The gift of accompaniment in the aftermath of losing a child

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by Jeannie Ewing

In the aftermath of significant and devastating loss, what matters most to those who are grieving is the gift of one’s time — to listen, to care, and to just be present. It’s not so much that something specific must be said or done to assuage the pain; rather, it’s the gift of accompaniment.

Tessa Sordelet always had a very special relationship with her sister, who gave birth to a son two days before Tessa learned that her son Leo had died while in the womb. “She always asked me, ‘What are you thinking about Leo? How are you dealing with your grief? How are you feeling about life today?’” These questions helped Tessa feel less isolated; she was relieved to know that someone acknowledged that her son mattered. It also helped her process her emotional and spiritual pain.

Ruth Smucker has felt comforted when her close friends continued to invite her to social events where small children would be present. “It’s very painful when you’re always left off the guest list,” she says. “When someone else has decided for you that you might be a ‘damper on the party,’ it’s very painful.” The few friends who kept asking her to join fun gatherings and were OK whether or not she came was a huge testament of empathy for her.

Noah and Ruth Smucker with their daughter Regina Anne. Photo courtesy of the Smucker family.

For Jane Lebak, the tremendous outpouring of prayer and support from other people, including her online support group for perinatal loss, gave her the strength and courage to carry on.

Noah and Ruth Smucker have lost at least six babies to miscarriage, which changed everything for them, especially their faith. They converted to Catholicism from the Mennonite faith, in part due to their understanding of working with their natural cycles of fertility. “As the pattern of miscarriage continued, I was pretty hopeless,” admits Ruth.

Still, the Smuckers felt called to open themselves back up to life again. 2016 was a pivotal point, during which they discovered they were pregnant again. This time the pregnancy continued past Ruth’s typical period of miscarriage. As the third trimester ended, she and Noah prepared themselves for a live birth. In May 2017, Regina Anne Smucker was born — a healthy, happy baby girl.

Patrick and Tessa Sordelet lost their son, Leo Patrick, at 37 weeks gestation. “I had been getting ready for my prenatal appointment, and we found out he was gone. Though the actual cause of his death is unknown, I always felt guilty, like there was something I did and shouldn’t have or didn’t do and should have done that caused his death,” she adds.

Three years after Leo’s stillbirth, the Sordelets welcomed their son, Louis, into the family. “That gap between Evelyn [our daughter] and Louis feels so huge,” Tessa says. “We always wonder what Leo would be like today, what his personality would be like.” Their family also includes Walter, their youngest son, who is 3 years old.

The Smuckers felt called to open themselves back up to life again.

At her 22-week ultrasound, Jane Lebak discovered that her baby daughter, whom she and her husband named Emily Rose, had anencephaly — essentially she had no developing brain. “When the tech left the room to refer us back upstairs to the OB, I said [to her], ‘Tell her we’re not going to terminate.’ I insisted, and she did it.”

After the diagnosis, Jane could only take life in small increments, which is how she processed the shock of grief. During the rest of the pregnancy and after Emily was born — her short life lasted only two hours — Jane’s heart was filled with love for her little girl. “I was so happy to have her in my arms,” she explains. “I wasn’t crushed because she was dying, but instead there was just joy that she was there.”

The Lebaks had Emily baptized and confirmed while they were at the hospital. Over time, Jane met other families who had lost a baby due to a serious prenatal diagnosis, too. “I thought, ‘Maybe I can survive if others have survived losing a child, too. Maybe I can get closer to God.’

THE BEAUTY OF EVERY HUMAN LIFE

All three couples agree that losing an infant to premature death has profoundly humbled them to understand more deeply the sanctity of every human life. Jane believes God sent them Emily “because for some reason, she needed us. She needed love the way only we could give it, and I needed her for some reason only God knew.”

Jane Lebak and her child honor the memory of Emily
Rose at her burial. Photo courtesy of the Leak family.

For Tessa, Leo’s burial hit her hardest. “When you bury your child’s body, you have this instinct to care for your baby. I didn’t want to think about his body being in a grave, so I didn’t want to visit his gravesite. All I wanted to do was hold my baby, and I couldn’t.”

Ruth believes there’s a question of “personhood” for some people. Many said to her, “Well, it was ‘just’ a miscarriage.” Ruth says, “I felt that somehow they believed my children were just half-persons, or less. When you have miscarriages, your unborn children are considered partial persons, so the sense is incredulity at why we would be so grief-stricken over someone who hadn’t fully developed or only lived a matter of a few weeks.”

JOY MINGLING WITH SADNESS

Grief affects everyone so intimately and so differently. It’s a personal journey, and child loss is a very delicate grief experience. For Noah Smucker, the grief is even more poignant now than before Regina was born. “She makes real what we lost,” he says plainly. “There’s a deep beauty, deep pain, and deep joy.”

Patrick and Tessa Sordelet hold their son, Leo Patrick, who died in utero. Photo courtesy of the Sordelet family.

Ruth says Regina is a reminder to her of the children she lost, but that she has gained someone new — this special little person. “That’s what’s beautiful about all of this — gaining something new.” For both Noah and Ruth, Regina has taught them to trust in God’s incredible plan through all the mystery and suffering and questions.

Tessa shares that Leo’s death has been a gift for her faith and relationship with Jesus. “I felt like I could have become a very angry and hardened person, or this could transform me,” she explains.

Emily’s life was profoundly instrumental in changing Jane’s life, too. She felt a responsibility to “carry that change forward into other people’s lives.” In so doing, “bits of Emily would be affecting the world in wonderful ways for generations to come, and she’d have fulfilled her purpose in God’s plan.”

FINDING A SPIRITUAL MENTOR

Each of the three couples had a specific encounter with a priest or bishop who shaped their spiritual experience of grief in a very healing way. Ruth had a special confession with the late Bishop John D’Arcy, in which he gently encouraged her with these words: “You have to open yourself back up to life again.”

After he died, Ruth remembered his words in her darkest days. “It always haunted me when I would wonder if we’d ever be blessed with children or struggled with the feeling that I couldn’t go through another miscarriage.” Ultimately, it’s what led Noah and Ruth to discern that they were called to be receptive to another pregnancy — and that’s the pregnancy that resulted in beautiful Regina Anne.

What parishes can do to help:

Provide funerals for infants.
Offer a memorial Mass for those babies who have died because of early miscarriage.
Pray with the families who are grieving.
Talk to parents about spiritual struggle

She says, “If you’re willing to face your pain and wrestle with it, then you’ll know when it’s time to open yourself up [to the possibility of another pregnancy].”

Jane followed the urge to write to the late Fr. Andrew Apostoli after she’d seen him quoted in her local newspaper. “He wrote back and called me,” she said. “He prayed for Emily Rose every single day of the last three months of my pregnancy, and after she died, he called and left a long, caring message on our answering machine.” To Jane, this meant everything. She feels “we need a whole priesthood full of caring, generous men like him.”

Patrick and Tessa Sordelet were overwhelmed by the response of a diocesan priest, Fr. Jason Freiburger, who sent them a thoughtful and heartfelt card after Leo’s death. In it, he thanked them for allowing him to remain in the labor room so he could experience birth and death and have a better understanding of how to minister to parishioners who would go through similar losses.

Tessa adds, “Something like this is such a gift to our priests, who often don’t know how to help accompany others in similar situations.”

Ultimately, each family has experienced healing over time, though the grief never truly goes away. Noah says that Regina is “not a replacement for our other children, not a balm for our wounds. Christ is the balm on the wound. Let God prune your grief like a skillful gardener. Grief, too, bears fruit. Suffering done faithfully bears fruit.”

What individuals can do to help:

If you know someone who has suffered the loss of a child:

Offer prayer such as Masses, Holy Hours, rosaries, novenas, spiritual bouquets, and so on.
Send a thoughtful, handwritten note.
Listen. Have empathy. Be willing to sit with someone in their raw grief without judgment or discomfort.
Ask about the child who died. Call them by name.
Check up on the family periodically.
Offer specific ways you can help based on your abilities and time. For instance, if you have a free hour on a Friday afternoon, call the grieving family to say you are able to babysit other children so they can have some time to process their emotions.

 

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