“Our baby is dead or dying.”
My wife knew this without my explaining the doctor’s words. She knew before the doctor started talking, but hoped that it was not happening—that the blood work was mistaken in showing hormones leveling off when they should have been rapidly increasing; that the ultrasound that could not find a heartbeat was wrong; that our baby would be fine. And so she asked me what it meant as we sat listening to the doctor’s clinical description. But we both already knew; we had known since the second ultrasound failed to find a heartbeat. We would never see our baby alive.
Following our meeting with the doctor, we left the office by a side door, rather than pass through a waiting room populated by patients whose pregnancies were obviously progressing. We drove home and cried.
The news came Monday; the miscarriage happened over Saturday and Sunday. The physical pain of a miscarriage is variable from case to case. This time it was extreme, with hours of excruciating contractions. It was the pain of labor, but instead of the reward of new life there was only death. My mother-in-law came to our home and was at her best as a nurse and mother; without her we probably would have ended up in the ER. Physical recovery took weeks. Emotional recovery . . . who knows?
We had not expected this. We had spent years coming to terms with apparent infertility—first the treatments and diagnosis (or lack thereof; we had neither an explanation nor a baby), and then acceptance. We had begun looking seriously at adoption and were planning to attend upcoming classes required for licensing by the state foster care and adoption system. We were reading Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life to prepare mentally and spiritually for adoption. We wanted children, but we knew that we needed to approach adoption for its own sake, rather than as a second-rate substitute for the biological children we did not have. We thought we had reached that point, along with career situations that would allow us to provide care and stability for a child. It was time to tackle the difficult process of adoption.
And then we had a baby growing in utero. We didn’t believe it at first. We took our time before trying a pregnancy test, and then we used four from three different brands. They were positive. It seemed impossible, an answer to prayers that we had stopped making.
We were euphoric. The details of embryonic development enthralled us, and we eagerly discussed the preparations we needed to make. We considered names, godparents, living arrangements, maternity outfits, travel, work schedules, and more. We discussed the joys we hoped to share with our child, such as LEGOs and literature. I was hoping to teach the child soccer at an early age (old enough to walk, old enough to kick a ball) and wondering at what age a kid can start learning to play bass. We were planning and dreaming about the future of our child. Then that future was gone. There was nothing to do with or for our child. Nothing—from cute baby clothes to an inheritance—that we could give, except for a name and a burial.
Our child’s name is Michael Francis.
We held a memorial service and interred the tiny remains at a local cemetery that made space for the burial in its cremation garden. It was a small service, and some people only learned that we had been expecting when we invited them to the funeral. But we did not want to conceal our grief and bear it alone. The support from family, friends, pastors, and fellow congregants helped us endure the pain.
Their kindness was invaluable, but our culture often struggles to care for those who have lost children to miscarriage. Some of this arises from the general awkwardness of offering comfort when no expression or action seems adequate to the task (in our experience, simple expressions of condolence or the gift of flowers was far better than attempts at theodicy or minimizing the loss; my wife also appreciated being given the books Loved Baby and Grace Like Scarlett). But part of the struggle to comfort those who have lost a child before birth is a result of our culture’s confusion over how to categorize this grief. This awkwardness is not due to ignorance of the development of human life in utero—scientific advances have given us the most complete biological understanding of human development before birth ever achieved, as well as remarkable capabilities to observe and document life in the womb. Sharing ultrasound pictures and videos is normal.
The difficulty arises because our culture also embraces a legal regime of abortion on demand. Surgeons can operate to heal a baby girl before she is born, or an abortionist can kill her. Pregnant women are warned not to smoke or drink lest they injure their baby, but they can hire someone to kill that same child. Heartwarming human interest stories about those with disabilities are a regular staple of reporting, but those whose disabilities are detected in utero are often terminated. The lives that are celebrated with ultrasound pictures on social media are legally disposable.
The specter of abortion hung over us in the days between the diagnosis and the miscarriage. The medical pamphlets we were given after the ultrasounds did not mention abortion, or even any euphemisms for it, but we knew what the womb-emptying procedures were normally used for. Contemplating medical intervention to remove the remains after an incomplete miscarriage highlighted the violence of using these methods to kill a developing human.
Culturally and legally, nascent human lives are considered valuable only insofar as they are desired by adults. Consistency with the American ethos of abortion requires that the grief over a miscarriage be confined to mourning the loss of something wanted; the sorrow is for the dashing of a dream, not the loss of a life.
But we were not, as our culture’s credo has it, mourning the loss of “potential life.” I doubt that even supporters of legal abortion adhere to that line when they suffer the anguish of a miscarriage. Hope for a potential life is what we had when we dreamed and prayed for pregnancy; hope for the potential of an existing life is what we had during the pregnancy. When our pregnancy ended, we mourned the loss of a life, of an irreplaceable human person whose particular genetic composition will never be repeated. Alas, that uniqueness likely included a fatal genetic flaw. But while that defect ended a life, it did not erase it.
We were parents, regardless of whether our culture and legal system respect human life in its early development. “Do you have kids?” was an awkward question throughout our years of childlessness; it is even more so now. The truth is a lot to share with a stranger making polite chit-chat, but a simple “no” now seems inadequate and untrue. We had a child, who died.
Our child no longer lives on this earth, but we are Christians, and we believe in the hope of the resurrection. Christianity does not pretend to eliminate suffering in this life, but it does promise a renewed, eternal life. In this fallen world, we are conceived to die and born to suffer. But our God entered into this world to share its suffering, to redeem it, and to draw it to Himself.
Nor does Christianity offer only spiritual immortality; it also assures us of a bodily resurrection. This is harder for me to believe, but it is at the center of the Christian creed. From its earliest days, the Church has proclaimed Christ’s physical resurrection and the hope that we shall likewise be raised from death. We are not promised Heaven as a state of incorporeal bliss, but the Kingdom of God in a new heaven and a new earth. The physical universe shall be renewed in glory, along with the children of God.
It is therefore ironic that some Christian theologians, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, have struggled with the implications of infant deaths and miscarriages, wondering what place there is in heaven for those who never attained rational consciousness. The history of theological speculation about Limbo is one manifestation of this. But this theorizing has tended to neglect the nature of the Kingdom of God.
As the theologian and moral philosopher Germain Grisez argued, the ultimate end of human persons is not God alone, but also God’s Kingdom, wherein many of the goods of this physical life will also be renewed. This suggests an answer to our questions about what happens to those who died through miscarriage. Perhaps the Kingdom of God begins with the resurrection and glorification of those children whose bodies were broken before birth.
We were parents, and I believe that in God’s grace, we remain so.
Et expécto resurrectiónem mortuórum, et vitam ventúri sǽculi. Amen.