Over the past few weeks, I have received sad news from a number of couples. These friends of mine were recently so happy to learn that they were pregnant, but then discovered that they had had a miscarriage. I must say that I grieved with all of them; children are such a gift and the death of a child, any child, remains a tragic mystery.
Miscarriages are often seen as a taboo subject or something to be avoided. When the issue arises, many of us are at a loss for words. However, as Christians and especially as Catholics, our faith plays an important part in understanding this difficult issue.
A miscarriage is the death of a baby. This is truly what it is and it would be best for all of us to acknowledge this fact. It’s not the loss of a “mass of tissue” or “the body’s way of getting rid of junk,” as some would have us believe. It is the death of a child, our child, our friend’s or neighbor’s child, and it is always a moment of sadness.
I am certainly not an expert medically in this field, yet it is commonly held today that miscarriages are more common than in the past. Perhaps pollution is a cause, or maybe our diet, or the greater stress in our lives. Most of the time it can be presumed that something physically has gone wrong with the child. Whatever the reason or the cause, a miscarriage is often a tragically sad moment for the expectant parents.
The death of a child before birth raises many questions. Naturally the child was not able to be baptized and so the question arises over the state of his or her soul. The concept of “limbo” or a place of perfect natural happiness where children go if they die without baptism remains a theological opinion, an opinion which was left out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Perhaps it would be better to entrust such children to the mercy of God, indeed which is what we do for all of us. It was Jesus himself who said, “Let the little children come to me. …” We should not despair for the souls of children who die without baptism, and this is precisely why the church allows funeral Masses for them.
Often we wonder what to say to those who have had a miscarriage. This can be difficult. What several women and men have told me is that the only thing more painful than the loss of their child was the careless and cruel statements by others. Statements such as, “Don’t be so sad, you’re young, you’ll have another,” or “It wasn’t meant to be,” or even “Thank goodness it wasn’t born retarded. This is much better.”
I hope that you can see that these statements, although perhaps well meaning, are shallow and cruel. What we might say to couples is what we would say to anybody who has lost a loved one: “I’m sorry, I will pray for you. Is there anything I can do?” It is important to remember that those couples who are suffering after a miscarriage often blame themselves and that our words must be chosen with great care.
Couples who have suffered from a miscarriage often find much healing in talking about their experience with others. Most of the time, they will discover that many other people have dealt with the very same thing. Sometimes parents choose to name their child who they have lost because of a miscarriage. After prayerfully discerning whether it was a boy or a girl, they name the child and often ask the child to pray for them and their family. This always brings great healing. If there are discernable remains of a child who has died before birth, a funeral Mass or service is certainly possible.
In the end, miscarriages remain a mystery. We all realize that there are so many people in the world who have children who don’t want them, yet there are so many people today who greatly desire to have children and yet are unable to have them. This is a great suffering. As I often tell the couples grieving the loss of their child through miscarriage, this will be the first question they can ask God when they see him face to face some day. All life is precious. Let us reach out and care for those who grieve for the loss of their children.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”