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Christian hope and prenatal death

Dominic has already mentioned Agnes R. Howard's article "Comforting Rachel" as a highlight of the November 15 issue, but I want to call attention to it again, and recommend another piece on the same subject at Christianity Today's "Her.meneutics" blog (I love it).

Howard's piece begins with a powerful personal story and goes on to discuss the need for, and challenges to, ministry to parents who lose children before birth. "Many churches teach women to value the life inside the womb from its earliest stages, and to view the developing fetus as a child God made," she writes, "but offer very little in the way of comfort, explanation, or even acknowledgement when that child dies through no act or intent of the parent." Having experienced pregnancy loss personally, she can attest to the confusion that accompanies the grief:

With the loss of a child in the womb, questions come up and stay unanswered at every point. Why did this happen? Was it my fault, a mother might ask, or something I failed to prevent, or did it happen in me but outside my control? Is it a baby or not? If a baby, do I name him, bury him, tell people, mourn in public? This last is not obvious. The loss of a child is worth public sorrow, but if others did not know of the pregnancy in the first place, revealing it after its end can produce a sort of emotional whiplash. Those who did know have to be told, but this is hard, too.

At Christianity Today, Caitlin Seccombe Lubinski touches on that same experience of awkwardness and loneliness in her post "The Miscarriage Secret."

As I experience the grief of miscarriage, I am struck by the hush-hush method with which our culture treats an extremely widespread women's issue. In some ways, I'm grateful for the privacy granted me. In the first few months, it was an extraordinarily painful thing to talk about–even with my closest friends....

As I see it, however, a few problems arise when we keep miscarriage private, away from the larger community. When statistics stop matching experience, our concept of reality becomes disjointed at best.... Because I knew of only two women who had miscarriages, I still thought of miscarriage as a rather exceptional case, like the chances you have of breaking your femur if you decide to go skiing. They exist –but you only know a few people in your lifetime to whom it happens, and it certainly would never make you think twice about getting on the chairlift.

Miscarriage, it so happens, is nothing like a freak skiing accident. It touches many more women than we realize. I think that if we girls and women and boys and men grew up with a more open sharing of the grief of miscarriage, then the loss, when it happens, would not seem quite so alienating.

Her testimony is moving, and I think her analysis is sound. I also think both Howard's and Lubinski's articles perform a service by breaking the usual silence and calling attention to a need that exists in all our communities, and in particular in our faith communities. Some people have responded with stories or insights of their own in the comments on the article page. Feel free to chime in here, too. What can be done to minister to, or acknowledge, the tragedy of prenatal death? And is Lubinski right that we would all be better off if we felt more able to talk openly about miscarriage?

Update: Also relevant--this post from Her.meneutics about Mother's Day and the difficult task of "rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice and weep[ing] with those who weep."

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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A coupkle of years ago, my oldest daughter was expecting what was to be our fourth grandchild, Olivia.  But there was a late miscarriage, and little Olivia passed away.  We had all talked about Olivia, having seen sonograms of her performing in the womb, kicking, thumb sucking, the usual little things that the unborn do to endear themselves to the family.   We talked about how Olivia would be joining the "gang of four" as junior member, led by our gallant grandson Ian.

We cried at the service for her, and hope to see her again someday in that place of light and everlasting joy.  Godspeed little Olivia...

This is a very important issue Mollie has raised.

I hope she won't mind, however, the following link to the overwhelming display of Christian hope and love by Pope Francis today, one that brought tears to this grown man's eyes:   

I see a connection between whatever happened to Limbo and the pro-life emphasis on life from conception.

A very kind priest allowed us to bury our two miscarried babies in the parish cemetery which was very healing for us.

God Bless

In NCR some time ago... I have the article but cut off the dates....was a very moving article on the Japanese(shinto)  response to miscariage( and abortion) by Stafford Betty described as a professor of religion at California State at Bakersfield.  I'm not adept at tracking such things but I think it is worth the search.

Yes, very good article. The earlier you miscarry the more people don't get why you aren't "over it" and "trying" again. Others offer comfort in terms of "it's for the best; something was probably wrong with it." I think husbands and wives often respond to miscarriage differently; some men really have a hard time understanding how betrayed mothers who have miscarried feel by their own bodies, never mind the grief of losing the pregnancy. For them, it's often just a mild disappointment, particularly if the miscarriage occurs early.

As I noted on the comments attached to Howard's article online here, it would be nice if the Church could offer a healing Mass for those who have miscarried a few times a year.


For the first time in all the years I have been posting here, one of my comments was removed. Also, a comment by someone else, with whom I agreed, was also removed.

I won't try to reconstruct it, but the gist of it (or at least what I considered the gist of it) was that it is astonishing that in two millennia the Church has no answer to the very fundamental question of what happens to babies who die without baptism. It is not a new question, obviously, since Augustine famously weighed in on it. But now that we know the staggering number of pregnancies (most of them not even detected) that end with the premature death of the unborn, it is a question that likely involves the majority of conceptions.

I told the story, which I had told before, of my mother (some time in the 1950s) believing she might have had a very early miscarriage calling the parish priest and asking him what she should do with what possibly could have been a tiny embryo. His answer was to flush it down the toilet. I suggested that some formal procedures to follow in such cases might help some priests who might otherwise not be as sensitive as they should be, handle the situation better than the priest who spoke with my mother.  

David: I didn't see or delete any comment from you on this post. Are you perhaps thinking of the comment you left on the article itself?

Molly: I mixed up that series of comments with this one. Apologies! No message of mine has been deleted. Thank you for pointing it out. 

David, I appreciate the feeling behind your post, but I would be very wary about urging the Church to make rules about the disposition of fetal remains in the case of very early spontaneous abortion or D&C that followed.

It seems to me that the disposition of any remains should be a matter left to the parents, with priests and parish staff trained to offer helpful suggestions, referrals to miscarriage and stillbirth support groups, and any special healing masses that might be offered for such situations.

Thinking about what happens to babies who die before birth... read the story in the Gospels about Jesus with the little children. Remember some of the men thought that Jesus was too busy or too much of a VIP to have women bringing their babies to him... but Scripture says that Jesus was indignant, or at least I am remembering one translation used that word, "indignant." And Jesus said, "let the little children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven."  It happens that the word he used their "brephos" just means little one, which is the same word that was used in speaking of John the Baptist when he jumped for joy in his mother's womb, in the presence of the pre-born Jesus in Mary's womb, brephos.. (I don't read the original languages, but so I was told many years ago, at a diocesan workshop, so I assume it is correct.) Little one. When I talk to women who have experienced prenatal loss, I point out that when Jesus was on earth, he didn't let anyone get between himself and the babies. So, now that he is sitting at the right hand of the Father--who is there who could keep him away from the babies?  I think you can go straight to the Scriptures on this one. It seems very clear to me, and comforting to those experiencing this loss.  You don't need a complicated theology to answer this question.  Theologians seem to give conflicting and confusing answers on this question--I think we're done with limbo and then someone else brings it back again. But the Scriptures are clear and comforting in my opinion. 

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