Eleven years ago, my husband and I experienced the deaths of our identical twin daughters. The first one died in utero at 20 weeks gestation and was stillborn when her sister made her way into the world at just 28 weeks. That baby lived for 47 days in the NICU, where she contracted an infection from the ventilator and died.
Even as lifelong Christians, we found ourselves crushed under the heavy weight of our grief after burying first one daughter, and then the other just a few weeks later with three young boys at home to care for.
The church helped us by hosting a luncheon for us after the funeral of our second daughter. Our priest told us at the funeral that our family now had two guardian angels to watch over us.
And then there was nothing else.
The pain was unlike the loss of a grandparent or other relative. It was staggering in its intensity and durarion. It challenged my faith like nothing I’ve ever experienced. But we were left to navigate the crushing grief on our own and to do our own research, seeking answers from strangers in online groups about how to go on functioning.
The Protestant church down the road offered a Grief Share group that I attended, hoping for some support and guidance, but our own Catholic parish had no bereavement support and never followed up with proper teaching about the state of our children’s souls. (Thankfully we already knew the latter.)
I know our priest meant well and was trying to be comforting to us in our pain, but the reality is that our babies did not become angels. This kind of statement from a priest was shocking to me, but it conveyed an overall lack of understanding and preparation for how to comfort grieving parents who experience this kind of loss.
In a Facebook support group, I have had women tell me that their priests told them they could not help them because their babies were in “limbo” and would never be in heaven because they were never baptized.
When our beautiful Catholic faith has so much truth and hope to offer, these kinds of statements and the lack of support for these parents represent a major area of support that is missing in many parishes. And the reality is that many priests simply may not know how best to comfort these parents.
For those priests or parish leaders who want to know how better to comfort grieving parents in this way, I humbly offer the following four suggestions to start:
1. Priests should familiarize themselves with the differences between saints and angels and that God has given his Son for the redemption of the human race – because of His unique relationship with us, made in His own image – and not for the fallen angels. This is wonderful news, as Christ became flesh so that we may be joint heirs with Him, adopted into the family of God and partakers of the divine nature! Grieving parents will regularly hear the term “angels” used to refer to their babies who have died. They should be told the truth.
2. It is helpful for them to understand and share with parents that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.” (CCC 1261)
3. Priests should offer these parents the Blessing of Parents after a Miscarriage or Stillbirth. I didn't even know such a thing existed until last year. After two miscarriages and a stillbirth, I'm still hoping to receive this blessing one day.
4. Our Catholic faith teaches married couples to be open to life, but many of us have learned the hard way that this openness to life also means openness to loss. This can make each month a challenge as a couple prayerfully considers the intention of conception. It feels like something we desperately want yet are terrified of experiencing again. The loss of a child is a forward kind of grieving as we recognize all of the experiences our child would be having as part of our family had they lived. This is so hard to explain to others. Offering a grief support group for bereaved parents would allow them to find others who are enduring the same struggles.
Sharing our sorrow with friends and contemplation of the truth are two of St. Thomas Aquinas’ five remedies for sorrow. If we truly believe that life begins at conception, then I propose that we need to do a better job supporting grieving parents who have lost one of their children – no matter how small – and offering them truth, accompaniment, and hope in the midst of their tremendous sorrow.