Monday, May 6, 2019
Juan I. Guerra
My wife, Mary Kate, and I sat nervously in the examination room of our local hospital. She was 11 weeks pregnant with our fifth child. In what we had come to expect as a routine checkup, we received the devastating news that the doctor couldn't find a heartbeat. In our 10 years of marriage, we had never had difficulty conceiving or carrying a child to term. Our girls — ages 10, 8, 6 and 3 at the time — had all been born healthy, so the news hit us hard.
Weeks prior, my initial reaction to the positive pregnancy test had been a mixture of anticipation and a little worry. As practicing Catholics, we knew the blessing of children, but we also recognized that with all blessings comes sacrifice. I thought about our sleepless nights, the round-the-clock feedings, seemingly endless diapers, and the financial burden it would place on our family.
As the news of a new baby began to settle in, however, those thoughts turned to anticipation and joy. I thought maybe this would be the boy my then aging father always hoped for. I was named after him, after all — the fourth-generation son to have been given that honor. A son would make it Juan Ignacio number five! Plus, my father always shared an old Cuban saying that every child brings with them a loaf of bread. We knew by experience that God always provides. Our four daughters, for their part, began a game of who would find the perfect name — if she turned out to be a sister!
After receiving the sad news, it was my 8-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, who forced the question: “Daddy can we bury her? Can we hold her? Can we see her? Is it a boy or a girl?” I didn't know what to say, but with these questions began a process of healing that I could never have imagined.
We recognized that a miscarriage is as natural as childbirth. We had certainly known many who had suffered this loss, multiple times over. Still, like most tragedies, one can't fully understand the feeling until it happens to you. As we waited at the hospital for a procedure, we felt the pain of knowing that just a few years prior, we had celebrated the births of our daughters at the very same hospital. I mentioned to Mary Kate how odd it was to think that our little child would be taken from us and be discarded at a pathology lab. The well-meaning doctor reassured us that it was common practice. “Don’t think about it.” Still, the idea did not sit well with us.
My wife mentioned that a friend of hers had heard of a local funeral home that buried babies born of miscarriages. I called and was greeted by a warm, compassionate person who expressed his condolences and offered us help. When I asked about the cost, he said they did not charge, but offered burials as a service to grieving families. He also said there was a plot at the adjacent Catholic cemetery where our baby could be buried at an unmarked flower garden. What a beautiful comfort that was to us.
When Mary Kate was released from the hospital, we followed up with the funeral preparations. Our baby’s remains were picked up by the funeral home the following week, as promised. I called the local pastor asking if he would say a few prayers at graveside, and to my surprise, he offered to celebrate a Mass of Christian burial. I don’t quite know why, but I felt a little embarrassed at this. We didn't want to over-dramatize our loss, but neither did we want to pretend it hadn't happened.
Around that time, we received a call from a musician friend of ours who years prior had played at our wedding. She said she had heard from the parish music minister that we were having a funeral Mass for our baby and offered to play the harp.
“I think this whole process is taking a life of its own,” I remarked. “It's as if our baby is orchestrating this from heaven.” Our harpist friend then called to say her sister, who we knew had an angelic voice, wanted to accompany her at the Mass.
The days prior to the funeral were typical of late winter in Philadelphia, cold and rainy. That Saturday emerged sunny and unusually mild. We all assembled at the church, my wife, daughters and I dressed in our Sunday best. Our families and friends were also there to support us. In the front center aisle was a small marble box containing the remains of our baby. The pastor entered from the sacristy, burning incense and offering the most tender homily on the value of all life, even one so small.
A cloud of fragrance lifted in the church and I felt myself mourning the child we would never know, not in this life. The music of harp and sweet song filled the church. My daughters had completed their role by choosing the name: Alex. That way, they reasoned, “It could be a boy’s or a girl’s name.”
After the final blessing, I lifted the small box and we all processed to the cemetery. There, a small opening was prepared. With the final prayers, and surrounded by the love of so many, we laid our child to rest, knowing we had given her the dignity and love she so deserved. We left that day grateful for the kindness shown us and knowing our baby was at peace with the Lord.
The words of our Savior came to mind: “Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’.” (Luke 18:15-17)
Note: Deacon James Dugard, of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Respect Life Ministry, has begun a ministry to those who have suffered the loss of a child, including miscarriage. Anyone wishing to learn more can contact him at email@example.com.