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Grief and Hope: The Life and Loss of Joseph Mary

With October being a month dedicated to Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness we're sharing a story of loss today. Nearly every miscarriage also involves a birth and those babies and their stories deserve to be treated with the dignity and honor due any birth. If a story of loss isn't helpful for you to read right now, we'd recommend skipping this week's story.

I would love for you to meet Joseph Mary. I would love for you to know the face, the voice, the personality, and the hair color of this child of ours. I would love for you to know the jokes, the soft skin, the smile, and even the tears and whines of this little one. I would love more than anything to be able to introduce you to our child.

But I can't. At least not yet.

Joseph Mary died within me. I was ten weeks along when the blood began. We were at a museum at a special exhibit marking the life of Saint John Paul II. There was no warning and I didn't at all expect blood as I entered the stall of the museum bathroom. The world stood still for several hours as my heart twisted and wrenched in agony. The rest of my body followed a few hours later. We phoned our family doctor and he referred us for an ultrasound who somehow fit us in immediately. We drove right from the museum which was about an hour from our home to the ultrasound office.

I saw my baby's picture on the screen and the technician didn't need to say a word. I could see right away that there was no heartbeat in my precious baby's tiny chest. We went home and just a few hours later, before we could really wrap our minds around what was happening, labor began. It was a mini birth - cramping quickly turned into stronger contractions, ebbing and flowing, escalating in intensity until they reached a peak. I'm grateful I had the forethought to use a bowl over the toilet so that I could catch any remains. I birthed my tiny baby's body onto a square of toilet paper in my bathroom. A few minutes later the tiny placenta was also out. I was empty.

We had been thrilled when we learned this second baby of ours had been conceived. Never had I thought this might happen. We grieved. We mourned. I cried a lot, for weeks, in fact. The day after the miscarriage my doctor had me come in where he was able to tell me the miscarriage was complete. Looking back, I didn't really need to go as it clearly had been a straightforward miscarriage but at the time I wanted that assurance and guidance. I had never been through this before. He told us to keep the remains in the refrigerator until we were able to bury them. I took blurry pictures of our tiny baby's body lying still in the little cardboard gift box we placed him in.

We contacted our parish priest in the next day or so. I had never heard of a funeral for a miscarriage but I held firm trust in the Church's unrelenting belief in the dignity of the human person from conception and I knew that must mean we could have a funeral and bury our baby. Our pastor didn't bat an eye and lovingly offered a funeral Mass the next week after which he led us to the cemetery behind the church and we buried Joseph Mary's body in the plot we had chosen straight behind the tabernacle. I'm so so grateful for our priest's compassion, the diocesan policy to not charge for cemetery plots for miscarriage and stillbirth, and that we only had to pay a small burial fee and for the tombstone. Being able to give the gift of a funeral and burial to our baby brought peace and some closure in the midst of our grief.

The ultrasound showed that Joseph Mary died at about eight weeks gestation but the bleeding didn't begin until a few weeks later when I was about 10 weeks along (which is completely normal). In pregnancy, weeks of gestation are counted at the beginning of a woman's menstrual cycle and not from when the baby was actually conceived. (It is based on a universal 28 day cycle and assumed, often erroneously, that the baby is conceived exactly two weeks after on day 14.) This means that Joseph Mary was only six weeks old when that little heart beat for the last time.

I saw my baby in my hands. I knew what to look for and I saw the characteristic curve of my sweet embryo baby, the longed for little one who would be our second child. I could identify his tiny head and spine and the beginning of eyes and arms. I could not tell if we had a son or a daughter and that is one of the biggest aches of my heart. We had a feeling that he was a boy but I so very much look forward to meeting our child in heaven and knowing if we were right. We chose the name Joseph Mary in honor of the Holy Family.

I am forever grateful for the grace of being able to hold my baby's body and give this little one a burial. I remember begging God for that gift after learning that our baby was dead and before the labor started. "Please, Lord, please just let me see him." So many parents don't get that gift and I don't take it for granted. Often there is so much blood or the baby comes out before a mother even realizes she is miscarrying or before a body is even easily identifiable and, through no fault of her own, the remains are washed away. So many women grieve that chance to see and hold their babies just that one time. It was an immeasurable gift to me to have that. I wish more women knew that even while miscarrying, it is NOT weird or crazy to keep all the remains of the miscarriage to bury, even if you can't identify the body and that doing so can be an incredibly healing process for the mother and father and a loving last gift to your child. I wish every woman knew that in many Catholic dioceses in the United States there is a reserved space in a Catholic cemetery for unborn and stillborn children, often low cost or even free of charge that can be used by anyone. If that is not an option you can bury the baby in your yard. In Catholic theology, burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, and that includes our unborn children.

I am so grateful I was able to labor and pass my baby at home without complication or pressure, without strangers checking in and probing and questioning me during some of the saddest moments of my life. I wish more women knew that they have that right. If it's safe in their situation, there is no rush to pass the baby and the entire process can take several weeks. Afterwards, if needed, a doctor or midwife can be consulted to make sure the miscarriage was complete so that there aren't any complications. Many women are told they must intervene with a D&C procedure or through the medication misoprostol (Cytotec), but if there is no pressing urgency or complication, you don't have to just "get it over with" because the provider wants you to or to feel like you have to speed things up. There are also very real risks to both those options that should be fully understood by the woman before she consents. While those may sometimes be necessary tools when intervention is needed, such as an infection developing, there is something beautiful about allowing your body to release the baby in its own time, honoring and grieving that birth and loss in the privacy and comfort of your home if possible, and recognizing that our bodies are wise, intentionally designed by God, and usually able to complete this task without medical intervention.

***It's critical to add here that I know several babies alive today because their mother did NOT go in for the recommended D&C when they were told that their baby had no heartbeat. They really were just too early for the baby's heartbeat to show up on the ultrasound and had wrong dates or a confusing cycle. The baby was absolutely fine and healthy and mom was simply having some spotting. The D&C literally would have killed their unborn baby. If you are told that your baby has died ALWAYS check and double check BEFORE having a D&C for a miscarriage. And if you have doubts, it's okay to wait. ***

For other mothers and fathers who are grieving the loss of a baby, you are not alone. I want to tell you that I am so very very sorry. Your baby is real and your grief is real. I want to tell you that my heart breaks for you and that your baby matters. There is no grief allotment based on the age of your baby. And while you will always remember that baby, that raw grief will be softened over time and with faith. It may be hard to believe or even hear right now but the God of life can make beautiful things even out of this horrific tragedy you have endured. For me it was a Michael, a David, a Luke, a Benedict, a Peter, and an Adam. None of them would be here without that loss of their older sibling. He can make all things, even the most heart wrenching things, somehow new, but you will be changed forever by that baby.

We ask for Joseph Mary's intercession every time we pray together at the end of our family's litany of saints. We have a picture of that ultrasound framed in our home and I keep one in my wallet. We hang an ornament and a stocking every Christmas in memory of that baby we never got to celebrate with on earth. I pray that our other children all know and remember often that they have a sibling in eternity praying for them. This baby brought me the gift of hope, the real virtue of hope, in a way I'm not sure I would have otherwise experienced. The loss of this child grew in me a longing for heaven that I never previously had. It also impressed deeply on me the absolute gift of every life. I didn't have a right to Joseph Mary. I didn't somehow "deserve" a baby. A child is always meant to every time be a gift not something we deserve. While that loss in some way took away some of my innocence in later pregnancies, his life and death was a keen reminder of the sanctity of every life. It grew in me the awe for the process of pregnancy and birth.

If you've also experienced miscarriage, I want you to know that you can name your baby. If you have an ultrasound, make sure to get a picture of it (and don't let them tell you no). Ours is the most precious picture we own. I want you to know that you can have (and the Church encourages!) a funeral Mass for your baby. You can receive the Blessing of Parents after a Miscarriage. If you have the remains you can give your baby a burial. I want you to know that your son or daughter can be your own personal patron saint (not an angel). I want you to know that your child can now pray for you. If you have other children tell them about the sibling they don't know. It's so good for them. I want you to know that fathers grieve, too, and often it's very different than the way that mothers do. I want you to know that many people will not get it and might say dumb things (but you probably already know that). Try to give them grace but it's okay to give yourself space, too.

And lastly, I want you to know that I would absolutely love to meet your son or daughter some day and I hope you will be there to introduce me. And then, more than anything in the world, I would love for you to meet my precious Joseph Mary.

1 Comment

Joseph Mary, pray for us! This was a very moving and informative article. Thank you for sharing Joseph 💙

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