Dealing with the Loss of a Child
I recently became an uncle! After much anticipation, the family’s first grandchild has arrived, and I was very privileged to get to visit my brother, sister-in-law and our little princess a few days after she was born in Europe.
It was a long wait. Before she was born, my brother and sister-in-law had been through seven miscarriages. That experience is something we need to face as a Church community. Many families suffer the loss of a child in utero, in the early stages of pregnancy and during birth. Their process of grief needs to be recognised and honoured.
This year in our parish, during the month of prayer for the dead, we are celebrating a special Mass for these families of loss. I’ve struggled with a name for this Mass. It’s so difficult to find a description for something so real and yet something so hard to deal with. I had thought of calling it “our teddy bear remembrance”, but that doesn’t really help.
The Loss of a Child
The loss of a child — in utero or later — gives us a sense of so much loss of potential, a loss of possibility, and a loss of the story of relationship that we are all part of.
Who would this child be like? Whom would she take after? How would he have related to the other siblings in the family? What would become of this child? How old would that child be now?
Our faith in the love of God and the Resurrection gives us space to contemplate a life for these children—not in limbo, but in the love of God, in his presence as the Little Innocents. I take great consolation in this that the eight siblings are siblings for eternity. I’ll get to meet only one of them—and she’s beautiful.
Dealing with this loss in utero or in stillbirth is an intense pain. There is also the pain of the loss of any child.
The cliché goes that no parent should bury their own child. Losing a child produces a very real pain, whether the child dies soon after birth or in their 50s. The loss of a child is devastating. I wonder if that pain is ever fully healed or if that loss remains in the emotional world of the parents forever?
The process of miscarriage or still-birth often focuses around the mother. She feels the loss intensely, and the process of dealing with the death of a child in utero is often very clinical.
But I wonder how we help the dads deal with this? Is there a place and a need for dads to be honoured and comforted?
So often, supporting the mother takes precedence and dad just has to carry on — often bewildered and without having the space to grieve.
In South Africa, we are also faced with more than 20 years of legal abortion. I wonder how many of those children we would have known and loved?
The very private pain of the mother (parents?) of a child who was aborted often endures as a guilt for decades or even a lifetime.
In all the parishes I have worked in, we have tried to make a space for remembrance, a quiet, private space. Once again, we also need to find a place for the acknowledgement and compassionate healing of what is often an act of desperation.
Compassionate pastors and compassionate communities need to understand how this healing-space needs to be created as a lot of people are trapped in a cycle of guilt and recrimination.
We never legitimise the action, but age, time and experience change the mothers and fathers of those who have died — and this change, conversion and the need for healing need to be a part of our parish community.
This Mass for those who have lost a child is a small space, a simple space for those who struggle to come to terms with loss.
Remembering that the Mass is our sincerest and greatest form of public prayer, just the act of remembrance of the dead with the Remembrance of Jesus becomes a space for healing.