Sharing The Loss Of The Wished For Child
By Fr. John Shimchick
“I will not forget you.
I have carved you on the palm of my hand.
Back in the 1970’s Sister Jane Mane Lamb, a Catholic nun, worked as a maternity nurse in a midwestern hospital. She saw around her many families who were faced with the agonizing loss of a child due to miscarriage, stillbirth or sudden infant death (SIDS, etc.). For most, there was no one to talk to - no one knew what to say or how to react. This was true of the professional staff at the hospital and often particularly the clergy. There was no burial or memorial service and little support afterwards. They were often just alone.
She was regularly asked by the other members of the nursing staff to be involved with the grieving families. Though she did not know from firsthand experience the loss of a child, she had been acquainted with grief. She was one of twelve children. At the age of nine one of her sisters drowned and later a brother died at 30. As a result she found herself drawn into the difficult task of comforting those who knew no where else to turn.
After a serious car accident prevented her from continuing the physical demands of nursing, she became a full-time hospital chaplain. In 1975, she learned of a support group in the St. Louis area called, AMEND (Aiding Mothers Experiencing Newborn Death). She helped organize a similar meeting in Decataur, Illinois with grieving families.
THE FOUNDING OF “SHARE”
In 1977, Sister Jane Marie with the help and support of others, particularly Dr. Glen Davidson from the University of Illinois (the title of this paper is borrowed from his 1977 film - Death of the Wished For Child) established SHARE. As an acronym it means - a Source of Help in Airing and Resolving Experiences. SHARE is a loosely knit group of over 200 chapters located in the United States and four other countries. The chapters are basically support groups, often connected with hospitals, and the members are families and individuals who have experienced loss.
The philosophy of SHARE is based on a Christian understanding of caring. It, above all, recognizes that life is sacred and to be valued at every stage. Therefore, SHARE encourages that the remains of every child be buried whenever possible. Sister Jane Marie mentioned that she had been present at the burial of a clearly formed fetus which was the size of her little finger nail.
SHARE supports the position that with the death of a child and the delivery of a stillbirth, parents should be made aware of and given options. They should be able to decide whether the mother is to be awake at the delivery; if the father is to be present; whether pictures are to be taken; whether they and siblings will be allowed to see the child. Many of these options are currently available to parents. But Sister Jane Mane adds that there are still some places where doctors and staff encourage as little contact with the deceased baby so as to “take away every reminder and avoid getting attached.” She notes that “they forget how the parents are already attached even before the pregnancy, just by thinking about it.”
Often with this kind of death there is a tendency for others not to understand the significance of the parents’ loss. In an issue of NEWSWEEK (Aug. 15, 1988, pp. 46-52) a woman explained: “I had a miscarriage. I experienced it as the death of our child . . . and I am terrified of it happening again . . . People minimize our loss when they say things like, ‘you’re young, you can have lots of babies,’ It’s God’s will,’ or It’s for the best - there was probably something wrong with the baby.’ . . . The truth is - as with any death - there is nothing one can say or do to fix it…. What helps me is to know that others view my child as real - for like thee. Velveteen Rabbit, he was real to me. The reality of conceiving this child, carrying this child and losing this child has changed me forever.”
SHARE groups offer parents an opportunity to vent their emotions, and, as one can imagine, there are many things that need to be released. For some, it provides the first chance to have their grief “validated” or allowed. It permits them to express their anger, even if it is against God and not simply be told that they “shouldn’t feel that way.”
The SHARE NEWSLETTER keeps the chapters united and informed. It is full of poems, thoughts, suggestions, announcements of future conferences and workshops, and reviews of articles, books, films and videos. It lists the establishment of new SHARE chapters (there are 3 within 30 minutes of me). There is also a section entitled, PARENTS REACHING OUT, which lists families (and their difficulties) who would like contact with other families who have had similar experiences.
A study in the NEWSLETTER asked parents whether they would have desired a picture of their deceased child. Out of 438 responses, 95% felt that it was important to have pictures. One parent wrote, “My pictures are an emotional time capsule - capturing our hopes, dreams, happiness and sadness. They. . . are the only reality to society that I really had a baby . . . my only comfort when I am hurting so bad.”
Anyone who has lost a child knows that parents grieve not only the physical loss, but the loss as well of their dreams, their hopes and their plans for that child. They also know this feeling that occurs if the woman is able to become pregnant again:
“FOR THE SPECIAL CHILD I NOW CARRY
When you arc old enough to understand I
hope you will know how thrilled I am that
you have been alive long enough to understand.
I hope you will never feel less special
than the child who came before you. We
never thought of you as a replacement.
We will always miss our first baby, but no
more than we would have missed you. In
fact, you arc all of our hopes and dreams.
We love you so.
When you arc old enough I hope that you
will understand that right now I am
praying that someday you will be old
enough to understand. And, even if you
never understand, I will just be glad that
you are old enough.
All of the material in the SHARE NEWSLETTER overflows with a deep and powerful sense of love:
DO YOU HAVE CHILDREN?
How do I answer such a painful question?
Could they possibly understand my feelings
I have no one to hold, no one to call me mommy.
In their eyes I am childless. In my
eyes, you are a part of me
I am not the same as before I had you. I
love you, think of you, just as a mother would
If they could only see into my heart, they
would know you are with me always
Yes, I do have children . . .
TO US YOU WILL EXIST
To us you will exist
in the flowers
in the trees
and all things of nature
God has given us.
You are now in a world of peace
and happiness forever.
Pray for us as we pray for you,
and somewhere sometime
we shall join.
There is not just sorrow and tragedy presented in the SHARE NEWSLETTER. My favorite section is entitled, “BABY NEWS.” It is the birth announcements of babies who have been born to parents who have previously lost children. Lisa Casimer, who wrote one of the previously quoted poems, gave birth to a son a few months later. Another family had experienced the loss of 8 babies in 7 years of trying, and their child who was born and survived had only been given a 1% chance.
Sister Jane Marie has become an international speaker on pregnancy and infant loss. Over the last 10 years she has been gathering prayers, scripture texts and writings of all kinds which have recently been published under the title: BITTERSWEET . . . HELLOGOODBYE: A Resource in Planning Farewell Rituals When a Baby Dies.
When I asked here which scripture verses come immediately to mind she said: Isaiah 49 and Psalm 139. It is no accident, therefore, that a memorial for miscarried babies in Springfield, Illinois where she worked bears the inscription:
I will not forget you.
I have carved you on the
palm of my hand.
The need for this collection became obvious because while God does remember “the name and age of each, even from his mother’s womb” (Lit. of St. Basil), there has been an uncertainty in how to properly and liturgically remember the loss of an unbaptized child.
Here the Orthodox Church has been just as silent or has historically presented contradictory positions. Doctrinally, the Church would proclaim that these children are placed in God’s hands and no doubt enter into His Kingdom. Yet, many of us know of situations where unbaptized children were buried in the outer or “unconsecrated” sections of cemeteries. There are also no prayers prescribed for such burials. There is in fact, a prayer only “for a Woman after a Miscarriage”:
0 Master, Lord our God, Who was born of the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, and Who, as an infant, lay in the manger: According to Your great mercy, be merciful to Your servant, N., who is in sin, having been involved in the loss of a life, whether voluntary or involuntary, for she has miscarried that which was conceived in her. Forgive her transgressions, both voluntary and involuntary, and protect her from every snare of the Devil. Cleanse her stain and heal her infirmities. And grant to her, 0 Lover of Mankind, health and strength of soul and body. Guard her with a shining Angel from all assaults of the unseen demons; Yea, 0 Lord, from sickness and infirmity. Purify her from bodily uncleanness and the various troubles within her womb. By Your many mercies lead her up in her humbled body from the bed on which she lies. For we all have been born in sins and transgressions, and all of us are defiled in Your sight, 0 Lord. Therefore, with fear we cry out and say: Look down from heaven and behold the feebleness of us who are condemned. Forgive this. Your servant, N., who is in sin, having been involved in the loss of a life, whether voluntary or involuntary, for she has miscarried that which was conceived in her. And, according to Your great mercy as the Good God Who loves mankind, be merciful and forgive all those who are here present and who have touched her. For You alone have the power to remit sins and transgressions, through the prayers of Your Most-pure Mother and of all the Saints…
(Book of Needs, pp. 6-7)
It is even difficult to find much written material on the subject from an Orthodox perspective. The one article I located, however, would justify the above uncertainty and practices. Fr. Alexandre Nelidow writes:
What of unbaptized children? . . . No rite of Christian burial is to be celebrated for these children because they have not been cleansed of original sin. The priest may simply bless the grave and carry out the burial to the accompaniment of the Trisagion.
In speaking of the fate of children who die without baptism, St. Gregory the Theologian (Gregory of Nazianzus) says that:
. . . they will be neither glorified nor condemned by the just Judge, since they have not been sealed. They are not evil and have suffered more harm than they have caused. For a person’s failure to deserve punishment does not mean that he therefore deserves honors, nor does his failure to deserve honors mean that he deserves punishment.
I mention this, for though Sister Jane Marie’s collection offers a flexibility in liturgical practice that might be difficult for us to share in as Orthodox, it does include many beautiful prayers. For example, at a service for a miscarriage:
Blessed be You, God of compassion and consolation. Accept the sorrow of ____________ who are grieved by the loss of this baby through miscarriage. You know the desires of our hearts. Help us to have confidence in Your sustaining presence, this moment and future days.
For ____________ and their family, who have suffered the death of a child during pregnancy, that they may not despair in their pain, let us pray to the Lord.
For ____________ who so ardently desire to have the gift of life, that the Lord in wisdom may respond to their desires, let us pray to the Lord.
For all of us that we may never forget this innocent child as a member of our family and community, let us pray to the Lord.
Lord God, listen to our words, consider our inmost thought For You, in Your compassion, uphold us. May the strength of Your presence here and now, sustain us. May the light of Your presence be our inspiration towards the future. May Your Blessings, Lord God, be with us now and forever. Amen. (2-20)
The SHARE NEWSLETTER and BITTERSWEET . . . HELLOGOODBYE as well THUMPY’S STORY as an excellent and beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled, offer deeply moving and helpful resources for those who have known “the loss of the wished for child.” But they are also useful for clergy and parishioners who might not have directly experienced this loss, yet would like to be more receptive and comforting to those who have. They provide very concrete suggestions in what to say and not say, what to do and not do in trying to be of comfort.
The NEWSLETTER is available free of charge by writing:
c/o St. Elizabeth’s Hospital
211 South Third St.
Belleville, IL 62222
A list of SHARE chapters in your area will also be forwarded.
Baumiller, Robert C., S. J.. A Workbookfor Pastoral Care of Individuals and Families with Special Needs. Available free from: National Maternal & Child Health Warehouse, 38th & R Sts., NW, Washington, DC 20057 (202) 625-8410.
Contains a variety of prayers and suggested scripture texts for miscarriage, stiUborn and newborn death. Also includes suggestions for prayers and services for handicapped persons as well as suggestions for the Role of Clergy in Genetic Counseling.
Also available free from the above source:
A Guide to Resources in Perinatal Bereavement
Resources for Clergy in Human Genetic Problems - A Selected Bibliography (1988)
BOOK OF NEEDS. Complied and edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1987, pp. 6-8.
Dodge, Nancy C. THUMPY’S STORY - A Story of Love and Grief Shared by Thumpy, the Bunny. Prairie Lark Press, P.O. Box 699-B, Springfield, IL 62705.
Lamb, Sister Jane Marie, OSF, ed. Bittersweet . . . Hellogoodbye: A Resource in Planning Farewell Rituals When a Baby Dies. Prairie Lark Press, P.O. Box 699BS, Springfield, IL 62705. The resources include a listing of audiovisuals on the subject, one of which is the film “Death of the Wished For Child.”
Nelidow, Alexandre, “Rite for the Funeral of Children,” in Temple of the Holy Spirit, tr. by Matthew J. O’Connell, Pueblo Publishing Co., 1983, pp. 161-173.