How can we respond to the loss of a child in utero or at birth? In an intense act of trust, we can place our child in the direct care of God.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
This article is adapted from chapter eighteen of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Miscarriage and Stillbirth: Grieving the Child Who Goes with God.” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.
Read a review of The Gift of Birth in Church Life magazine.
Ten to 25 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Many occur before the woman even realizes she is pregnant, and others mostly occur in her first trimester of pregnancy. But a miscarriage occurs any time the child dies before twenty weeks gestation. After that, if the child dies before or during birth, it is called a stillbirth.
Whatever we call it, most women dread any sign that they may be losing a child in the womb: sudden bleeding, intense cramping. Bear in mind that some women do have a bout of bleeding during pregnancy, and it does not result in miscarriage. Symptoms can be misinterpreted. But any sign that causes concern should be checked with a doctor or midwife.
The grief that comes with the loss of a child in utero can be intense. Grief is healthy and natural. It’s true that not everyone responds this way: perhaps you had barely absorbed that you were pregnant, and the miscarriage ended a reality that you had not yet fully embraced. Or you may be going through trials in life that have made you more numb to what is happening than is typical. But the sorrow of miscarriage and stillbirth is normal, and underlines an important truth: human life is good, a gift from God, and its loss is worth mourning.
What can we do?
One of the difficulties with such a loss is the feeling of helplessness, the inability to “make it all better.” But there are things you can do—at the time or later—that may help heal your heart and live out your vocation to motherhood, which does not end with the death of your child.
- You can name the child. In some miscarriages, you cannot know whether the child was a boy or girl, but regardless, you can name your child. Some people pray for a name; others use the name they had already settled upon; others name the child after a beloved saint.
- You can request that a priest, deacon, or a lay minister lead you and your family through the ritual blessing for the parents of a miscarried child.
- If your child is stillborn, the Order of Christian Funerals provides the possibility of a funeral liturgy; options include a Mass, a simpler service, and a graveside Rite of Committal. Contact your pastor for options. You can have a Catholic funeral for your stillborn child even though the child was not baptized.
As for the baptism question . . . many parents express concern that their child was not baptized, and what that could mean for the state of the child’s soul. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is clear that we can rely on the mercy and trustworthy love of God:
As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.
Additionally, John Paul II wrote these words to mothers grieving the loss of aborted children, and they may well apply to any mother who has lost a child in the womb: “You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost . . .” (Evangelium Vitae #99).
Healing for the mother
One of the hardest realities of the vocation to parenthood is recognizing, sooner or later, that you are a caretaker. It is an important, necessary, and beautiful role, but the child belongs to God, always. We are given the experience of directly parenting a child only for a short while.
If the key to the Theology of the Body literature is found in the dynamic of the gift, in recognizing that life is a gift and we are called to live according to the Law of the Gift, then the key to healing may be to recognize that we are called to place our emotions, our hopes, and ultimately, our children, in the direct care of God. This calls for an enormous act of trust. But the Holy Spirit is there to help you.
If you have access to support groups, friends, and family, by all means, lean on them in this time. But lean on God as well, in prayer. The prayer may be raw but it will be real, and that is what counts. The following reflection and prayer exercise is meant for women who have miscarried or suffered stillbirth. It is meant to be prayed as the woman feels ready (that is, perhaps not immediately, but soon). If the miscarriage was years ago, time stands still in the heart of God; pray it anyway.
For prayerful reflection
Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)
Or perhaps you are not weeping. You are numb. Keeping busy. Trying to pretend today is normal.
Perhaps this was an unexpected pregnancy and the miscarriage only makes you more confused. How can a person feel sorrow and relief at the same time?
Whatever your reactions are, do two things:
1. First, acknowledge your feelings by taking them to God. Yes, God knows—but pretend God doesn’t know what you are feeling, and describe every bit of it anyway. Recall the goodness of God and his promises. God is not the enemy who took your child; we live in a fallen world, and death is one of its bitter realities. Jesus Christ is the Divine Physician, the One who loves you and this child so completely that you cannot fully comprehend it. Place an act of trust in his love and mercy, and take your emotions to God, placing them in his hands.
If you cannot make that act of trust, ask God to help you trust him. Perhaps pray with this passage from Lamentations:
[M]y soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” . . . My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. (3:17–25)
2. Second, realize this: you are still a mother to this child. Even if this is your first pregnancy, and you have no living children, you are still a mother. This vocation to motherhood is a gift and is never taken away. You can pray for this child, and ask the child to pray for you. That relationship is everlasting. All of us who bear children have to acknowledge, sooner or later, than we are caretakers: that children have been given to us for a time—days, weeks, years—and we are called to care for them in that time.
But all of us are destined to go to God. All of us need to return the beautiful gift of a child to God’s complete healing, nourishment, and care. The greatest and hardest mothering act we can do, after placing our grief or confusion or numbness in God’s hands as an act of trust, is to place our children in his arms. You are not renouncing your motherhood, nor has it been taken away. You are fulfilling it. You are leading your child to God in the only way you can. Even if Jesus scooped up that child as he or she was failing and flooded him or her with a love of such intensity and beauty it cannot be described, your role in this amazing moment, the entry into God’s love and light, is made complete when you yield your child to God. The role of mothers is to lead their children to God. Even though it is a tragedy whenever mother and child do not have much time together, the relationship is real and important, and as John Paul II said, never definitively lost.
If you are ready:
Go to a quiet place: your room, a chapel, an open field.
Ask the Holy Spirit to help you pray.
Then imagine yourself holding your child, and reflect on any details that come to mind.
Imagine Jesus next to you: what he looks like, the understanding in his eyes, how he considers you. Is he holding your hand? Sitting next to you?
If you have something to say, say it. You will know what to say.
Eventually—when the time feels right—hand over your child to Jesus. He takes your hand. Listen to him say, “You are always this child’s mother.”
You may even hear him say, “Thank you.”
Get The Gift of Birth in softcover, hardcover, or Kindle formats Get the Book
 American Pregnancy Association, “Miscarriage,” accessed December 13, 2015, available at http://americanpregnancy.org/ pregnancycomplications/miscarriage.html.
 Blessing of Parents After a Miscarriage or Stillbirth, reprinted at: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/ bereavement-and-funerals/blessing-of-parents-after-a-miscarriage-or-stillbirth.cfm. Book of Blessings, © 1988, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.
 National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Order of Christian Funerals (Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989).
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1261, reprinted at http:// www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm.
Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.