By Kathy Mattone
“All life has inestimable value, even the weakest and most vulnerable … are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in (God’s) own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.” — Pope Francis (engraved quote on crypts where infants are interred)
All life does have inestimable value. In recognition of the sacredness of all life and in the attempt to bring healing to grieving families, St. Joseph East and the Women’s Hospital in Lexington, KY, now offers burial of miscarried infants. Miscarriage is the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week. About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and almost one in four families experiences this loss. Over seven years ago, a small group of folks came together from our Women’s Hospital, the Catholic Diocese of Lexington, and the Catholic Cemetery to pray and discern what could be done to honor the lives lost through miscarriage and offer some healing and hope to families. In February 2015, the first burial of miscarried infants took place at Calvary Cemetery in Lexington, KY. Over 300 infants have been interred at the mausoleum since that first burial.
Every other month, hospital and diocesan staff gather with families of miscarriage for a prayer service at Calvary Cemetery. At the service in November 2016, more than 70 people attended. It is a time to mourn, not only the loss of an infant, but the loss of hopes and dreams unfulfilled. Parents, siblings, grandparents, extended family, and friends gather to sing, pray, cry, and laugh. Families can write their baby a note to be included in the casket, there are tiny feet pins, pocket prayer quilts, and vigil candles to take home. At one point in the ceremony, parents can share their baby’s name or have a staff member read the family name. Each burial has between 25 and 35 infant remains, which are gathered and prayed over at the hospital and then brought to the cemetery.
Nurses and doctors at the hospital have begun to see miscarriage patients differently. Their loss is honored and respected. Several patients who have been overwhelmed at the compassionate care they received have paid it forward by bringing gift bags/boxes and making pocket prayer quilts for other families who experience miscarriage. The burial dates are announced in local parish bulletins, and often families who experienced miscarriage years ago will come and grieve their loss. One brave woman spoke at one of the burials, sharing her story of miscarriage 25 years ago. She said, “I have never had closure, until today.”
Family reconciliation has also taken place at the burials. Last summer, grandparents attended the burial service and were able to speak to, hold, and hug a 3-year-old grandson (who was the older sibling of one of the infants) for the first time in over a year. A family argument had caused a rift that wouldn’t heal. The mother of the miscarried infant decided to invite her parents to the burial. “I just realized how foolish it was to be fighting. We wanted to share our sadness and loss with them. We hoped it would heal the hurt between us.”
We have been overwhelmed at the healing that has rippled outwards from the burial of miscarried infants. Patients are often in a state of shock about their loss when they arrive at the hospital. They have trouble hearing what the staff is sharing with them about the burial. Debbie Gibbons, the bereavement coordinator for the Women’s Hospital/Labor and Delivery nurse and I try to see every patient who miscarries. We provide training for staff in the emergency room, outpatient surgery department, and physician office staff. Patients who are unsure about burial receive a phone call the week or so after their hospital stay to assess their mental, physical, and spiritual status. The nurses in outpatient surgery have recently adapted their follow-up calls to evaluate how patients are coping with their loss.
This outpouring of compassion and reverence has brought healing not only to patients and their families but to our hospital staff as well. God’s love continues to flow outward. It is an honor to be involved with bringing wellness, healing, and hope to all.
Kathy Mattone, BCC, is a chaplain at St. Joseph East and Women’s Hospital in Lexington, KY.