No little baby needs a ‘trigger warning’, not even a baby lost to miscarriage. But I do want to give a note here that I cover some very gritty realities of miscarriage in the following article, especially discussing burial options in Point 4 and in the appendix. If you are grieving, or would find this hard to read about, please feel free to give this article, or sections of it, a miss.
If you are a priest, please consider reading on, because you may one day find yourself approached by a grieving couple, desperate to know how to manage the practicalities of this kind of loss. I have endeavored to keep my language sensitive, but for some points, I have needed to be direct.
8 Things A Priest Can Do To Support A Couple Experiencing Miscarriage
1) A good starting point is to approach the situation as you would with any bereavement, but like all bereavements, understand the uniqueness of miscarriage.
Maybe miscarriage is something you have experience of through your sister, mother, relative, friend. Or maybe it’s an entirely new situation that you have no experience of either as a priest, or in your life before ordination.
No matter your experience, remember that the couple is experiencing a bereavement; the death of their own child. Miscarriage is often called the “silent loss” because it happens, initially, out of sight, and often without the knowledge of many people around the couple. There is often a taboo around miscarriage, and couples suffer silently. There are not the same rituals of sacraments, funerals or wakes that can help ease that suffering.
Remember that the couple may be experiencing shock: how could the promise of new life turn to death so quickly?, guilt: the mother’s body has let her down and she may feel responsible for her baby’s death, a need to minimize their pain: because it feels like the world, and sometimes the Church, doesn’t take miscarriage seriously, jealousy: for all the other parents who seemingly get an easy ride through pregnancy, anger: why did this happen to me, how could God be ok with us losing our child? physical pain and suffering: Miscarriage is rarely painless, the body goes through similar processes to childbirth. There is no pain in my past experience like the physical pain of giving birth to my baby who had already died from miscarriage. It took a long time to recover from.
So, as a priest, this is your opportunity to enter into their grief and loss, as you would with any other bereavement! It’s your chance to affirm and acknowledge the loss of their child, and the future dreams that are destroyed in this loss. This is your opportunity to offer the peace and healing of Christ, in the same way that your priestly vocation is offered to all other moments of suffering in your parish life. Thank God, and thank you, for all you can do in this situation!
2) Offer the Sacrament of the Sick
Miscarriage is both a physical and emotional suffering. Not much is talked about the physical side of miscarriage. I have experienced two very different physical experiences of miscarriage, one needed a hospital stay, emergency surgery and a blood transfusion, and weeks of recovery, the other I could manage at home and was over in one week. But both were very painful, and both took their toll physically. It was amazing to be offered, and to receive, the Sacrament of the Sick. Not only did the Sacrament help me spiritually, it also helped me emotionally. It affirmed that what we had been through as a couple was a real experience of physical suffering, and that God walked with us through that, and desired our healing.
3) Offer a Memorial Service
When our babies died due to miscarriage, I wanted to shout from the rooftops that their lives had existed on earth, even for a little while, and that they existed still, in heaven. This wasn’t attention seeking, it was the simple fact that we had created a little life that we were proud of, like all parents, but simply not able to meet on earth. It was frustrating that none of the traditional means of mourning, (like a funeral) were available to us.
But! Our parish priest offered us a memorial service, and this helped so much. We had one for each of our babies after each miscarriage. It was very simple, but very beautiful. I’m sure that there are lots of options and ways this could be organized. We had the option to invite family and friends, but the pandemic complicated things, and we went alone. We stood at the same spot we had made our wedding vows, and our priest took us through a short service of prayers, readings, and some quotes and reflections from the saints on miscarriage. We had chosen some of the readings and Gospel in advance. We also had the opportunity to say our own words aloud, which I found really healing. It was also a very powerful thing to bring our babies before the Lord in the Tabernacle, and to speak their names before Him. Afterwards, we lit a candle for them. Throughout the service, our priest also spoke to us very normally and straightforwardly, it was the perfect mix of formality and warmth. Each service was a cathartic way to mark our baby’s lives, and to express our love for them, and our trust that they were safely in God’s care.
4) Support a couple through whatever happens to the baby’s remains, including burial or other eventualities.
This may be something very difficult to talk, or even think about, with the couple, but you may wish to help them be aware that they can bury their baby’s remains if possible. Or, you may find they need support after the miscarriage, to process the emotions of what happened to their baby.
I personally found that the option of burial for the remains of my miscarried baby was not discussed, medically, at any point during my two miscarriages. I had almost three weeks to prepare for our first miscarriage (between a scan and waiting for it to physically start), and no warning at all for the second one. So there’s a lot to take into account when considering the option of burial. But many parents don’t know it is actually an option, and may wish to consider it.
Importantly, parents may wish to be reassured that there is nothing wrong (morally, or in any way) if they can’t, or don’t feel able, to bury their miscarried baby.
As a priest, this is an opportunity to support the couple when they may be up against a lot of difficulty around this topic. They may have many conversations with medical staff that stay depersonal and refer to “products of conception” rather than a baby. Or they might have family who think these kinds of conversations are morbid to have.
If a couple reaches out to you for help in burying their child’s remains after miscarriage, will you know how to help them? Can you affirm in them the personhood of this little baby and whatever option they might have questions about? Do you know your local/state/country’s regulations on burials of this kind? Do you have somewhere within your parish, a memorial garden etc, where the couple can bury their child? Are you able to help with any of the practicalities of this, or do you know where you can direct them to such help? Can you accompany them through this? They may well be in shock and not able to think straight. You may be the first person they turn to.
Can you support them too, if they feel worry, or shame, that they didn’t bury their baby?
Please see the appendix for more details on this topic.
5) Visit, Pray, Chat, Bring a Gift
Some of the best support that our parish priest gave us was simply coming over for a chat, and a cup of tea with us (we’re British!). In a time when everything felt scary and full of pain, when people didn’t always know the right thing to say or do, having him come over and be normal with us was a breath of fresh air. He also, of course, prayed with us, and very kindly brought us a card, and a beautiful plant. Little gifts (they don’t have to be expensive or fancy!) can make a big difference in the case of miscarriage. They allow something tangible during an intangible loss, when you might not have a grave, or ultrasounds, or anything at all, to memorialize your baby.
6) If the baby is named, don’t be afraid to use the baby’s name.
I alluded to this earlier, but the most healing and helpful thing we were able to do when we lost our babies was to name them. It helped us immediately to “know” them, in a loss that had robbed us of our chance to meet our children. If the couple is comfortable naming their child, don’t be afraid to use their name! And don’t be afraid to compliment the lovely name choice!
The couple might know, or might have a strong feeling as to the sex of their baby. Or they might choose a name appropriate for either sex. Nothing brings me more joy than hearing my babies in heaven referred to by their names. Our parish priest reminded us of the beautiful passage in the Gospel where Mary of Magdalene, after Christ’s death, only recognizes the resurrected Jesus when He calls her by her name. A name gave us the chance to recognize our baby.
7) Affirm the personhood of the child, and the Church’s teaching that life begins from conception
Names also affirm the personhood of the child. But no matter whether or not the couple has named their baby, affirm the reality of their child. Don’t forget, there may be many people around the couple, in their families, friendships, in the workplace, media, or online, who will not affirm the loss of their child. The couple may experience ignorant or hurtful comments about the baby “not being a real baby yet”, or patronizing remarks that “it’s just not meant to be” or “it’s all in God’s plan”.
Don’t add to these kinds of comments. If you, as a priest, truly believe the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception, then affirm that life, and acknowledge that a death has happened, and in turn acknowledge and offer the hope of Resurrection and the reality of heaven. Depending on the couple’s circumstances, you might be one of the only people, or one of few, who are doing this. It will make all the difference to the couple’s ability to grieve and heal.
8) In the case of recurring miscarriage, keep offering support
When I had my second miscarriage not so long after my first, I was terrified that family and friends’ support would be all spent out on our first, and we would be expected to cope with our second on our own. I also worried that people would think we were going to cope better a second time because we’d be more “experienced” at miscarriage. (If anything, it was even harder, emotionally, the second time around). And finally, I also felt guilty asking for support; guilty that I was putting people through our suffering again.
Thankfully, this was not the case for most of our friends and family, and not the case with our parish priest. He offered exactly the same support when we lost our second baby, as when we lost our first. It really helped affirm the personhood of each child. We hadn’t simply had “another failed pregnancy”, we now had two babies in heaven. He saw that, and honored it, and referred to our little family with God, who were praying for us. We had a second memorial service, and a simple but lovely meal together afterwards. It made all the difference.
For some families, miscarriage is an experience they will go through more than once, and perhaps, many times. Be guided by the kind of support that the parents want; each experience will be different and some parents may not choose to share their experience of “recurrent” miscarriage. But if they do reach out for help, offer it wholeheartedly every single time. Every baby matters, and every loss is heartbreaking. It doesn’t get easier the more it happens.
There’s plenty more that can be said and explained about miscarriage, which is a unique experience for every family. This is just our experience, but talking to other parents who have lost babies; they express similar thoughts and emotions. If you’re a priest reading this, please be encouraged that there is much that you can do to support families going through miscarriage and baby loss, and I hope the above points will be helpful to you.
Appendix: Talking about what happens to the baby’s remains after miscarriage.
A mom, or the parents, might feel shame or guilt, that they lost their baby’s remains down the toilet, that they had to flush, or that it wasn’t possible to have conversations at the hospital about the options they might like to have. A lot of emotional and physical shock takes place during a miscarriage, and we don’t have the benefit of hindsight or time to consider what we might best like to do.
Or, the parents might feel completely at peace about what happened in the moment; every situation is unique. What happens to a baby’s remains after miscarriage doesn’t make the parent any less of a loving mom or dad. As a priest, you may not have any conversations around this topic when supporting parents through miscarriage. But, you might, and they may have questions for you.
Please support a couple in what they choose to do in this situation, or in whatever happens in the actual event. For some couples, burial will be extremely important. For others, less so. In many, many cases, there will be no options, only whatever happens in the moment. This is ok!
Miscarriages are very unpredictable, even when there is forewarning of them. They can start so quickly and so unexpectedly that in the shock and trauma of the moment, particularly at home on the toilet, there is no opportunity to retrieve the baby’s remains.
Please reassure the couple, if needed, that whatever happens, however events play out in the bathroom, hospital, or anywhere else, there is no right or wrong option.
Practical Advice & A Little of Our Own Story:
All miscarriages are different. A baby lost to miscarriage may look very different depending on how old they are, the size they are, and whether the miscarriage has been “missed” (happening weeks before the body realizes).
I have experienced two very different types of miscarriages, but even with my miscarriage at five weeks when there was no distinguishable baby, what I passed was still very traumatic to lose, and very precious for me to see. If the parents want to, I feel strongly that it should be an offerable option by the Church for burial no matter what stage of the pregnancy the baby is lost at. Even if there is “nothing” to see except blood, it is still precious, and has still contained the physical life of an immortal soul.
As I mentioned earlier, I had almost three weeks to prepare for our first miscarriage; we had a scan that told us our baby had died, but it took that long for the miscarriage to start. This gave us, as parents, plenty of time to have some very hard conversations about what we wanted to do, with and for, our baby’s remains.
But, these conversations needed knowledge and support in order for us to have them. Miscarriage is so little talked about that I approached my first having no idea of what could happen to the remains of my baby, nor what I could expect to see. Even the hospital didn’t prepare me for that, and I was in too much shock at the time of the scan to remember to ask. Judging by the Googling that I did, many women had this same predicament. Thankfully, through the help of my in-laws and friends and some helpful websites, I had a better idea of what I could expect, which helped me feel prepared.
I knew that, were I to miscarry, or have surgery for miscarriage, in hospital, the hospital would remove the remains, (which at our hospital meant cremation). I knew that having the miscarriage at home would mean potentially flushing the remains away. I was really ok with this; I had a strong, strong sense of our baby being safely in heaven already, and a peace with her earthly remains “going” in this way.
I also knew that we had the option of keeping her remains, whatever they may look like or be, to bury them somewhere. If so, we discussed how we would manage this. There are articles to help on Google, but the main thing I learned is that the baby’s remains will need to be kept safe and cold, in a suitable container (ie, something like a tupperware) in a fridge, until burial, perhaps with a cloth or towel around the box, if you would find that helpful. If you have a private garden/yard/outdoor area that you own, you can arrange your own burial. If you know in advance that you are going for surgery in hospital, do not be afraid to ask the hospital about burial options. I also knew that I could phone our parish priest for practical advice around burial, and my sister in law had also let me know of a Catholic parish that had a burial area for miscarried babies.
In the end, I miscarried both at home, and during my first miscarriage, also in hospital. During both miscarriages I did not keep our babys’ remains for burial, despite knowing this was an option. Why? Because in the moment it was too traumatic; my first miscarriage happened too fast and I lost large quantities of blood. I ended up passing out and going to the hospital for surgery. The conversation afterwards, around our baby’s cremation, was the most respectful, and beautiful, conversation I have ever had with a member of medical staff. I know that is not the case at all for everyone, and I wish it was. During my second miscarriage I found the whole process exhausting and fatiguing, and it reopened the trauma of the first. I was completely at peace with the way events unfolded, and entrusted what had remained of my tiny baby’s body (which we could not see or identify) to God’s care. I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself and my husband to do more than we could manage in the situation.
I have not included links to the websites that helped me with this particular topic, partly because I cannot remember what they were, but also because websites change, and advice, legal practices, burial regulations, etc vary from country to country. What I would say is to be courageous in your research online, or in asking friends or relatives who have been through miscarriage themselves. Google exactly what you want to know, and add the words “Catholic” or “Chrisitan” to your search in order to get appropriate advice for your situation. There are plenty of supportive and caring articles and blogs that will be able to help you find the information you need.