Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
October 18, 2013
On Tuesday, October 15, we marked a still little-known observance on the national calendar: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.
25 years ago President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month when he said, “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower. When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them.”
The observance of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day and Month is meant to acknowledge the loss so many parents experience — estimates are that ten to twenty percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages and that one in four women will suffer a miscarriage — and to spur society better to understand their sorrow and learn how to reach out to them.
For those infants who die after birth, there is normally a burst of compassion and solidarity. The social media erupts with prayers and condolences, Churches are packed for funerals, and tears flow in downpours.
When children die before birth, however, parents often grieve alone. Influenced by an abortion culture that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of children in the womb, few know what to say to parents who have lost what many medical personnel call simply “pregnancy material.”
Even in the Church, while bereavement ministries have grown and pro-life apostolates have increased care and concern for pregnant women and their children, there are very few resources for women who miscarry.
In June, I was at an academic conference and saw a friend of mine from New York. She asked if I might have some time to talk. Maria told me that after many years of marriage trying to conceive a child, she discovered during a doctor’s visit that she had both conceived and miscarried.
Her emotional pain was still raw. She had sought help from many in the Church, but what she received poured salt rather than salve on her wounds. She lamented that the Church doesn’t have adequate resources or a sufficient pastoral theology to help women in her circumstances, and that many of the Church’s ministers don’t seem to have the training to console and accompany families experiencing this type of grief.
I told her that I agreed with her about this huge gap in the Church’s pastoral care and asked if she might be willing to help remedy it.
I encouraged her to take some time to pray about writing an article that could be given to those who have experienced similar grief and at the same time help all those who would seek to assist women or couples undergoing such grief to enter into their experiences. I said that this might be one way God would be able to bring good out of what she’s had to endure.
A couple of weeks ago Maria Grizzetti sent me an email telling me that she had acted on the suggestion. The 3,000 word essay she wrote, “The Hidden Face of Love: An Open Letter to Women (and Men) Who Have Lost Children, and Those Who Know Them,” is so well done — deeply personal, theologically profound yet accessible, and beautifully written — that I told her I wouldn’t be surprised if it were still being read in centuries.
I would urge all those who have experienced miscarriages, love those who have, or minister in the Church to read the essay, to save it and to pass it on. It can be found at http://incarnationandmodernity.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/the-hidden-face-of-love-an-open-letter-to-women-and-men-who-have-lost-children-and-those-who-know-them/
“It is critically important,” Maria wrote, “that those of us who have lived through this harsh reality, and bear its effects on a daily basis, take on the maternal and paternal mission to speak of our hidden love, a love known only in grief, so as to offer to others the olive branch that unites their grief with affection, and so becomes healing balm to the broken-hearted.” That’s what her essay was seeking to do.
She begins with words of condolence that so often those who have experienced miscarriages never hear.
“I am so sorry that you have lost your child. I am so sorry that death comes so suddenly. I am so sorry that you have to face it, possibly alone. I am so sorry that our bodies play so real a role in this loss. I am so sorry that you have no words. I am so sorry that this is so tragic. I am so sorry that your heart is pierced with so hidden a pain. I am so sorry that life can be so very hard, and that you are paralyzed by grief. I am so sorry that so few know, and fewer still know what to say. I am so sorry that so much of what is said to you is so wrong. I am so sorry that few understand the immensity of this loss. I am so sorry for you, and for those who love this child as you do. And I am so sorry to know that the agony of sorrow you live is real, because I was so sorry to live it myself.”
She describes that our culture is not ready to help those who have experienced the loss of a child in the womb properly mourn.
“For many of us there is no body to bury, only remnants of a life that the medical community flippantly calls pregnancy material. In the harsh anonymity of pretended non-existence, there is no birth certificate, sometimes no name, no death certificate. There is no Baptism, for those who desire it for their own; often no possibility for a funeral, only hidden rites of prayer few even know exist. I remember hearing for the first time, that a Mass for children who have died before birth exists in the Roman Canon of Funeral Rites, and recall the moment I realized that this was perhaps the first formal acknowledgment of the hidden life I carried and had seen end. There are often no memorials, no flowers, or notes of condolence, no graves to visit, unless, of course, in the depths of our pain we fight for the right to have the remains of the children we bore. All this and more is as salt seared into deeply aching wounds; it makes them burn with the fire of painfully trampled love.”
The pain continues to be “real, piercing, shattering, deeply unsettling and … singeing” long after the initial paralysis after the child’s death.
“You will feel it as you walk down the street, when you see another’s child; as you find out a friend is expecting; when you are out to brunch and friends talk about the many challenges and sacrifices inherent in parenthood; in your place of work when people say they will wait to have kids; on Facebook when someone dear to us posts a picture of their stunning family, or on a faraway beach shoreline when we see kids splash freely in the waves; you will feel it as, on your knees, you pray to be spared the agony; it comes when you go to bed and realize there were once two of you, or three, or more, in that home of yours. The pain is relentless, and real.”
But she says the choice is to remain “alone in anguish” or to realize patiently with hope “that in the very heart of that misery what we possess in its fullness, what we are seeing, is the hidden face of love — a love so pure, so real, so very maternal, that it defies description and demands everything of us, to the very last poverty of tears. For the one privilege in loss, is the deeply real encounter with the depths of the mystery of love.”
The death of a child, she declared, “even the death of a first and only child, is not the death of our maternity. Maternity, that unique desire for fruitfulness, expressed often in the particular care of living children, is not limited to the physical generation and rearing of these children. The most comforting words given to me on the death of our first-born were the words ‘You are a mother now; you will always be a mother’. These are daring words to offer a woman who has known a most intimate, almost personal death; so very personal is the death of one’s child. And yet they are true. They remain imprinted in my memory and engraved in my heart as the very voice of that child’s first cry would have been. … We love our children before we even bear them in body, and we love them ever more strongly once they no longer live. This is the high dignity of maternity. And death has no power over it. It will simply not be crushed.”
“In this particular suffering, the suffering of child-loss, all too common as it is,” she continued, “the human heart is given two treasures: the fruitfulness of a brief physical maternity, and the privileged kind of love that transcends the purely physical and becomes the vision of love’s hidden face. It seems cruel to say to another who is in the travail of sorrow and grief, that their loss is somehow a gain. But it would be a lie not to. … The harsh reality of child-loss leads us to know that love which death cannot divide, and only strengthens.”
She finishes her essay by compassionately challenging those who like her have experienced the death of a child in a womb to faith, hope, and courage. The physical union between mother and child that was severed on earth points to an even greater spiritual union that is meant to endure forever.
“Grief is not a waste, but rather the way to a more intense and deeper closeness — a longer lasting union. In the death of our children, our life here and now becomes a foretaste of that union of holy souls given to the saints. Built into the miracle of these hidden lives, is the fact that what we gain from them, through the privation of physical closeness, is that powerful desire for heaven-bound reunion. This is truly the miracle of the hidden maternity and paternity which we experience in child-loss, and it is all an irreplaceable and privileged gain.”
She reminds them, “Beyond the seemingly squandered and endless tears” after a miscarriage “is the shower of grace that gives far more than the immensity of what is lost.” One day, she says with faith, “every tear will be wiped away, when death will be no more nor sorrow,” for, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans, the “sufferings of the present time do not compare to the glories yet to be revealed.”