Different people celebrate Feb. 14 in different ways. Our family observes St. Valentine’s Day and also the birthday our youngest son, Eliseus, who just turned 6. But this year, Feb.14 also marks the 20th anniversary of the death of one of our children and our first miscarriage. Through the next number of years, we experienced four miscarriages, interspersed with six “live births,” as they are called. When people ask us how many kids we have, we say that we have 10 children — six on earth and four in heaven.
All four miscarriages have been difficult, but the first one was particularly traumatic. This was my third pregnancy and I was about eight weeks along. We had already chosen the name Lukian for our little boy. Somehow, we felt it was a boy, though we didn’t have any testing done. I started spotting and cramping and our family doctor told me to go to the hospital. My husband and I had no experience dealing with miscarriage and we were in a state of shock as we drove.
The emergency room doctor was particularly callous during the internal exam, telling me to be quiet as he started picking out tissue and flicking it onto a tray. I freaked out and started yelling and crying, saying that, “It’s a baby and it needs to be baptized.” This was a Catholic hospital and they called down the chaplain right away. The doctor desisted, said I would need a D&C (dilation and curettage) to clean out my uterus and left. (I later filed a complaint with the hospital about his behaviour.)
The chaplain turned out to be a friend of ours, a Ukrainian Catholic priest. He calmed us down, prayed with us and promised to be with me before and after the D&C. My husband went home to be with our other children. The priest baptized the baby (or “tissue,” as it is often referred to) right after the operation which was done under general anesthetic.
Being ardent pro-lifers, we knew our baby deserved a proper burial, just like any other human being. But the logistics got a bit tricky and this is where my husband was a true champion, fighting for the dignity of our baby. I was too distraught to do anything but cry.
The cemetery will not bury non-human tissue and requires a death certificate from a doctor. My husband asked the doctor who performed the D&C to release the body of our baby and to write a death certificate so that we could bury him. But the doctor said that this was impossible, because it had not been “born.” When my husband explained what we were planning to do, the doctor said he had never heard of anything like it before, but agreed to write a note on hospital stationery that what we wanted to bury was indeed human tissue. With the note, my husband was able to purchase a small children’s plot at the cemetery.
When he went to buy a tiny coffin from a local funeral home, the owner donated the coffin after hearing our story. Then my husband had to convince the pastor of our church to allow us to have a funeral service. He wasn’t against it, but he had never heard of anything like this before and didn’t know how to conduct such a service. Our priest friend, the chaplain from the hospital, offered to do the service, a modified funeral for a child. Through all the discussion with the cemetery, the hospital, the funeral home and our parish priest, my husband kept emphasizing the humanity of this tiny human being with each person he spoke to. He was my hero.
We received the last remains of our baby in a little opaque plastic container. We wrapped it lovingly in a baby blanket and placed it in the coffin. We invited our family and closest friends to the funeral in the church, to the burial at the cemetery and to a small reception at my mother’s home afterwards.
It took me several months before I was able to return to normal life – I went through the motions of doing the absolute minimum to care for our two toddlers and to keep our home functional, but I felt dead inside. I cried a lot and didn’t want to see anyone. I couldn’t understand how life could just go on as usual and people could ignore the fact that we had lost a baby and pretend that everything was fine. They would tell us that we were still young and that we had two beautiful children and that it was all probably for the best. My husband, again my knight in shining armour, protected me from well-meaning, but inconsiderate, people. This tragedy, rather than tearing us apart, brought us closer together as a couple.
The other three babies we lost (between nine and 11 weeks from conception) were also named: Anastasia, Klymentia and Yulia. They were also buried with the same concern and compassion. By this time my husband had been ordained a Ukrainian Catholic priest and was now able to perform the rites (baptism and funeral) himself. The style of each miscarriage was different and the last two I miscarried at home, then went to the hospital for the clean up. They occurred in three different cities. All four experiences were extremely difficult, but were wonderful opportunities to witness to the humanity of the unborn during and after the miscarriage with the various people involved along the way, including family members.
Our living children know their dead siblings very well, because they are mentioned every day during family prayers and they often say they will meet in heaven.
It is not common knowledge, but between 10-20 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so chances are that either you or someone you know has had or will have a miscarriage. Doctors rarely know what causes them, it is almost never the woman’s fault (except in cases of gross drug or alcohol abuse, intentional injury to the abdomen, etc.) and many do not even know they miscarried (or were even pregnant). So when speaking to someone who has suffered a miscarriage, do not grill them or ask if they fell down or were picking up heavy things (which seldom cause miscarriages). They are going through enough grief without having to justify their actions to anyone.
Do not minimize the loss by saying, “You can have another one.” Treat the miscarriage as you would the loss of any other child. Can you imagine someone telling a grieving mother whose child was killed in a car accident “Oh, well, you can have another one”? Do not tell them to “snap out of it, it wasn’t a real baby” or “I had one and it was no big deal.” Every person grieves at their own pace. Do send flowers or a sympathy card or e-mail, but don’t call. The woman might not be up to talking. When offering to help, give a concrete example, such as, “Can I bring supper on Thursday?” and let them respond at their own pace. Later, you can ask how the woman (or the man) is doing. Treat a miscarriage as any other death and let the people involved let you know what they are strong enough to do or talk about.
Tanya Choly lives with her husband, Fr. Bohdan, and their six children in St. Catharines, Ont.
Part-two of this article will appear in the April issue.