One of my hobbies is genealogy; I love exploring my family tree. It is striking when looking back just a couple of generations how many mothers died in childbirth and how many infants succumbed in their first year. For my great grandmothers, it was a sad fact of life that some of their children would not see adulthood. Thankfully, that happens far less frequently today, but it does happen. The fact that it is relatively rare seems to make it more difficult to talk about.
October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. It is observed in Canada and the U.S. as well as a number of other countries, but it is still a growing movement that has not yet received recognition worldwide. The purpose of this remembrance is the hope that all families who experience the death of their children during pregnancy and in the first year of life are extended the opportunity to acknowledge their loss, seek support, and honor their children’s memory in an understanding and supportive atmosphere.
This is something that is surprisingly difficult. People sometimes expect that those left to grieve should just get over it, especially when the child was not yet born. I think this is a result of our culture’s ambivalence toward children, in large part, I believe because of the pro-choice agenda that sees unborn children as completely disposable at their mother’s discretion. Parents have complained about the callousness they sometimes encounter when miscarriage occurs at a hospital because the humanity of the unborn is dismissed and their need to grieve is not respected.
At the same time, we should also remember those women who regret having aborted a child. The guilt and depression that follows, not to mention the secrecy, can be overwhelming. Many women (and girls) are placed under a lot of pressure to “choose” abortion and experience regret afterwards – immediately or even many years later. Part of their personal healing depends on acknowledging their loss.
There are also parents who receive a negative prognosis for their child in utero. The routine pre-natal checkup is suddenly not routine. Sometimes the child will die before birth, sometimes at birth or a little later. With courage, they nurture their child through his or her brief life, knowing they will not likely bring their baby home. Other times, everything seems perfect and the perfect child is wrenched away by SIDS or something else unforeseen. Every family and every situation is unique but the thread running through every one is tragic and painful loss.
This makes some people very uncomfortable – it is an unimaginable loss that we literally don’t want to think about. A simple question like, “How many children do you have?” gives pause. Parents don’t want to make anyone feel bad, don’t want to tell their life story… but also feel guilty if they don’t acknowledge the child who is gone. The hole in their heart does not go away.
A child who has died is still part of the family. On this day, we remember these children and we offer our support to their families, including the many whose loss remains a private thing. Let us take a few minutes to include them in our prayers today. If your community is one that has a candlelight service, perhaps you can offer your support this evening.