A memorial service can help you express your feelings, make peace with the departed and hand them over to God.

The younger the victim of "unnatural death", the more unsettled is its soul, and the more disquietude does it set up. [The baby is not]well disposed after … death, for it tends to remain in psychic attachment to its mother, and sometimes to other members of its family also. [(S)he} may intrude quite disastrously in the family proceedings until persuaded to move on to God's care (1997: p.1 II).

When your child is born dead, there is nothing. The world remembers nothing, and the gap in the womb is replaced by an emptiness in your arms ... you are not recording a birth or a death, but both at once. It is the ultimate contradiction- I felt I had created death.

Saying Goodbye When We Never Said Hello:
Liturgy and Losing our Little Ones

 

by the Revd Andrew Fisher

Introduction

As a Church of England chaplain in an acute hospitals' NHS Trust I have taken over sixty funerals for babies who have been lost through miscarriage, termination or stillbirth. The death of a baby always stays in my mind. It seems so terribly wrong and unfair. Constructing meaningful liturgy for grieving parents is never easy. I minister to parents in various stages of grief. Each parent's grief is different, but each has something in common: the loss of a pregnancy scarcely begun, the loss of a much dreamed of, perfectly formed child.

Scholars deliberate when life might begin. Aristotle thought human beings began when their form was complete or when babies started to move. Stoics argued that life began immediately after birth, when babies were physically separate from their mother and could breathe. The early Church Fathers claimed that life was present from the beginning: "We allow that life begins with conception, because we contend that the soul also begins with conception; life taking its commencement at the same moment and place that the soul does" (Tertullian). Ask any mother anxious to have a child and she is in no doubt. Before my wife felt our children move within her womb, she just "knew". As the psalmist says, "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place... your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days of my life were written in your Book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139: I5, 17).

The experience of losing a baby is intense, the grief overwhelming and the hospital stay very short. Bereaved parents are often hurried into "moving on" after losing a baby. You are not expected to talk about your loss or show any signs of grief. "You can have plenty more" you are told or "it is better this way". But as parents you still think about their children, you continue to dream about them, and sometimes parents tell me they still sense their children's presence. The pain of pregnancy loss continues long after the funeral is over. Babies' graves and memorial gardens are seldom without flowers.

The experience of losing a baby means even the most sensitive funeral can become little more than a vague, painful memory. Althea Hayton[i] recognises that memorial services, sometime after the funeral, can help give expression to your desire to remember their child. Studies have highlighted the spiritual turmoil that can happen if parents are not allowed to grieve and their babies remain unremembered. A sensitive service of remembrance can help both grieving families and their departed babies. In this article I reflect on the tragedy of baby loss and how liturgy can help.

The tragedy of baby loss

A wanted baby is important from the moment of her conception. Long before the baby's arrival, Mum, Dad and others will have been familiar with the baby "inside Mummy's tummy". You might have felt her kicking or heard her heart beating. You might have seen her on an ultrasound scan. You might have decorated her nursery and shopped for toys and clothes. Your hopes and aspirations will have grown with each passing moment. So everyone is shocked and unprepared when the baby's death occurs. Sadly, many families have to say "goodbye" to their babies before they can say "hello". Baby loss is all too common. It has been documented that approximately ten to twenty percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage.

Your loss is two-fold. There is the tangible, physical loss and also an intangible, symbolic loss: the dashed hopes and dreams for your baby, your lost identity as a parent. These symbolic losses are not always recognised by others, but they are very real, generating feelings that require healing. As one mother said:

When your child is born dead, there is nothing. The world remembers

nothing, and the gap in the womb is replaced by an emptiness

in your arms ... you are not recording a birth or a death, but both at once.

It is the ultimate contradiction- I felt I had created death.

 

This can be true whether you carried your baby to full term, or miscarried early in pregnancy. You can be left feeling angry or guilty because so much has been left unsaid and undone. Years ago, it was thought parents would grieve less for a baby than for someone with whom they had a longer relationship. But affectional ties develop very early in pregnancy. Parents who lose a baby experience grief like those following the death of any loved adult. Recovering from the loss of a baby can take time and five or more years of grief are not uncommon.

Healing the Unborn

Christian tradition and prenatal research suggest that parents' babies may die in the womb in need of healing. It has been demonstrated that unborn babies can see, hear, taste, dream, cry and feel pain.

Because the life of a baby within the womb is so intimately connected with the life of her mother, the baby's memories are connected with her mother's experiences and reactions. There may also be a psychical level of communication whereby mother and baby can pick up each other's thoughts. There have been examples of women who, shortly before their miscarriages, were warned in dreams by their babies that they were about to miscarry. I too have met many mothers who have come into hospital, "knowing" something is wrong with their baby, only to have their worst fears confirmed.

Babies, it seems, can pick up and remember love in the womb and they can pick up and remember hurts. Mindful of such phenomena, Martin Israel, a former lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons and Church of England priest, observes:

The Role of the Church

Secular literature describes many caring efforts to help parents through their grief. Midwives can help form an identity for the baby by using the correct gender and name. Mementos can be collected and, if appropriate, parents can be encouraged to see and touch their child. The most powerful healing element is, sadly, missing: the knowledge that parents can have an on-going relationship with their departed child and that they can enter into that relationship with God any time they pray.

The Catholic Order of Christian Funerals expresses the hope that all dead babies and their parents will be reunited one day in the peace and joy of the Kingdom of God. The attentive minister can give this assurance of God's mercy and offer a suitable ritual or liturgy; all forming an important part of the family's healing process. Hospital chaplains have worked hard exploring the pastoral implications of liturgy for bereaved parents. "Liturgy and ritual brings people together in grief and offers a means of acting out their shared feelings in response to the story of the person or persons who have died". Liturgy works as a means of helping people cope amidst difficult circumstances, offering a pattern, a purpose, a predictable way of behaving in the midst of grief and healing.

A piece of liturgy like a memorial service can offer spiritual comfort; a sure and certain hope, the assurance that love is stronger than death. St Paul promises us that love does not end (e.g. I Corinthians 13: 13) and Christianity has always upheld the desire to remain connected to our departed loved ones. The Apostles' Creed has validated faith in the Communion of Saints, where the living and the departed communicate life to one other. Through prayer we remain connected to those whom we love but, for a little while, see no longer. Love, peace and reconciliation flows back and forth (2 Corinthians 5: 17-21, I Peter 4: 6).

 

A memorial service can help you express your feelings,

make peace with the departed and hand them over to God.

 

 

St John of the Cross said, "The soul lives where it loves," and indeed we all flourish in an atmosphere of love. This applies to those who have departed this earth, just as much as it does to us, and the more we enter into this love, the more we will know our love lasts forever in the Communion of Saints.

You probably won’t be ready to say "goodbye" to your little one because you had been waiting to say "hello". A service such as this offers a sense of renewed relationship with your baby, others and God, and an atmosphere of acceptance and love is created. You may begin to find healing in releasing feelings of grief and pain and discover instead a new hope and a new way of being. Good liturgy provides space and time for people to reflect, pray and grow in understanding. Through prayer and ritual, your family may be helped to acknowledge the true nature of the life and death of your baby, the need to mourn that loss, and the knowledge that your child has a real existence beyond life.

 

[i] Althea Hayton Not out of Mind, Arthur James 1998

Leaflet 2a.png

Please contact us if you would like to know more

The younger the victim of "unnatural death", the more unsettled is its soul, and

the more disquietude does it set up. [The baby is not]well disposed after … death,

for it tends to remain in psychic attachment to its mother, and sometimes to other

members of its family also. [(S)he} may intrude quite disastrously in the family

proceedings until persuaded to move on to God's care (1997: p.1 II).