Placing Empty Arms in God's Hands
A Spiritual Response to Miscarriage

By Roxane B. Salonen

 

A special thank you to Roxane, who wrote this beautiful story when she was 9 months pregnant with little Elizabeth Grace.

        

When I was nearly 9 months pregnant with our second child, my husband and I invited our parish priest over for breakfast to have the house we’d recently bought blessed.    During that occasion of getting to know our new pastor, we discovered our mutual love for music. So it seemed natural when, at the gathering’s end, Father Tim broke out into song and we joined in.

Several weeks later, we were privileged to have this same priest at the delivery of our baby. Just minutes old, our new daughter was blessed by him, and, with eyes wide opened, welcomed into this world by the same voices and song she’d heard days earlier in the womb.

The next time the three of us attempted Canticle of the Sun, the circumstances were not nearly so joyous. Instead of singing, I sobbed my way through the song.

About a week prior, at 11 weeks pregnant, we learned our third baby had died in utero. Because our previous two conceptions and pregnancies occurred without difficulty, we were ill-prepared to deal with our shock and deep sadness over the unexpected loss.  We turned to Father Tim, hoping he could pray for our baby with us in an attempt to provide some closure.

A few days before his visit, my husband and I discussed whether we should name our deceased child. My strong inclination to do so was heightened by the fact that we would be having a formal prayer for it. It would seem fitting to have a name for this soul, tiny as it was when it perished, to give it the respect it deserved as a human being and member of our family.

We eventually decided to name “him” Gabriel, which means “devoted to God.” Although our baby’s gender was unknown at death, I had felt strongly I was carrying a boy, and this was a name we had contemplated specifically for this child. It seemed doubly appropriate given that Gabriel is the angel who appeared to Mary with news of a small, special being in her womb.

The day of the naming and Father Tim’s visit, I gathered up some mementos (cards we’d received congratulating us on our pregnancy, a gift from a friend intended for our baby, and some e-mail messages regarding the pregnancy and miscarriage). I placed these in a box, decorated with angels and roses, and named it “Gabriel’s box.” Writing this in permanent ink on the outside of the box marked the beginning of my healing.

Father Tim joined us after our other children had been tucked into bed. At their tender ages, they would not have fully appreciated or understood the reasons for the visit, and might have been a distraction. I wanted to give this baby a proper sending-off and feel free to unleash my emotions without upsetting our little ones.  It zapped us of some of the joy we felt was rightfully ours to experience. His first prayer for us was that we would not let those feelings hinder us or our relationships with others. In his perceptiveness, he saw right off how release of all blame, including that directed at ourselves, was needed to move on.

When I showed Fr. Tim the box I had prepared, he suggested we add to it a baptismal garment and candle. He reminded us that as Catholics we believe babies who die before birth are baptized “by intention.” His reiterating this fact brought incredible peace to us.

Without our church’s official rite for the death of unborn babies at hand, Father Tim next led an impromptu ceremony. He asked us to dim the lights. He then glanced around our living room and noticed a crucifix above our piano. Although its intended use is for Anointing of the Sick, on this evening it would serve an alternate purpose.

Our priest then set up a small table on which he placed the crucifix. Uncovering contents hidden within, he removed two candles and a glass bottle. He placed the candles in holes in the cross’s base on either side of its horizontal arms and lit them. Meanwhile, he filled the glass bottle from our kitchen tap and blessed it, making it holy water.  The ceremony that followed included a blessing with the holy water; special prayers said specifically for our baby, for the integrity of our marriage, and for pregnant couples in our lives; and songs of loss, life and hope. Because singing always has been a very emotional experience for me, I was unable to join in when the time came. I knew that in doing so, I would break down and not be able to finish. But the strength that overcame me in hearing these two men, each with an arm placed on my shoulder, in song was powerful and uplifting. It allowed me a chance to internalize my loss, and cry out my anguish without feeling alone.

The prayers also were immeasurably cleansing. This was the first time since the miscarriage I’d allowed myself a face-to-face encounter with God -- something I had been avoiding until now, even though I had felt His presence strongly in my life. In an ending petition to God, I was able to pray for our baby, and ask our Creator to take him into His hands and nurture him until we are able to see him in heaven.

Another special moment in the evening was when Father pointed out the shadows the candles had cast on the ceiling. There were two crosses, each leaning in toward the other. Father seized the opportunity to turn these apparently inadvertent shadows into symbols of our loss. These were our crosses, he said, our burdens as parents of this baby we never properly met. Together we decided it was a positive sign that the crosses, although separated, were “reaching” toward one other. We became convinced that this loss would not separate us from one another or from God because of that visible “sign from above.”

It wasn’t until the following days that we fully realized the impact of this gathering. Almost immediately, though, our hopes were restored. Having given this loss fully to God, we were able to rid ourselves of any guilt we might have taken on in considering another child.

We are thankful that so early on in the grieving process we discovered for ourselves a precious gift left by little Gabriel. Never before had we looked toward heaven with such an eagerness, but knowing our entry there someday would unite us with this baby we never held gave us new vision and comfort in the life that awaits us after our earthly deaths.

It has been a year since our third child’s death, and in the very same month we honor his first birthday in heaven, I look down at my 9-month-pregnant, protruding belly and thank God for all that He is. For He is, indeed, the God of life, the God of compassion, the God of hope, as He has shown us so visibly in this moment.

We are now as close as possible to having come full circle with our feelings regarding our dead child, and in our relationship with our priest. With his guiding hand, we have experienced together a new start in our home and church, new life, and finally death -- a death, like the resurrection, that holds much hope. He has been Jesus’ presence in our lives when we’ve needed it most.

Perhaps at our new baby’s baptism, that song that first drew us together will be on the list of daily hymns. If so, there is no doubt that this time I will join enthusiastically in singing the words: The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy! Come dance in the forest, come play in the fields. And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!

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