A Hidden Sorrow: Praying through reproductive loss
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you (Jer 1:5).
Several years ago my younger sister gave birth to a three-pound baby boy stricken with severe genetic anomalies. With sophisticated prenatal testing, she and her husband were about as well prepared for the birth as possible. Their single hope and prayer was that the infant, Jerry, might live long enough—a few seconds, a few minutes—to say hello, as it were, and say goodbye. They wanted to hold him and look into his eyes, however briefly, so that the child might feel and know their love for him. God willing, they would have long enough to introduce him to his two sisters, ages 2 and 4. God willing—the phrase still catches in my throat.
The day came, and we gathered in the delivery room to welcome the baby. With his limbs badly deformed, his breathing labored, Jerry gazed into my sister’s beaming face as she held him against her, crying and smiling. He was beautiful, and for more than eight hours he fought to stay alive. Everyone around the hospital bed held him in turn: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his two big sisters, beaming with delight. At last, lying on his mother’s breast, with his father’s hand resting gently on his head, Jerry gave his last labored breath and lay motionless. God, it seemed, had been willing, and a family’s humble prayer had been answered.
Four days later, we prayed at the graveside where Jerry’s body, in a tiny coffin, would be laid in the earth next to his older brother, Jack. Delivered at full-term nine years earlier, Jack was stillborn, the victim of an umbilical cord accident.
Stumbling Toward Language
Jerry’s death awakened painful memories. My wife and I have suffered two miscarriages. For years I have struggled to reflect prayerfully on these and on my sister’s losses, experiences that have struck me to the core; largely, I have failed. What disarms me still is not just the pain of those losses but the revelation of how many others have been through this. After both our miscarriages it seemed that whenever we shared our news with a close friend or family member, a kind of hidden door opened behind their eyes and words would tumble forth, “I’m so, so sorry.” Long pause. “You know, we had a miscarriage two years ago. It was awful.”
Another long pause, “No, we didn’t know.”
And the unspoken question arises, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
In Christian and Catholic circles, a strange kind of silence, an existential and theological loneliness, surrounds these more hidden deaths. Some silences are good, healthy and holy, pregnant with hope and expectation. Something new, something beautiful waits to be born here. The silence following our miscarriages, however, was nothing like this. It felt like loneliness, death, crucifixion. It seemed to mock my wife and me and our desire for life, our trust in its elemental goodness.
I will not soon forget gazing at the ultrasound monitor, our excitement passing quickly into desperation as the technician gently pressed the wand, now here, now there, into my wife’s exposed belly. Our son, then 4, sat close by my side, eager to see his little brother or sister “on TV,” as we had described it. He soon picked up our nervous cues—the fidgeting, the expressions of disbelief—and knew something was wrong. Silence, questions, tears. Had we the slightest notion there was a problem, I never would have let my son experience that. Yet something of that painful moment, I am sure, still lives in him, something about the fragility and preciousness of life, a memory I am not sure I would take from him. Now 12, he treats our newly adopted son, 10 years his junior, like the Little Prince.
I know that as a man my experiences are very different from those of my wife or sister or of any woman who has felt the anguish of life’s perishing deep in her body. We hurt in different ways. Following our second miscarriage, I anguished above all for my wife, for her bleeding body, her broken spirit; I anguished for myself, too, for my inability to understand or to help. We had already discussed names, and the nursery was nearly ready. This pregnancy had felt like a gift, a persistent prayer answered. Yet God, it seemed, was not willing. Why?
The best I could manage was a forced acceptance and a dawning realization that I might now begin to understand the suffering of so many other parents who had lost a child or of countless people across the world who see life snuffed out by poverty, war or disease. Closer to home, I might better understand the wisdom of my grandmother, second of 13 children, just eight of whom reached adulthood. At 103, she shared the memory of those lost siblings, including a 14-year-old sister she adored, a great aunt I would never know.
How do we survive such losses, much less make sense of them? Can the church, our faith communities, help us grieve, protest and heal? In all of this, where is God, the one who knows every child even before we are formed in the womb?
Stumbling Toward Images
Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, recently published a collection of essays, Trauma and Grace, in which she tells the stories of women who have shared their experiences of miscarriage and stillbirth. “My womb is a deathbed, my body a grave,” a woman says. And, Jones writes, “She holds in her womb the dead, imagined person whose future she has conjured. Why had her body rejected and killed the ‘other’ whose life she so passionately desired to nurture?”
Jones asks whether the Christian community does not hold some story, some image or memory that might relate to women’s experiences of reproductive loss and bring some healing. And she suggests that the Christian community might remember the story of “a death that happens deep within God… in the very heart—perhaps the womb—of God.” This is, of course, the death of Jesus.
“When Christ is crucified, God’s own child dies; ...and yet by letting it happen, God also bears guilt for it,” writes Jones. This image must not “encourage women to imagine their own suffering as redemptive,” she cautions. Rather, “the poetic move here is to suggest a morphological space within which [women] might imagine God’s solidarity with them as those who lose a future they had hoped for.” Telling the story of God’s shared mourning will not end women’s sorrow, but it might “lessen their sense of isolation.”
The image of the world resting, turning and flowering forth in the womb of God has long been deeply consoling and beautiful for me. To imagine the womb of God as a grave for the body of Jesus evokes a wider range of disarming but powerful associations. Mary holding her son’s broken body is Christianity’s classic “morphological” icon of God’s maternal solidarity. And I carry with me the image of my mother, as she described it many years later, alone and bending over the sink as she “baptizes” with water and tears a mass of tissue dispelled by her womb during the course of a difficult pregnancy. That tissue, her doctor explained, was likely my twin, a life tethered to mine for a while but now reabsorbed—dare we imagine?—into the healing womb of God.
Stumbling Toward Community
These very personal imaginings are crucial for healing, but are they enough? In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner reflects on his son’s death and asks what finally helps us survive such crippling grief. “Is it our theology,” Kushner asks, “or our friends?”
For Kushner, it is the latter: “God comes to us through the incarnation of caring people,” friends, family and often strangers who reach out to us. This was true for my wife and me after our miscarriages. And it continues to be true when we share our losses with others. In the very act and risk of sharing our most difficult life passages, something that once seemed impossible erupts: consolation, healing and grace.
It has not been hard for us to discover God’s healing presence in the compassion of others. The question of God’s providence, power and will, however, doggedly remains. Like Kushner, I have more or less learned not to blame God for “moral evil” or even for “natural evil” like earthquakes, disease, miscarriage. Yet like Kushner I reserve my unquenchable need to cry out in protest, grief and lamentation. Kushner asks, “Can you forgive God for creating a world in which the wrong things happen to the people you love?” My head absolves God of responsibility; my heart does not. And yet I want to forgive.
Something else, though, steals in sometimes during my prayer. The prayers and rituals of Catholicism, especially its pregnant silences, show me something of that promise hidden behind the veil, even if seen “through a glass darkly”: rumors of resurrection, of lives not lost forever but resting, turning, flowering forth again in the arms of Christ—like my sister’s children and like a twin with whom I shared my mother’s womb. Gazing deeper into the glass, I see the children of the South Bronx, Haiti, Iraq, Darfur, once buried in the rubble of neglect or violence now raised up and playing joyfully before the gates of heaven.
It is by no means easy to rise to such faith when we feel forsaken by the very Father who has promised to remain near. But even there we must have the courage to remember and tell the story of a God who, like Mary, enfolds the suffering world in her fiercely protective arms and urges us to do the same. In the womb of such faith, perhaps we can bring our longings and unrequited hopes back to the one who consecrates us even before we are born. And in humble prayer, we might ask not only for renewed strength but for the grace and the wisdom to forgive.
Books, support groups and Web sites for parents dealing with reproductive loss.
Like everyone else I know who has experienced such losses, I continue to think, pray and “stumble” my way through with the help of others. I hope the article and this online forum might serve as an invitation to readers to share something of their own stories, insights, questions, and hard-bought wisdom. I’m particularly interested in learning what resources, rituals, scriptures, etc., may have helped others. I will look into the discussion as it unfolds, as will my sister, Mary (Pramuk) Emrich, whose story I tell in the article. In the meantime, I’d like to say thanks to America for publishing this piece.
We talk about him often in our family and interestingly our 6 year old son has a relationship with Patrick. He always says "we have 5 people in our family" and mentions his brother to unsuspecting family and friends.
There was little solace from family or friends. Even now only one aunt of my wife sends a card on Patrick's birthday and God Bless her. Others remember it but "don't want to bring it up", exactly what we don't want to do, e.g. forget Patrick. Our culture treats those who suffer this loss as paraihs as this event is unthinkably devestating even to ponder. My cousin and his wife for example whose son was born a month after Patrick had a C section just in case. My pregnant sister in law came to the funeral but had to leave midway through. Stillbirth is just not something we can cope with in our time as its thankfully much more rare (1/100).
The funeral Mass while comforting did not address the specificity of this kind of loss. The liturgical forms are surprisingly absent from Catholic Rituals. The Rituals we lean on for support through life weren't there. Liturgically all we had was Mass for an unbaptized person/regular funeral. Given the Church's strong and longstanding pro-life stance this seems odd. A liturgy addressing this need is sorely and immediately needed. Not to mention a Catholic theology supporting that my son is in heaven, definitive and positively.One book helped tremendously in this regard Safe in the Arms of God: Truth from Heaven About the Death of a Child by John MacArthur
I searched for more books and other resources to address my grief. Few hit the mark. My wife and I weren't drawn to support groups, maybe others are. We struggled to talk about it ourselves. We're getting there...
I can now say we have an advocate in Heaven who is reserving a beautiful waterfront mansion for us, assuming we do our part. :) Life is mystery and even more mysterious is the Divine purpose of a life who lived in the world for a short time in the womb of their mother. We'll understand someday, for now we believe.
One NEVER gets 'over it'. Grief surfaces in the least likely times and places. But it is not a destroying grief but a humanizing one to weep for the loss of a fellow human being.... especially for a child.
Our faith teaches us that the human being is body and soul - from the moment of conception (else, why would we celebrate March 25th as the annunication of Our Lord and why would St Elizabeth have greeted Mary as "mother of My Lord" a few weeks - at most - later?). That soul lost to us is not lost to God, the Father of Mercies.
While we have no direct revelation about the destiny of those lost in the waters of the womb, where the spirit hovers over the waters before there is light (to allude to Genesis 1:1), we do know that Our Lord loves the little children and would not want anyone to keep them from coming to Himself.
So we weep for the missing relationship we could have had, but we must take comfort and heart that we will meet again someday in the embrace of Trinity in heaven.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is Job. This is not a popular read. It's a little difficult and if you don't like sad stories, this one takes the cake. Well, it's one of my top favorites, Old or New Testament and I generally don't finish "sad stories, movies, etc.". Before I found Thomas Merton, but after being a "born again Catholic", I first read Job. It really helped me understand the difficulties that are in every life. I think it was because Job never gave up on God and trust in Him. A second bene is that I never give up on problems within my family or for that matter, problems within the Church and the world. Teilhard de Chardin has also influenced me in this belief, sort of evolutionary theology. A second read for me is always better, if not best. This came about when at Church Little Rock Bible Study, we did Job. At first, it was resisted but .... it turned out to be "the best ever study for our members." Eileen Quin Gould
For four years now, we have a Thomas Merton "Bridges" group and this is the light of my life. Christopher Pramuk, I am reading your great book, "Sophia, the Christiology of Thomas Merton." I didn't go to college, I'm 85 and read only three pages at a time (parceling out and meditating on the wisdom.) With God's grace, I will finish it.
God bless you for sharing. I think it's in sharing our griefs/pains/sorrows with one another that God meets us. Thank you for writing the piece. You just consoled countless readers I am sure.
Those of you who have lost a child, I am so sorry for your loss.
When our son, Jack, was stillborn just days before his due date, my world fell apart. In my grief and rage, I cried out to God-after all I've done for you, this is the thanks I get? I was insane with grief and felt sure I would feel that way forever. God's grace came via friends and family, comforting and loving me through it, and over time, I began to understand that God was grieving with me and slowly restoring hope in my heart. Jack's death was followed by 5 miscarriages-each one like reliving his death-but still I believed in my core that God would not create me with this desire to be a mom and then not fulfill that desire.
Our first miracle came with our daughter Catherine, and then another daughter, Meghan, just 18 months later. (Meghan was born with the umbilical cord around her neck, just like Jack, but she survived!). Our third miracle was Jerry-diagnosed with Trisomy 18 at just 17 weeks of pregnancy. We knew that his chances of surviving labor and delivery, much less living beyond that, were slim. Carrying him to term was the most difficult months of my life, it was also one of the most life-giving. While I gave him life, he gave me mine. As my brother shares in the article, Jerry lived for 9 hours, giving us precious time as a family.
My primary source of support has been my marriage to my best friend and soul mate, Tim. But I also know that this kind of loss often leads to divorce for many couples who cannot bear or share the grief. We went to a support group for about 6 months after Jack died, but I felt I might get "stuck" in my sorrow if I didn't move on. I had 4-5 sessions of grief counseling after Jerry died. I look to my daughters and the daily reminders of the miracles and gifts that they are.
As a campus minister in a Catholic high school, I've had the opportunity to share our story with literally thousands of teenagers and even parents. Not so they will feel sorry for me but because maybe, just maybe, they can find hope and faith in hearing it. As others face their own losses and struggles, in whatever form they appear, maybe my story can give them strength, hope, and faith in a God who is always ALWAYS with them. This telling of our story-THIS has been my greatest source of healing and strength. Once again, I can give my sons life, and in turn, they give me mine.
My suggestion would be to have small note cards on which to write thoughts about the baby or the pregnancy, and have a basket in front in which to place the cards. Simply seeing all the other cards would be a comfort and reminder that one is never alone in pregnancy loss. Readings could include helpful thoughts about pregnancy loss. The most helpful thing I was told when I had a full-term, stillborn baby was, "Be prepared for people to blame you for the stillbirth." I am sure others have equally helpful, equally unexpected advice. After the Mass or ritual, the cards could be taken outside and burned in a respectful manner, symbolizing the letting-go that one has no choice but to do.
Catholics celebrate liturgy most wonderfully and we need to do more of it. Particularly, we need more ritual to acknowledge and deal with private truths that are commonplace. Pregnancy loss is probably the best example of a truth that needs expression in liturgy, but currently has none. Our children, even those who died before birth, require us to come to terms with God's mysterious ways. We can develop ritual or liturgy, we simply have yet to try.
There is a wonderful book, Journeys: Stories of Pregnancy after Loss edited by Amy Abbey and published by WovenWord Press. It is available on Amazon.
Written completely by parents who have suffered such loss, and not by "experts" or "theologians" who view the experience as observers, it offers deep human insights from many perspectives on how such deaths are lived by the families who experience them. Simultaneously these parents tell of moving forward, a building families. It is a hopeful, helpful book.
Reading your article has made me realize that there is another part of the Church that I can pray and offer sacrifices for - and I will. Thank you for writing the article.
When I was three years old, my mother lost another child, a beautiful little girl born two months premature. It was 1949, and they could not save those babies. My mother never saw her, but my father had ... and he remembered that little girl all the days of his life, till his death at the age of 81. My little sister was baptized and given the name of my mother before she slipped away after three days.
When my brother and I buried Mom and Dad in the Winter of 2000, along with their names and dates on the tombstone, we placed between them the name "Baby Beatrice - 1949". Through my tears as I write this, I look forward to that great Day when we will all be reunited in that Home where there is no more death and I will finally meet the little sister we lost ... and our older brother!
I have been reading (and re-reading) these postings with sadness, wonder and awe. In thinking about this fluid boundary, which many of you describe, between life and death, heaven and earth, the image that keeps coming to me is the “cloud of witnesses,” and of course, the “communion of saints.” (There are beautifully evocative passages on this in the luminious, but much-overlooked, Chapter VII of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, on “The Pilgrim Church.”) Without this more hidden, eschatological dimension of our faith—where where words fail and we reach for images, ritual, poetry, music—I really wonder how people survive such losses, much less the “daily drudge” (as Rahner describes it) of our lives.
Thus I’m especially grateful for Lisa’s wise point about the need to develop and offer more liturgical rites, envisioned thoughtfully and specifically, for these “private truths that are commonplace.” As Bill says, echoing what many have said: “The church becomes real when people come together in compassion.” (Can an online forum be an experience of “church”? Evidently yes!)
To Christopher Pramuk and the people of God who comment here, I have no words except "Thank you," and bless you all.
In those days (1970) there were no organized groups like Society of Compassionate Friends and no official response from the church as there is now. However, we were surrounded with attention and love in our family, the school where my husband taught, and parish. I was constantly amazed by how God held us up in those first awful months through others.
After a while I handled the sadness by not talking about it. If it came up, it just stopped the conversation cold. When people asked how many childredn we had, I told them four daughters. If they teased me about having no sons, I let it go once. If they persisted, then I told them (and they were embarassed!).
When my husband and I die, we will be cremated and buried in the same grave as Martin. ??B?y? ?t?h?e?n?,I will ?h?a?v?e? ?g?o?t?t?e?n??? to see him ?!?