Welcome to our Blessed Chats series! Each month, we will dedicate an entire week of blog posts to a topic that affects many of us. These conversations often come up in our Facebook groups and in our real life friendships. We want to share a variety of perspectives on the topic at hand, so we’ve asked women to share their stories and how the teachings of the Church have guided and comforted them. In this series, we’re talking more about fertility. We’d love for you to join the conversation!
On the wall, above our family altar, around which our prayer life centers, is an icon family of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. Saint Thérèse and her three sisters who entered Carmel stand framed each side of the image in their Carmelite habits, while her sister, Servant of God Léonie, stands third in from the right. And in the center are the blessed parents of this family, Saints Louis and Zélie Martin.
But the part of the image that always tugs at my heart are the two little ones held close in Saint Zélie’s arms and the two standing at her feet. The Martins lost three babies in infancy and their daughter Helene at the age of five.
When I look at Saint Zélie, I never fail to see myself surrounded by my four living children, but I also see and almost feel in my arms the three I never got to hold. The three who passed away and then passed from my body unknown to most of the world, but they are not unknown to God.
My husband and I lost our first baby in 2010 when my eldest was ten months old. We were enthusiastic about having a large Catholic family, my cycles had returned, so we were open to conception. (Full disclosure: I started charting fifteen months before our wedding and have always been a meticulous charter.)
But the cycle had a weird ending. The bleeding was not quite right. And I had a strange hunch. My doctor was Catholic and very willing to order a blood test, which showed that there had been a teeny tiny human living inside of me, if only briefly. A little life that flashed into existence, and then passed on to the mercy of God. I only told my best mom-friend and my sister about this first loss. They both had lost babies, and both understood.
The Second Loss
I managed to have two full-term pregnancies before our second loss. We then had three little girls ages five and under. Sweet little girls with big brown eyes.
We lost our second baby during Holy Week in 2014. I scheduled a six-week ultrasound for Holy Thursday, but when we went in, the baby was measuring too small. There was no heartbeat. The nurse did some blood work. The next day, on our way out of the Good Friday liturgy my doctor called from the steps of her church.
“I’m so sorry, Susanna,” she said. “Your HCG levels were too low. The baby is no longer alive.”
I had been taking progesterone since my pregnancies had gotten more complicated over the years, and I had often needed these supplements. So, I had to wait a week for my progesterone levels to drop from their artificial elevation. And then on Divine Mercy Sunday my bleeding began, bleeding which escalated to hemorrhaging and an ER visit two days later. We named this baby John Paul because of the day I had begun to bleed.
I had been able to collect his dear little body from the tissues that had gushed out of me. A local Catholic cemetery provided a small plot as part of their ministry to miscarried babies. And we experienced for the first time the Rite of Burial for Unbaptized Children, filled with prayers of hope in the mercy of God for our child’s salvation. Our pastor drove out to meet us that first time, and he did again three years later when we lost our third baby to miscarriage.
The Third Loss
I had one more healthy pregnancy after our second loss. My son came into our family, bringing joy and interfering with sleep. When he was two, we felt it was time to be open to a new child again. I was a little nervous, after I had been so overwhelmed by the previous two years with four children. But my husband and I were both excited when the pregnancy test came back positive on October 7, 2017, Our Lady of the Rosary.
When I went in for my normal early appointment and to have my progesterone levels checked, I scheduled my first ultrasound for All Saints’ Day. For I knew there was a risk of early loss, and wanted the saints to intercede whatever the outcome.
When the day finally came, and my symptoms were not as strong as I would have liked. I dutifully came in with a full bladder. But when the tech could not get a good view of the baby, she asked me to go to empty my bladder for a vaginal ultrasound. My heart sank as in the restroom I looked at the toilet paper. Blood.
I came back to the connecting room, and tears in my eyes informed my husband of the situation. When the tech came back her scans confirmed our fears. The baby had stopped growing. There was no heartbeat.
It felt like a bad dream, and I could not wake up.
I got dressed. We were ushered to another room to talk to a doctor about having a third miscarriage. She talked about the battery of tests we would do. And then there was the pain—not the physical pain of cramping, but the pain of loss—the ache of the heart. I don’t even remember the drive home.
Grieving as a Family
I will never forget the wail of my five-year-old daughter when we told the children of the loss of that baby. I collapsed on the floor and cried with my living babies. My husband and I clung to each other for support. And when the baby came out of me, we named her Léonie, after the Servant of God, and had her buried as well. I will never forget the look of sorrow in compassion in our pastor’s eyes that chilly November afternoon, as he told us of his mother’s multiple miscarriages. He was there accompanying us.
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Salvation of the Unborn
In the months following my third miscarriage, I often went to Saint Zélie for her intercession. I felt a little jealousy in my heart at her certainty of the salvation of her babies who had all been baptized before their untimely deaths. But mine had been lost before they could be baptized.
I dug into the theology of what the Church teaches about unbaptized babies who die before receiving the Sacrament. For me, I needed more than the Catechism’s simple statement of “as regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them” (CCC 1261).
I knew that we are all conceived with original sin. I also knew that for those baptized before the age of reason, it is not just the parents or godparents that provide the faith necessary for the Sacrament, but the faith of the whole Church. So, could this same faith be available for all children who die without Baptism? The Church seems to hope in that, through the funeral rites and in the entrusting of them to the mercy of God.
God is Generous in His Mercy
But the thing that really comforted me as a mother and a theologian is the idea Saint Thomas Aquinas had: even though a baby in the womb cannot be baptized, God can still give them sanctifying grace. (ST, III, Q. 68, art. 11) We know from Scripture that He did this for the Blessed Mother at her Immaculate Conception and Saint John the Baptist at the Visitation when he leapt in the womb.
And further the Catechism which states that while we as humans have only one way to ensure salvation, God is not restricted in His generous gift of mercy:
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. -Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1257
Learning these things theologically helped me have more consolation in the deaths of my unborn children. For, the most important thing I have learned from the example of Saint Zélie is that no matter how long my children live on earth, they have an eternal soul, and their entry into Heaven is more important than any earthly happiness.
They Belong to God
As my husband and I enter a season of new health for me, we are facing more potential pregnancies. More human lives as a part of our family. But also, the potential for more loss. However we now realize that those babies, however long we have them on earth, do not belong to us. They belong to God.
If you want more on the Church’s rich teachings on these engaging topics, our best-selling study, “Blessed Conversations: Rooted,” dives into the Catechism’s teachings and now offers a video companion series along with it featuring Theological Editor Susanna Spencer and Managing Editor Nell O’Leary. Get it here.
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