A Respect Life Month story
By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
“How many children do you have?”
For Michelle Snyder, it isn’t an easy question to answer. “It feels wrong to tell people we have five kids when I know there is one more.” A member of St. James Parish in Washington, she and husband Jamie experienced an early miscarriage after the birth of their oldest child, Ben.
Sometimes she’ll think about the child at times when he or she would have been going through milestones such as graduation from high school. Though she has been open about her grief through the years, she knows miscarriage tends to be a hidden sorrow for many couples.
October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 15.6 percent of known pregnancies in the United States will end in miscarriage or stillbirth, and it is believed that many more are lost before a woman even realizes she is pregnant. As it relates to live births, about 1 in every 200 American babies will die before their first birthday.
Father Corey Close, administrator of parishes in Brooklyn and Victor, has an advanced degree in marriage and family life. He said offering consolation to couples enduring the loss of a child before or after birth requires an individualized approach. Likewise, couples themselves may not know what to do about their grief or how to honor their child.
Especially with miscarriage, he said society tends to downplay the loss. They expect couples to get over the loss quickly. “If (the couple) has lost a child, they need to be able to mourn that,” he insisted.
Because Catholics believe life begins at conception, parents shouldn’t be afraid to name their child, even if they were unsure of the gender, Fr. Close said. Parents are welcome to have a prayer service or a funeral if they desire.
While miscarried or stillborn children cannot be baptized, he said theologians today generally agree that God’s mercy blankets them, ensuring them a place in his kingdom.
Patty Schuch, a member of St. Mary Parish in Davenport, is among those who have lost a child in infancy. Pregnant with twins 16 years ago, she went into premature labor at 25 weeks. Doctors were unable to halt its progress. Hayley was born at just under 2 pounds and had a good prognosis. Hannah, on the other hand, was just over 1 pound and not expected to survive. “The doctors said they’d do what they could, but she was bleeding internally,” Patty said with a quiver in her voice.
She called a priest to baptize Hannah. She had pictures taken and handprints made when Hannah was taken off life support three days later. Patty held her close and savored every fleeting moment.
She planned a funeral for Hannah, but not everyone seemed to understand why she was doing it. For Patty, the reason was clear. “I did it because she was my daughter. It doesn’t matter how long I had her. Once they’re inside your womb, they’re your child. I wanted her to be recognized and grieved and celebrated, everything you would do for anyone who passes away. She needed to be seen as a human being. Just because she only lived 3 days, it is no different than someone who died at 99 years old.”
Jeanne Wonio, an organizer of an annual child loss prayer service at St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Davenport, said parishioners can be supportive of couples who have lost a child simply by offering a short note or small gift to let them know they are thinking about them. Couples or family members could consider buying a piece of jewelry with the child’s birthstone or memorializing the child with a brick or other landmark.
The gifts and notes that Patty and Hayley Schuch received upon Hannah’s passing are on display in their home as a way to remember her. Hayley’s birthday cakes usually include a decoration in memory of Hannah. Last Christmas, Patty bought an ornament in Hannah’s memory for the Davenport Festival of Trees’ memorial tree.
Being able to talk about child loss with other faith-filled women has been the biggest healing factor for Michelle. By being open, “I found out that others had lost babies, too. … I think it helps to talk. It’s good to remember those children.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, roughly 60 percent of miscarriages occur when an embryo has an abnormal number of chromosomes during fertilization — a problem that happens by chance, not as a result of anything the parents did. Certain maternal health conditions, including hormonal problems, infections and diabetes, can play a role but in many cases the causes are simply unknown. Likewise, the causes of stillbirth or early infant loss are varied and sometimes never discovered. Avoiding drugs, cigarettes and alcohol, seeking prenatal care and doing kick counts can help reduce the risk, but they can happen to anyone.
Clergy, friends and family can help ease the grief of child loss by reassuring the couple that the child’s life, no matter how short, matters and deserves to be remembered. Well wishes are more appropriate than offering unsolicited advice. Father Corey Close, administrator of parishes in Brooklyn and Victor, said prayer services and Mass intentions are appropriate. A couple can also choose to name a child, even if they were unsure of gender. Father Paul Appel, judicial vicar for the Diocese of Davenport, said funerals are still a possibility for miscarried or stillborn babies.
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