Comforting Rachel

How Christians Should Respond to Prenatal Death

Several years ago I had a miscarriage about five months into pregnancy. My husband and I had brought our two daughters to a routine ultrasound to get a glimpse of their growing sibling-to-be. We were devastated when neither sonographer nor obstetrician could detect a fetal heartbeat. My husband talked to the girls while I waited numbly in the doctor’s office for explanation, repair, or the next step. The OB sent us home with a prescription and an appointment for Monday morning in the hospital.

That day was devoted to delivering a dead baby, with most of the accouterments of American hospital birth present: labor-and-delivery ward, beeping electronic monitors, anesthesiologist offering an epidural. It looked and felt, in many respects, just the way our previous live births had, a resemblance to happier occasions that seemed to mock our loss. The hospital nurses were kind, if not quite what was wanted: one absentmindedly put fetal-monitor belts on my belly before the doctor told her to take them off, and another described a Zen garden nearby where I could meditate if I ever wished to “process” it all. The environment of the workaday labor-and-delivery ward made delivering a lost child even harder. Then and after, I sometimes thought a surgery would have been easier: to be unconscious for the removal of the baby, to remember none of it, to have it be as much unlike normal delivery as possible. But at some level what we did felt necessary, as though the process of delivery honored the child. It was the last thing my body could do for the baby, and I was willing to do it. Nurses wrapped up the body of our son and we held him for a moment. My husband and I cried together. We were visited by our priest. With warmth and prayer, he gave care there in the hospital and later at the gravesite, but there was a provisional sense about his gestures, as though he were improvising out of his own kindness rather than acting on long liturgical practice that the church had devised in meeting these crises from time immemorial.

Death before birth brings a profound grief to a family. It blunts hope and forces mothers, in a very immediate, physical way, to confront death. It is a problem of public health, but also a theological problem—“Why does God let this happen?”—and a searing one in the lives of many parents and families.

Christian churches have been strong defenders of the unborn, with Catholics particularly active in opposing abortion and embryo destruction. These positions demonstrate a strong commitment to life before and after birth. But perhaps insufficient care—both in teaching and pastoral settings—has been given to the puzzle of children not aborted who nonetheless die before birth. About twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage (and, given the difficulty of counting early-term loss, the actual rate is higher). Churches that locate life’s beginning at conception ought to meet these losses with gravity, both for the benefit of grieving families and for the witness to life it demonstrates. Difficult questions of science and theology stand in the way of easy answers or comfort. Yet the problem is big enough and occurs frequently enough to require more sustained attention. Churches should do a better job of recognizing this as a theological problem and offering liturgical and pastoral support to those affected by it.

Christian bioethicists critical of some embryo experimentation are often accused of hypocrisy, on the grounds that failure to mourn miscarriages belies their insistence that the embryo (the product of conception in the first eight weeks) is a person. Michael Sandel contends that “the way we respond to the natural loss of embryos suggests that we do not regard this event as the moral or religious equivalent of the death of infants.” Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen take up that argument in their book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. Parents do mourn miscarriages, they argue, but they note that other factors might condition mourning: misinformation about the nature of the embryo, a shorter and different relationship than what might have been had with a child the parents had seen and held, or limited emotional bonding. These possible parental responses do not determine the embryo’s status. Further, the authors point out, unsuccessful pregnancies may result from incomplete fertilization or chromosomal defects, so what was lost may not have been a human embryo at all.

These arguments, while reasonable, seem emotionally flat. Of course there are differences in the experience of having one’s baby die during delivery and losing a pregnancy when the mother had barely begun to show, but by a prolife logic that names the six-week embryo and the five-month fetus both human children, the losses share common grief. 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, 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.

Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians all indicate hope that a child who dies before birth has gone to be with God. They offer prayer for hurting families. Yet consolation butts up against other primary points of theology, especially teaching on baptism, since these children did not have access to that sacrament. Christian institutions have an uneven history of figuring out what to do for these children, making sense of their deaths and prospects for salvation. Perhaps most famously, St. Augustine posited that without baptism infants could not go to heaven, though they would be spared the extreme punishments of hell as their guilt consisted only of original sin, not personal sin. Later, medieval theologians indicated that unbaptized babies would spend eternity in limbus puerorum, the Limbo of Children, neither heaven nor hell. Doctrines of infant damnation, connoting a harshness people did not want to attribute to God, fell out of favor with many Protestants through the nineteenth century. But in various Christian traditions, uncertainty about the eternal fate of the child has limited the consolation offered to parents.

Before the Second Vatican Council, there was no regular memorial Catholic rite for unbaptized infants, and they were buried in unconsecrated ground (whereas baptized babies were given a Mass of the Angels and a Christian burial). Concern with the problem yielded new pastoral solutions in the years following the council. The 1970 Roman Missal included directions for a funeral for those who had died before birth. And in 2007 the International Theological Commission issued an important report, “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized.” The reason for the inquiry was itself noteworthy: “In these times, the number of infants who die unbaptized is growing greatly. This is partly because of parents…who are nonpracticing, but it is also partly a consequence of in vitro fertilization and abortion. Given these developments, the question of the destiny of such infants is raised with new urgency.” Miscarriages we always had with us, but advanced embryology had made it possible to fully perceive the genetically distinct life that was begun and lost. The question called for rethinking in light of the church’s witness to life at a time when prenatal life is often discarded. Upholding the high importance of baptism and choosing an idiom of hope rather than assurance, “The Hope of Salvation” suggests that infants who die without the sacrament might, indeed, be received into heaven rather than hell or limbo. The commission found “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision,” but added: “We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge.”

The doctrines at issue touch big questions about sin—original and personal—and the way of salvation, the meaning of baptism, even the character of God. While the report recognizes that parents grieve for babies who die before birth, and though it gives thoughtful consideration to their  chances of salvation, it hardly engages the dark night of the soul experienced by those who have a miscarriage or a stillbirth. Again, doctrine is its primary concern, yet as the report itself notes, the pastoral context is pressing: “The notion that infants who die without baptism are deprived of the beatific vision, which has for so long been regarded as the common doctrine of the church, gives rise to numerous pastoral problems, so much so that many pastors of souls have asked for a deeper reflection on the ways of salvation.”

One of the painful aspects of losing a baby before its birth, whether to miscarriage or stillbirth, is uncertainty of the meaning of the loss. We might say in general that the death of a child is always painful and sad, parents feel bereaved, and many share their mourning. If prenatal life is more than just potential, then a miscarriage or a stillbirth is not just something that didn’t work out, a nonstarter, something not to be; it is the death of a child before she has had a chance to live. It is a waste. 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. As for burial, distressing as it must have been to consign the fruit of one’s womb to unconsecrated ground, a woman may get even less than that in a hospital context, when fetal remains sometimes simply disappear unto disposal.

Our culture of choice contributes to this pain and awkwardness. Arguments about abortion go on, but they proceed within a culture that has adapted to the possibility of “choice” where pregnancy is concerned. We have learned a dual vocabulary to approve wanted pregnancies, rejoice with those who talk about feeling babies kick or scheduling ultrasounds or picking names and nursery décor, while at the same time behaving—linguistically if not in all ways—as though abortion did not concern that kind of creature but just the possibility of a baby that was decided against, a proto-baby rather than a real one. This produces agonizing confusion in the case of pregnancy loss. What is the script for response to someone whose pregnancy ends without a living child? Ready words do not exist either for announcement or condolence.

Thus churches meet an aching need when they offer a service, a public place, recognition, and prayers for those who have lost children in the womb. This can take the form of a memorial service at the time of the loss, helping individual families through the sadness. Churches also may hold other services occasionally, to minister to those who have gone through miscarriage or stillbirth and also to hold up this grief in the congregation as a whole. The church I attend, Christ the Redeemer Anglican in Danvers, Massachusetts, holds an annual service called “Rachel Weeping,” for all who have lost life in the womb. Participants read Psalm 139 (“You formed me in my inmost being; / you knit me in my mother’s womb… / Your eyes saw me unformed; / in your book all are written down; / my days were shaped, before one came to be”). They sing together, though some voices waver audibly in and out. They have a chance if desired to write a note or reflection, to give a name to the child if they have not already done so, to bring along a rose and prayers. The priest later buries the flowers and messages. It is a service that allows important things to be said by the bereaved: I know we lost a baby. Others know we lost a baby. Others mourn with us. God knows we lost a baby, and we trust God receives our babies into His care.

If we hope doctors act to prevent pregnancy loss, addressing risk factors and providing emergency aid and so forth, we should also expect churches to use resources available within the Body of Christ to comfort those so afflicted. Not doing so aggravates the suffering of those who have lost children in the womb and undermines our claims to value and care for prenatal life. Comforting a friend who had miscarried, the theologian L. Serene Jones looked for a way to help her and others bring their sorrow to God. She offers a reflection on the Trinity as a way of making sense of the loss. Considering the pain within God the Father at the death of Jesus, Jones suggests comparison with “the image of the woman who, in the grips of a stillbirth, has death inside her and yet does not die. Consider the power of this as an image for the Trinity. When Christ is crucified, God’s own child dies.... And perhaps most wrenching, this is a death that happens deep within God, not outside of God but in the very heart—perhaps the womb—of God.”

The image has limits, of course, but speaks powerfully of the experience of miscarriage or stillbirth. Caring for a child in utero and then marking her death before birth can be devastating. Many mothers have done it more than once. Openness to motherhood means wide openness to loss. While it is true that some women become pregnant easily when ready, carry happily to term, deliver without extraordinary peril, and settle into parenting, this is not a default story line. Even setting aside struggles of infertility or of children born with great debility, childbearing is a process with suffering built in. Given rates of miscarriage and stillbirth, even for women in the United States, there is a reasonable likelihood that embarking on childbearing will mean losing a pregnancy. In the early days of amniocentesis, sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman’s important study The Tentative Pregnancy showed that women tended to view the expected baby as provisional until prenatal testing yielded healthy results. The perils of birth do not have to make each pregnancy “tentative” until it brings forth a healthy newborn. Instead, they might make us more careful and attentive.

Pregnancy is a great work. Being willing to carry around a new person requires commitment, care, love. It can go badly awry. It requires willingness to see things through when things go wrong. It deserves support. Even if the mystery of death in the womb cannot be answered, still, churches insisting on respect for life should care very much when babies die in miscarriage or stillbirth. They should take seriously the call to comfort Rachel, who weeps because her children are no more. What families struggling with miscarriage and stillbirth seek from the church, beyond the hope for lost children and recognition of their death—if not knowledge of why it happened—is healing and blessing.

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Thank you for this article. Much in it needed to be said, and I think parishes as well as the larger church need to cogitate on how to confront miscarriage. The fact remains that the Church can offer only so much comfort as theology will support. To confront the possibility that one's much-wanted children have been cut off from the God who made them adds a good deal to the guilt and misery of women who have already been through the physical and emotional pain of losing a pregnancy. For that reason, I think I would have found the "Weeping Rachel" service described above, while very lovely, utterly unendurable. 

I carve out private time on All Soul's Day, say a rosary, light two white candles, and and think about these words by Stacey Dinner-Levin:

Let me recognize the gift in my ability to conceive and carry life however briefly.

Let me take joy in my ability to love so deeply and desire to nurture a soul unbeknownst to me.

Let me find healing in the belief that this soul knew my love for it and that that love helped it to pass to another place.

Let me honor this short life not only with my love but in finding meaning in its existence.

Let me recognize this meaning in my fullest appreciation of all the moments motherhood will bring me, along with my deeper compassion and sisterhood to other women who've experienced loss.

Let a part of this soul be reflected in the spirit of my future children, born or adopted, so that I may know it through them.

I will listen to and trust the place in my deepest heart that tells me I will once again be reunited with this soul and will fulfill the need to hold it in my arms.

I will help myself to feel comfort in the knowledge that there is a star in heaven that belongs to me.

 

Thank you for your article and I am so sorry that your son died.

My son would have been 31 years old today. He was born@28 weeks and lived for 5 days.

We ended up having to remove him from the vent due to the severity of brain damage from several  cerebral hemorrages.

It was so far, the worst experience of my life.

Each time I do a baptism preparation class, I address the issues of "limbo" so thoroughly learned and passed on from generation to generation. My own sister had a baby born dead from strangulation by the umbilical cord and then two subsequent miscarriages. Se then went on to have 5 healthy children. My wife had at least one miscarriage that we know about. The loss is amplified by the incipient fear from our older church teachings about the necessity of baptism for salvation. This lingering concept afflicts many women men. My teaching simply says, there is no such place as Limbo. Your babies are all safe with God in heaven and are specially your own angelic saints, praying for you and their family and watching over your lives. I tell them to inscribe the name they would have given that lost child in the family bible,  with the appelation of 'Saint." Let your other surviving children know of the death and understand why you continue to both grieve and honor the name of their lost brother or sister. In my opinion the insensitive teaching about Limbo is one of the church's great sins for which it needs to apologize to all parents.

A nice article, and very sorry for your loss. When my brother and sister-in-law lost my nephew two days before his due date, because of an umbilical cord injury, it was one of the saddest and most bewildering experiences our family has ever experienced. My sister-in-law had been scheduled for a C-section due to her prior history - a history which in itself had been pretty terrifying - and now had to endure a C-section to deliver a stillborn child. Needless to say, the parents were utterly unprepared for this disaster. To his credit, I think their parish priest did his best to help them spiritually navigate these stormy waters. However, to our complete befuddlement, there was at first some kind of "problem" in arranging for a funeral Mass, if you will, for the still born child. The priest in the end obtained what we heard was special permission from the bishop to conduct a Mass of the Angels service. I was shaken by this. Although our entire family spent 16 years (including college) in Catholic education, it strains the mental faculties as well as the spiritual to imagine that a child two days away from delivery is somehow less of a sentient being than a child two days after delivery. I know, I know: Baptism, baptism. You can't baptize a dead person - unless you're a Mormon. But it still seemed to me, and does to this day, that the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus who performed miracles on the Sabbath, who did not condemn the adulterous woman, who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, would just know that there needed to be a funeral for that child - no questions asked. The details and questions, I believe, He would leave to the Scribes and Pharisees.

"The fact remains that the Church can offer only so much comfort as theology will support."

Any theology that limits the comfort we can offer to another is a theology not worth having or discussing.

Rick, talk to any priest about this, and he'll be more or less sympathetic and offer to pray for you. But if you ask about the infant's soul, he can only tell you to hope for the best. 

Agnes suggests that the Church could offer more healing and blessing to mothers who have miscarried, and I agree. The local parish used to offer a Mass of healing for the sick every Thursday night, which was well attended. Why couldn't there be a similar Mass each year for the healing of body and mind of women who have miscarried? Maybe also for fathers? Miscarriage can cause marital divisions when husbands don't share or understand the sense of loss their wives feel.

Surely there are numerous research projects underway at Catholic hospitals and universities to find a way to prevent spontaneous abortions.  

Surely the bishops are sparing no expense to  fund those studies. 

Mike Evans,

 

You say:

My teaching simply says, there is no such place as Limbo. Your babies are all safe with God in heaven and are specially your own angelic saints, praying for you and their family and watching over your lives.

But that is your teaching, not the Church's teaching. I lean toward Bohan's observation: "Any theology that limits the comfort we can offer to another is a theology not worth having or discussing." I wonder if the Church has not painted itself into a corner on this issue of Original Sin and also the alleged necessity of Baptism. The doctrine of Original Sin seems to force the Church to maintain that the human race descended from two people. The Catechism says,

390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.

So a man and a woman named Adam and Eve did not get tempted by a serpent and eat forbidden fruit. Some other man and woman whose names we don't know did some other "deed" that is symbolically represented by Adam and Eve's eating forbidden fruit, and those unnamed people our our "first parents." One could argue that it make more sense just to believe that Adam and Eve ate some forbidden fruit. 

As I have mentioned before, my mother told me many years afterwards that sometime in the 1950s she thought she may have had a very early miscarriage, and when she called the parish priest to ask what she should do with what possibly was an embryo, he told her to flush it down the toilet. Little children often treat dead goldfish with more dignity. If there were some formal requirements, at least it might prevent individual priests from behaving like clods.

But really, the centuries-old belief in Limbo and the continued stance of "we can hope, but we really can't say" regarding infants who die without baptism indicate to me a flaw somewhere in the whole system. The Church has, of course, done some fiddling with the absolute requirement for baptism before, in inventing "Baptism of Blood" and "Baptism of Desire" basically out of whole cloth. It is not that the reasoning doesn't make a good deal of sense. It's just that either baptism is necessary or it isn't. The invention of Baptism of Blood and Baptism of Desire is a tacit admission that baptism is indeed not necessary, in which case maybe the Church—for the sake of the appearance of consistency—ought to invent something along the lines of "Spiritual Baptism of Infants Who Die Without Physical Baptism." 

So many pregnancies end early one—probably more than half, many of them never even detected by the pregnant woman herself—that there is a gaping hole in the explanatory power of Catholicism right now. It admits to being ignorant of the fate of more than half of the people who have ever been conceived. 

Mike, I understand that it was frustrating what your mother was told but in no way does that excuse your prejudice. You cited the catechism and yet on the case of Limbo you tell another commenter that what he says is his teaching, yet don't provide the catechism paragraph to prove him wrong. The Catholic Church has no teaching on Limbo, as the writer correctly states it was theologians and not the Pope or councils that deduced a Limbo and it was them that spread it.  It has never been an official doctrine of the Church and to spout otherwise is decieving. The Baptism of Blood and Desire are not made up things they have biblical references, case in point the theif next to Jesus on the cross that would go to paradise, he obviously wasn't baptised physically.

 As for what happened to your mother, that is really unfortunate and that priest should be talked to if he hasn't since that time by his bishop, if he is even alive. We are told through the beaitudes to comfort one another and to have hope (hope in the religious sense not the secular)  in God (just 2 of the 8), so the idea that there is some "lacking" in theology is only in your theological viewpoint. 

Lastly, as a statastician it is appalling the liberties you take in your " probably more than half" statement. That is mere speculation on your part and then you use that speculation to attack the Church's lack of explanatory power. That is an unjust comparison and wrong. that number is more towards 30%. That also cannot be weighted on the Church.  They don't have our (myself included) view of the best answer but that also comes back to the 1st beaitude in hoping in God and it is in that hope where we should live our lives, not complaining that everything we have a question about isn't being answered in the here and now with perfect clarity. 

And so pastors seem to be constrained to mumble something about hope, leaving the bereaved mother and father and family to grieve without any comfort from the church. Clearly Limbo has never been an official teaching of the church. We have jumped thru all kinds of theological contortions to exempt certain unbaptized folk from the Holy Innocents to the billions of folk born and living all over our planet who have never even been offerred baptism through the church. In fact, the church with its existing scarcity and shortage of clergy is itself responsible for the failure of so many to have the opportunity for baptism. Unless we somehow bless the annual rainfall and believe that it constitutes some kind of official baptism even for the unaware, we must abandon all concepts of Limbo, or even worse, loss of salvation for failure to be baptized. And it was Pope Francis who admonished his fellow Jesuit priests about refusing baptism for bastard children born out of wedlock. Why refuse baptism even when it is sought? Because it might legitimize the parentage and bring about rights of inheritance. Whose side is the church on, God's or the rights of the rancho?

Worth the subscription price all by itself.   Thank you, Ms. Howard.

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About the Author

 

Agnes R. Howard is assistant professor of history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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