Through prayer and mutual support, families are finding hope after miscarriage and infant loss

My baby was already yours, God. Why couldn’t he be mine for just a little while longer?

I don’t have any ugly, hand-painted ties, or a pencil holder made of a tin can. There are no pictures on my desk of grinning, snaggle-toothed children, and I have nothing to add when the guys at work tell funny stories about their kids. But I am a father. They don’t know it, but I am. I hate that my baby died before I got to know her. I loved her and still do. No one at work knows about my little angel. I think of her smiling at me from heaven, and I talk to her sometimes. After all, I am still her dad.

Bereavement after the loss of a baby is often quiet and lonely, because we have no vehicle for its expression. There is no wake or funeral, no grave site, no memorial to our baby’s life or death. There are often no photographs, or favourite toys, no little clothes. For many of us, even the sex of our baby is unknown.
— from An Empty Cradle, A Full Heart, by Christine O’Keeffe Lafser

“Clearly our type of loss is like none other,” said Georgina Hunter in an address at a memorial service for babies in Ottawa. “Friends and family who haven’t lost a baby can’t understand how we can miss someone so much for so long whom we knew for so little a time.”

In 1994, Georgina and James Hunter’s seven-week-old daughter Madeleine died from dehydration after being examined and sent home by two pediatric hospitals and two doctors’ offices. The Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons refuses to acknowledge errors might have been made, despite the evidence before a coroner’s inquest.

By spearheading the service, the Hunters reached out to others who were also grieving their own losses. On Oct. 5, 1997, nearly 200 bereaved parents and grandparents gathered in St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in Ottawa for a moving ecumenical memorial service honouring babies who had died through miscarriage, who had been stillborn, or who had died in infancy.

Some came with flowers, others with teddy bears. Many wept openly. Parents were encouraged to write their baby’s name on a prayer paper, and hold the scroll with them during the service. For some this was the first time they had named their child. Others simply wrote Baby. Each family came forward to light a candle in memory of their lost baby, naming the child aloud if they wished.

“Today is a day to be grateful for the gift of our babies’ brief lives. They came from us, grew in us, are part of our soul. Defying understanding, we’ve returned them to God. Be certain that our babies are safe and happy.”

Georgina Hunter also spoke at St. John’s at Madeleine’s funeral. “Then I was in shock and crushed by grief. Today I’m here to celebrate my baby’s life … Families who keep a baby’s death a secret only end up hurting themselves. Children only die when they are forgotten.”

Even people who had lost a baby many years ago came to the service. Gordon Johnston mourned the loss of his day-old infant sister.

One mother who had lost two babies before birth thanked Hunter for the service. “I never felt their warmth until now when I held a candle. I have never been able to lay them to rest. Today helped so much.”

In 1992, Bernadette and Norfi Zambri’s daughter Stephanie was delivered stillborn. Devout Catholics, they were deeply distressed when Stephanie received only a perfunctory, five-minute burial service.

“From the time I found out that Stephanie had died, I was shocked, angry, disappointed, and hurt that the Catholic Church, which had such a pro-life message, did not have a prayer service for babies who died through miscarriage and stillbirth. There was such a spiritual void in my life after Stephanie’s death, partly because I felt the Church had not responded to our grieving needs.”

Fearing a similar loss in a subsequent pregnancy, the Zambris wrote a prayer service for babies who have died through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death. It can be found in Zambri’s book Morning Light (see resources) which is endorsed by Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto. Thankfully, the Zambris’s next child was born alive and well, but their service has consoled other grieving parents.

Infant loss is all the greater because it is often downplayed. One female doctor told a woman who had miscarried at 12 weeks, “It’s not potentially a person yet.” The upset mother replied, “That’s your view, not mine!”

Another female doctor told a patient who had lost a preborn at three months, “It was just a chemical pregnancy. Your body thinks you’re pregnant but you’re really not. It was more a chemical reaction.” The mother recalled, “I felt like my baby wasn’t real and my pregnancy hadn’t really happened.”

“By trying to minimize the loss, society is telling bereaved parents that they don’t have a right to grieve,” argues Zambri.

Fathers feel helpless. “I couldn’t defend my baby from whatever it was that killed him. I can’t protect my wife from her pain and from the knowledge that our baby is dead today and will be dead tomorrow and every day after that.”

Not all health care staff lack sensitivity. Lucile Hildesheim, another participant in the Ottawa memorial service, told the Ottawa Sun that she is still thankful for the sensitive treatment she received at Ottawa Civic Hospital. When she gave birth at 31 weeks, she, her husband, and the her doctor knew her daughter would be stillborn. But the doctor said, “You have a beautiful baby girl.” She was given a lock of her daughter Angel’s hair and a photo the hospital took.

Most hospitals allow the parents time to be with their stillborn baby to say goodbye. Many parents take this opportunity to take photographs, locks of hair, footprints and handprints. Zambri says, “This is precious time. Do not let anyone rush you. Spend as much time with your baby as you need.”

Some parents choose not to see their infant. If so, Zambri advises that someone take a roll of film for them. They can decide later whether to look at the photos.

Grieving parents need something tangible as a memento. They often keep a blanket, the bassinet card with the hospital record of length and weight, the mother’s hospital wrist band, and, if there is one, the baby’s ankle bracelet.

The Anglican Church has a service for the “Burial of a Stillborn Child” in Occasional Services. Its preamble states:

“Pastoral care givers, particularly chaplains, should be prepared to offer prayers of comfort and consolation as soon as possible after the miscarriage or stillbirth. Hospital procedures should include notifying chaplains of miscarriage and stillbirth so that prayers may be offered in the clinical setting. Later, prayers and a service can be held at the church or home.

“It is important that our words and actions acknowledge this loss. It is appropriate that the memory of this experience is not dismissed or taken lightly. Comments made to parents should not burden them with guilt or false reassurances. If there are other children they should also be allowed to enter into the mystery of this loss.

“The liturgy for a stillborn child should reflect sensitivity to the fact that the parents have lost their own expectations as well as the child’s future. It may be helpful if the stillborn child is named.” The guidelines also recommend the laying on of hands and anointing with oil for the family.

“Often, miscarriages and stillbirths are overlooked and the only response is a nonresponse,” admits Fr. Keith Wallace, the Zambri’s current pastor at St. Mary Star of the Sea, Mississauga. “The death of a baby … through miscarriage, stillbirth, or early infant death must be acknowledged. This is the first step in allowing the family to grieve.”

In Morning Light, Wallace advises clergy, “Be present at the home or hospital as one would be if experiencing the death of any person. This may include being present at the hospital before or after the delivery, if requested by the family.

“In a society that discounts life, especially in the womb, it is important to acknowledge that the child was real and was a person …. Your presence, acknowledgement, prayers, and referrals to support groups may serve to deepen the person’s faith and allow the person then to minister to others, thereby experiencing their grief as redemptive.”

Certainly, the Zambris’s church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, and the Hunters’ church, St. John the Evangelist, have encouraged the ministries of these parents by lending their churches’ facilities and resources.

Today, Bernadette Zambri says, “I have an image of God receiving my baby, not taking her.” The cover of her book, Morning Light, has an illustration of Christ cradling a tiny baby in His arms.

“It helps some parents to think of God holding their baby tenderly for them,” writes Lafser in An Empty Cradle, A Full Heart. “I think He wants to hold us too, as we grieve. We need only to turn to His embrace.”