Miscarriage: Small lives, big heartbreak

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"As I stared at her, Charles talked to her. We unwrapped her and looked at her face and counted her fingers and toes just like anyone would do with a newborn. But unlike most newborns, she didn't cry."

Mary McCarthy Hines, a parishioner of St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield, and her husband, Charles, held their tiny, perfectly formed Virginia - named after Hines' great-aunt - for about an hour. Termed a "stillbirth," for them it was the loss of a little person, a soul, a family member; it was piercing heartbreak.

It was not a completely new feeling. About a year and a half before, they'd lost a baby through miscarriage.

According to the American Pregnancy Association, 15 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, defined as the death of a fetus less than 20 weeks after conception. Deaths that occur later are considered stillbirths and affect 1 percent of pregnancies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even though nearly 1 in 4 pregnant women experiences a miscarriage, it remains a sorrow surrounded by silence and a lack of support - both outside and often inside the Catholic Church.

"It continues to be a hard battle to bring awareness about this very common issue," said Debra Cochran, executive director of Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support. Share, which is secular, was founded in 1977 by a Franciscan sister and is one of the largest national infant-loss-support organizations.

In the document "Loving Parents After Miscarriage," Mary McClusky, of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, writes that unfortunately "our culture and even some church communities don't always recognize this loss, leaving women or couples to deal with their pain alone."

'A different kind of grief'

Hines, a former staff writer for the Catholic Herald, and her husband have been through a lot together, including the deaths of their respective fathers. But when the doctor told the couple she couldn't find Virginia's heartbeat, "we both wept and sobbed in a way that I don't think either one of us has experienced before," said Hines. "It was a different kind of grief."

The magnitude of grief following a miscarriage varies for each family, but the loss of a child before birth "can be experienced as a huge loss, a trauma," said Monroe Rayburn, director of the counseling center at Catholic University in Washington. "There is so much hope and excitement and joy experienced and then lost with the loss of a child."

Holidays and Mass are especially hard, said Hines. "The newborns being carried by their parents; the baptisms … these are things a grieved parent realizes they won't get to do with the baby they loved for weeks or months," she said.

"Usually, the death of a loved one is a more present-tense loss," added Hines. "For grieved parents, it's not just the baby that we grieve for, but it's the potential of who they would have become, the life we had planned for them and with them and the traditions we planned to pass on."

Acknowledging the grief is an important part of healing, said Rayburn, but the culture hasn't always recognized this loss as significant or encouraged families to mourn.

"Because it is medically common, the impact of miscarriage is often underestimated," according to Janet Jaffe, a clinical psychologist, who is quoted in an American Psychological Association resource on miscarriage.

Such underestimation is one reason miscarriage is still frequently cloaked in silence.

Another reason is that "death is taboo," said Hines. "People tend not to talk about those who have died for fear of upsetting those who are grieving."

Hines knows the cost of keeping pain private. When she suffered a miscarriage with her first child eight weeks into the pregnancy, she said she kept her grief to herself, not wanting to "burden other people with what I was going through." Looking back, she feels her silence extended her grief.

When Allie McKenzie Barvick, a Catholic mother in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., did share the news of her miscarriage, some people "failed to really acknowledge our loss as a true loss and didn't respond as they would if someone had lost a child after birth," she said. "I think some people minimize or marginalize miscarriages, partly because it's something they don't know how to deal with and partly because our culture so struggles to acknowledge a baby is a baby until he or she is born."

'Still a lack' of understanding

The Catholic Church can be a great source of comfort to parents who have lost a child through miscarriage, in part because, unlike secular society, it always recognizes babies in utero as precious, valued lives. But many families feel the church has not always been prepared to respond with the knowledge and resources they need.

"The church is so good about recognizing the humanity of the unborn, yet there is still a lack of … understanding when it comes to this issue," said Sandra Violeta, who lives in the Diocese of Jackson, Miss.

After her miscarriage, Violeta started a parish chapter of the Elizabeth Ministry, an international movement offering encouragement and healing on issues related to childbearing, sexuality and relationships. One Sunday after Mass, the ministry held a blessing for those who had experienced miscarriages. "What struck me was that … (most attendees) were women in their 50s (through their) 80s, some who cried and one who mentioned that she'd never had the church recognize her loss before," said Violeta.

On many U.S. diocesan and archdiocesan websites, you must navigate through multiple pages to find information on miscarriage. Some list books and websites for the grieving but lack local ministries.

And while parishes typically offer some kind of bereavement support, it's sometimes not the right fit.

"I think it is harder for mothers whose babies have died in the womb or shortly after they were born to fit into standard grief groups," said Hines. "One of the most common things that I've heard when a family member dies is to hold on to the memories you have with them and celebrate the life they lived. For our babies, we have so few of those memories, and that's an additional layer to our grief.

"When adults die at an old age or because of illness, we can try to take comfort in the fact that they're 'in a better place' or that their suffering on earth has ended," she said. "When a baby dies, it's hard for a mother to let go of the fact that the best place she can think of for her baby to be would be in her arms."

Due to the lack of local support groups, women often turn to cyber-communities, such as private Facebook groups or message boards.

There is, however, a growing awareness in the church of this unique suffering and a desire to reach out, according to McClusky, with the USCCB.

McClusky said the church understands that its pro-life witness must address the grief experienced by those who have lost a child. But since the trauma of miscarriage traditionally has been underestimated and women often did not speak openly about their pain, frequently they endured their heartbreak in silence.

"Culturally it is more acceptable for them to talk about what they've been through now, … and the church is responding to the need," according to McClusky.

One example of this response is in the Arlington Diocese, where Bishop Paul S. Loverde will lead a novena for infertility and infant loss Dec. 4-12. It will conclude with Mass at St. Timothy Church in Chantilly. The diocese plans to make the novena an annual occurrence, according to Thérèse Bermpohl, director of the Arlington diocesan Office for Family Life.

The novena and Mass are "a giant step in the right direction toward having a more open dialogue about these struggles," said Hines.

Mourning parents also need practical support, such as help locating cemeteries where they can bury their babies if they wish. Through a Facebook friend, Hines discovered "a m.o.m.s. peace," a ministry started by a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Gainesville that helps find a burial location and helps memorialize babies, along with offering other assistance.

A m.o.m.s. peace "is a good foundation for what grieved parents need locally," Hines said.

No matter what kind of support families receive, though, the young life that goes unlived needs to be acknowledged and mourned.

"I'm okay, mostly," writes Callie Bentley Ewing, a Catholic in Irving, Texas, whose daughter died after three months in her womb. "But I'm also sad. … It strikes me at seemingly random moments, that overpowering ache of loss," she writes. "I talk to my lost baby, in those moments. 'I miss you. I love you. I'm so sorry you couldn't stay.'"

Novena for miscarriages, infertility

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde will lead an audio novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 4 through Dec. 12 for couples struggling with miscarriage, early child loss and infertility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 percent of married women are infertile.

The novena will conclude with a 10:30 a.m. Mass Dec. 12 celebrated by Fr. Thomas P. Ferguson, vicar general and moderator of the curia, at St. Timothy Church, 13807 Poplar Tree Rd., Chantilly. To receive the audio novena in your inbox and learn more, go here.

Resources for families struggling with miscarriage

-Arlington diocesan resources on pregnancy loss

- Project Rachel will put women into contact with mothers who have experienced miscarriage and early infant loss; call 703/841-2504

- "a m.o.m.s. peace," a ministry serving central and Northern Virginia that helps families bury and memorialize children lost to miscarriage and stillbirth: amomspeace.com

- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' articles on miscarriage

- Conceiving Hope, a blog that compiles Catholic resources on infertility

- "I Had a Stillborn Baby," a mother's reflections on grief and how it changed with time, posted on the blog A Cup of Jo

- "Six Things I Wish People Knew About Grieving the Loss of a Child," from "Standing Still Magazine"

- "Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason," reflections on pain from The Adversity Within blog

- Stillbirthday, a Christian network with support for perinatal bereavement

- Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support, a national organization that includes phone counseling, face-to-face support group meetings and resources: nationalshare.org

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015