ll call our priest and we’ll take care of that on our own.’”

But when she called her priest to ask if it was possible to bury the baby in the parish cemetery, he said he would pray for them but couldn’t offer anything more than that.

“That was very, very hard,” she said.

Carving Mount Rushmore

In the weeks following the Dobbs decision in 2022, I saw countless social media posts from secular, pro-abortion groups that questioned why, if the Catholic Church was so sure a fetus was a person, it did not provide miscarried and stillborn babies with burial. I was deeply irritated because I knew that the church did offer this option, and I had seen it with my own eyes. The treatment that representatives of the church gave my loss was completely consistent with a belief that that loss was a human death.

But it is not enough that my situation—and I am sure, that of many others—was handled correctly. Nor is it fair to assume that the priests and lay ministers who falter in their pastoral responses to these situations are hypocrites. They, too, are human beings who find themselves in a situation they do not know how to navigate. Still, it is imperative that all of us together work to ensure that our priests, our lay ministers and our communities are showing up to support each and every mother of miscarried and stillborn babies.

Mrs. Breaux believes that there needs to be a multifaceted approach to equipping everyone in the church with knowledge about perinatal loss—from greater emphasis on the subject for couples in marriage preparation to more technical knowledge for priests and lay ministers.

“It’s like carving Mount Rushmore,” she said, referring to the breadth of the task. “These are conversations that we need to have during Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, which is in October—we should be preaching about the things that we can offer as a church. On Bereaved Mother’s Day, the week before Mother’s Day, we should be talking about how much the church mourns with these families…. [Priests] need more education and formation on what actually happens [physically] to understand what the family is going to experience.”

Everyone experiences loss “uniquely as a person,” said Dr. Marie Pitt-Payne, academic dean at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., noting that what might be helpful to one person may be less so to another. “There is no cut and dried ‘this is how you handle’ a miscarriage or infant death, she said. “So what really needs to be cultivated is the art of encounter.”

The seminary at Mundelein currently has over 120 seminarians in formation for almost 30 dioceses, and Dr. Pitt-Payne believes that it is crucial to equip them with information on how to accompany families who face perinatal loss.

Seminaries and formators need to take a “multifaceted” approach to helping their students learn how to accompany families through perinatal loss, Dr. Pitt-Payne said. At U.S.M.L., she has brought in speakers to share their personal experiences with the seminarians, and she has also broached the topic in the classroom, creating a case scenario that calls for students to research different pastoral strategies a priest can use in these instances. The specific topic of miscarriage has not been a focus in the seminary’s Cor Iuxta Meum Simulation Center, where seminarians navigate different pastoral scenarios with the help of trained actors, but Dr. Pitt-Payne does not rule out that possibility in the future.

A Question of Life and Death

Several months after Ms. Hobbs experienced her miscarriage, a priest friend offered a Mass for her baby, and a coworker from the Diocese of Charleston gave her a “certificate of life” to commemorate the child’s memory. She still treasures it.

Certificates of life are commemorative documents that recognize the life of a miscarried baby. Red Bird Ministries and many other organizations offer some version of this keepsake for grieving families, and they can also be created using basic templates found online. Earlier this year, the English government announced that it would be offering optional “baby loss certificates” for any family who experiences the loss of a child before 24 weeks’ gestation.

The certificate was very meaningful to her, Ms. Hobbs said: “Because there’s no death certificate, and there’s no birth certificate. One of the hardest things for me was that it was like she didn’t exist.”

I asked Dr. Jorgensen if she feels the outcomes of these pastoral situations are largely dependent on how seriously the church takes a woman and her experiences.

Yes and no, she said. Certainly, it pertains to women’s personal experiences—but more correctly, “it has to do with the very fundamental question of life and death.”

“Loss affects families, loss affects dads,” she said. “Loss affects older siblings, loss affects grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles—and all the people who could have gotten to know that kid and didn’t.”

I am not embarrassed anymore over the sorrow I felt—and still feel—because of my miscarriage. Yes, it happens all the time. No, not like a paper cut, and not like a stubbed toe. A death. Death happens all the time, too, and it is always hard.

My baby was a person only I could see. What I really, really needed from the church was assurance that others saw my child, too. That it valued him, too. It lost him, too.

And that is what the church gave me.

That is what we need to give every mother.

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