As a mother, the Lord has asked me to do many difficult things. None more so, however, than returning five of my children to his embrace only shortly after they were received into our family. In 17 years of marriage, we have experienced three first trimester miscarriages, a stillbirth at 30 weeks and an infant death following poor prenatal diagnosis.
In each of these losses, we have been surrounded by a community of friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and people from our church. Compassionate support has seen us through many ups and downs. Through abundant caring, we have been able to integrate our losses into an authentic piece of who we are as individuals, as a couple, as parents and as Catholics.
Now an author and speaker, I have been blessed to listen to dozens of women share their stories and have visited many parishes to talk about pregnancy and infant loss. I’ve been reflecting in the past few years on some of the shared experiences of those who felt most supported in their time of need and of those who did not.
In learning from their experiences and my own, I’ve observed that the most supportive communities are those that are making a consistent effort to support families before, during and after pregnancy and infant loss.
Here are three things that can make a difference in your parish community. Please note, these efforts are not necessarily costly or time consuming; many operate quite automatically once they have been established.
— Have a permanent community-based memorial. This could be as fancy as a bench in an outdoor garden, a plaque on the wall or just a simple bulletin board. The idea is that men and women see the reality of pregnancy and infant loss represented in their faith community, ideally before suffering loss themselves.
Feeling comfortable and aware of the parish support for families of pregnancy and infant loss increases the likelihood that the couple will turn to the church for support in their time of need. If the display has a memorial aspect, this also provides a way for families to stay connected to their child (and the parish) after their loss.
— Know and offer sacraments. This goes for both ordained and lay staff. A mother in the middle of a difficult miscarriage may be a good candidate for the anointing of the sick. A baby in danger of death can receive not only baptism but also in many cases confirmation.
There are funeral, Mass and rite options for losses with and without a body. Some dioceses are using special naming rites for miscarried babies.
Unfortunately most Catholics don’t know that these are available and by the time they find out, it may be too late. When parish staff hear of a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss in their community it is good to reach out and put them in touch with a priest who can provide sacramental support for the family.
— Give time and space, but not too much. The emotional and physical recovery time for pregnancy and infant loss is much longer than most people realize. Don’t expect the family to be “back to normal” in any quick time frame. Check in and see how they are doing.
That said, postpartum depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (depending on the nature of the situation) can be a serious issue for women following pregnancy and infant loss. Know your local resources and offer to refer as necessary for things that are beyond the scope of pastoral care.
Following pregnancy or infant loss, families face a variety of messages from the culture, and even from their doctors, that say their child was not important or their child had somehow less of a life. As Catholics, we know a different reality.
Supporting families through pregnancy and infant loss is an opportunity to minister in real time and uphold the dignity of each child from conception to natural death — no matter how little time has passed between the two.
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(Heidi Indahl is a pregnancy and infant loss author and speaker from southeastern Minnesota. She is the author of “Blessed Is the Fruit of Thy Womb: Rosary Reflections for Miscarriage, Stillbirth and Infant Loss.” Her website is pregnancyloss.workandplaydaybyday.com.)