The Ache of Empty Arms

pregnant-971984I lay in the ultrasound room looking at the image of my perfectly formed baby on the screen. I could see the profile of his face and his little hand. I had a hard time believing my doctor’s gentle words: “I’m so sorry. His heart isn’t beating.” The next day I held my son in my arms after delivery, and we named him John. Eight months later I lay in another ultrasound room and again heard the words I most dreaded: “The baby is measuring smaller than she should be, and there is no heartbeat. I’m sorry.” My daughter was beautiful, and we named her Agnes. Another six months, and a phone call with lab results confirmed what I already knew: we had lost our third baby to an early miscarriage. We named him Michael.

How does one cope with the loss of a child? I have shed more tears in the past year and a half than I have probably in the rest of my life combined. I grieve for each of my babies. I struggle to accept God’s will. But there is joy too, and my heart has grown with love for the children I can no longer hold.

I imagine my children in heaven—probably romping around causing mischief together. Surely kids can cause mischief in heaven, right? I’m no theologian, so I guess we’ll find out when we get there. My husband and I have joked that our kids probably have their elbows on the table at the heavenly banquet, and the Blessed Mother is up there gently scolding them. Heaven seems more like a real place now, not an abstract idea but the home where my children live. I look forward to having a big family reunion there someday.

As I have processed my own grief, I’ve also connected with other women who have lost babies and have seen their pain. People at our parish have shared about their own losses when they heard about our babies, and friends I’ve known for years have told me about babies I never knew existed. So many couples are suffering silently as they grieve their children.

I also have friends who struggle with infertility. I understand and share in their desire to raise a family, although I don’t know the monthly disappointment of being unable to conceive. They also suffer silently and feel the ache of empty arms.

Bishop Loverde of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington will lead a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe for those suffering
from infertility, miscarriage, and infant death beginning on December 4. Please join in praying for those of us who carry this cross. We appreciate each and every prayer.

Novena for those suffering from infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss

Mexican_oil_paint_on_tin_retablo_of_'Our_Lady_of_Guadalupe',_19th_century,_El_Paso_Museum_of_Art

There are Roses in my Soul

My husband can attest to the fact that I haven’t a single green appendage, i.e. green thumb; however, I’ve planted rose bushes at every house we’ve shared. Planting them was easy, but the rest I left to nature. Typically, my minimal efforts had produced results to match. When we moved here four years ago, I again planted some new rose bushes just beside our front porch and relocated a resident climbing rose bush to the Marian garden in our yard. Last year, having purchased two apple trees, I felt compelled to try a little harder and so I rummaged through the shed and found a container of plant food. Food in hand, I circled my way around the yard sprinkling here and there our azaleas, apple trees, and my rose bushes.

I’m not really sure why I have this affinity for rose bushes, but just the thought of them brings three beloved people to mind. My mother had some roses planted just across the driveway from the side door (the door we actually used to go in and out as opposed to the front door that only strangers entered through). I think they were peach in color and I have a picture in my head that my mom took of my sister posing beside them. Then there is the story of St. Therese, the Little Flower, dropping roses to those who ask for her intercession. A grammar school teacher first taught me about her and my college roommate renewed my interest in this dear saint years later. In fact, I offered a novena to the little saint in those hours after our first child, Dimitri, was born when the details of his illness began to unfold. And, of course, roses always evince a connection to my Blessed Mother. Most of the time when I bring blooms in, I offer them to our Lady by placing the vase on our kitchen shrine.

This spring those rose bushes decided to reward my little efforts in so many more ways than I understood at first. Each in turn, the tall, thorny, green stalks began to produce tiny buds that erupted into beautiful flowers of yellow and then red. The timing of this was something of a gift in and of itself. I began to spy the changes during the weeks surrounding the loss of my husband’s job and the loss of our dear expected baby, who was still cradled in my womb. That is when my secret, daily ritual started. Waking up each morning, I would walk through the house opening windows and doors before stepping out onto the front porch which I’d cross in order to peer over the railing to see what those bushes had in store for me that day. Simple and perhaps a bit silly, but those bushes filled me with an inexplicable hope and peace. The dilemma for me then was in deciding whether I wanted to cut those blooms and carry them inside to enjoy or allow them to remain on the stem, where their beauty might last a bit longer.

At the end of April when the roses first made their appearance, we had the privilege of being godparents to our friends’ son. In thanksgiving for this blessing and that of our expected little one, I carried those first blooms to the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and placed them at her shrine. It was an easy offering on my behalf. Although I admit, I was humbled measuring my tiny bouquet against the two matching arrangements that decorated the table. To the eye, my gift looked unimpressive, but I knew that I hadn’t retained a single blossom for myself. My satisfaction was derived in knowing that I had given everything I had.

During the next few weeks, our personal trials increased and so did my daily ritual. Then, one particular Thursday came. We’d discovered the baby’s death some days before, but I was still clinging to the hope of a miracle. Knowing that Lazarus had been raised and so too had Jarius’ daughter been woken from her eternal slumber, I was praying that death would not win again. Since my husband was home, we had the rare opportunity of attending Thursday morning Mass as a family. As we rushed around preparing nine people to leave by 7:30am, I’d not had time for my peaceful ritual. But, the thought washed over me that I needed to bring today’s blooms to my Mother. I headed out to quickly clip and plant today’s bounty into a vase for transport when I was overcome by sadness and then anger. There they were in all their splendor, five roses. Five, I counted them again, five. In an instant, without a moment’s hesitation, I realized there was one bloom for each of our five heavenly children. One for Dimitri, one for Mary, one for Simeon, one for Philomena and now one for Matthew, too, how could this be? “No, no,” I wanted to scream, “You can’t have five from us. You have four already, you don’t need this fifth soul.” I wanted to pretend it didn’t mean anything, but I knew better. I wanted to leave those roses home because surely Our Lady didn’t need those stupid flowers anyway, but I knew better. So, holding fast to my unspoken anger and searing sorrow, I grabbed the scissors and I cut all five of those opened roses. Hurriedly, I stuck them into a vase as the family waited in the van. It was an internal tug-of-war for me, but I knew I had to give them all, so silently I did.

At the same time the roses were busy in the front yard, the climbers in the Marian garden were also joining in. The whole Marian garden was filled with the colors of red roses, orange Day Lilies and white Easter Lilies. During the time we were waiting for Matthew’s delivery, I remember thinking at least the garden was ready for his arrival. It brought me some solace to consider this tiny family graveyard would be well decorated when it came time for his funeral. Perhaps, even more fitting that after we laid Matthew’s hand-sized coffin in the ground, the blooms died, too and roses stopped appearing.

My memory is rather cloudy nowadays, so time seems to slip pass me and I cannot remember the exact sequence of days and weeks, but you might imagine my surprise and delight when beloved friends brought us a new rose bush in memory of Matthew. They had no idea of my rituals. And it wasn’t until days later when I asked my little ones to prepare a spot in the front yard, that I read the tag. This bush was a John Paul II commemorative rose bush, and we all know whom he had great devotion to. So, sometime in June we were gifted with this new plant that was nothing more, seemingly, than a stick with roots in a pot. I was thrilled to have a tangible, continuing sign of Matthew’s brief, earthly life and I figured that if I was lucky, or more rightly blessed, we might see Matthew’s roses in a year or two. Perhaps, I’m just garden-ignorant (okay, I am, there is no perhaps about it) but I didn’t understand when Greg told me that the bush was growing not even a month later. Finally, I saw those first tiny red leaves for myself, but still I didn’t believe. When Greg mentioned that buds were appearing, I simply ignored what he was telling me.

In truth, I liked the idea of a bare stick jutting out of the ground. I wanted it to remain bare and to hide its growth from sight for a year or two. I wanted that rose bush to mirror the way I felt, ugly and unproductive. Time was necessary, lots of time, for that bush to bloom and for me to start the process of healing, but God had other plans again. He often does. Without my consent, that stump grew its leaves and White Rosethen it had the temerity to produce a single white blossom. Unwilling to relinquish my denial, I allowed that pure, white flower to turn brown without much more than a fleeting glance from me. The bush, however, isn’t dependent on my will to make it grow or not, so it continues to defy me.

In the course, of these many trials I have wrestled with what I perceived as an inability to pray and a test of my faith. In the weakest moments, I’ve cried out, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” Listening for the answer, I’ve heard nothing. Having given those five roses to Mother, I’ve felt unable to give her anything more or even to ask for her intercession. Adoration and Mass have brought me comfort and temporary peace, but inside an emptiness has remained. A small prayer formed from this loneliness, in which I simply say, “Here I am Lord, I am empty. I have nothing left to offer, but I am Yours. Fill up my emptiness with Yourself.” A recent gospel reading ended with the command, “Whoever has ears ought to hear” which might also include whoever has eyes ought to see. Today I realized that I have been watching God’s love bloom in my yard and in my empty places. He did not need my conscious consent. He was not dependent on me to feed Him. My soul is a rose bush planted in His Divine Marian garden and He has fed me with His word, nurtured me with His love and caused my heart to bloom with hope. He used my affinity for these simple creations of His to teach me. Like the parables He used to explain the kingdom to His disciples, so are the rose bushes He is using to help me to understand.

There is one tiny white rose in bloom right now on Matthew’s bush and another bud due to burst. The bushes that began my ritual have decided their rest is over and they, too, are ripe with buds. I’m not sure that my time of mourning has fully ended, but I understand that my roots are planted deeply in faith. And God’s love has the power to transform my ugly emptiness into something beautiful and fruitful.

Miscarriage and the Love of our Father

I was just over 13 weeks pregnant when I miscarried this time.  Because of a previous miscarriage, my doctor ordered an early sonogram to set my mind at ease.  I saw the heartbeat of my precious baby at 8 weeks.  Already this child was beloved.  Regardless of that vibrant heartbeat, my child died shortly after the sonogram.  I found out at 13.5 weeks when I started to show symptoms of miscarriage.

Years earlier, the first time I miscarried, I was a newlywed.  I didn’t know my faith and wasn’t practicing it.  My husband’s and my reaction to becoming pregnant progressed quickly from surprise, to fear, to elation.  And then I miscarried at 13 weeks.

Without faith, losing my first child was just one big awful painful experience that I tried to stuff inside of me so that it wouldn’t swallow me.  I wept until there were no more tears and then I tried to focus on the future.  No one knew what to say to me and just about everything they said hurt me.  “Oh there will be others,”  “it wasn’t meant to be,”  “there must have been a deformity, better that it wasn’t born.”  In hindsight, through the eyes of faith, I know that all of their comments lacked the intended consolation because they didn’t acknowledge the baby that I lost, the viable life.  They didn’t acknowledge that I was entitled to grieve this loss because it wasn’t a just a medical term, a miscarriage, it was a baby.

I stuffed it all in after the first miscarriage and thought I was coping very well.  Life was back to normal for a while until out of the blue I became deeply sad.  I was on the verge of tears for several days.  I couldn’t understand why I felt like weeping until I realized that it was the week of my due date: my body, my whole being, was missing my child that was to have been born.  Recognizing and admitting the cause of my sadness helped to alleviate it some and gave me some peace.

Over the years I gave birth to 3 beautiful healthy children and, praise be to God, my husband and I began to learn about and live our Catholic faith.

However, despite now being a faithful Catholic, the second miscarriage was still heartbreaking.  Although I had never held this child in my arms, I believed that she was a girl and I had felt her presence in my womb.  Her hormones mingled with mine, leaving me nauseous and lethargic.  I anticipated her birth and met her in my hopes and dreams.   I felt her loss in the depth of my soul.  I wept.  Although my husband handled it differently, he was deeply affected as well.   And now I couldn’t just stuff it all inside of me, I had 3 children who had lost a sibling and were also grieving.  So I prayed and I tried to be strong.   A kind priest said something that I found comforting: “A baby is a baby no matter how small.  Some are born into our families and we raise them.  Some go straight to heaven to intercede on our behalf.”  His words brought me comfort because they acknowledged my baby as a person and a member of our family. They also reminded me that this baby had not been erased, that although she would not be a part of our family on earth, she would still be a part of our family through the communion of saints in heaven.

The priest also quoted  John 11:35 And Jesus wept.  I appreciated the scripture, but at the time its meaning escaped me.

Two days after the miscarriage my husband was scheduled to travel for business.  I told him that he should go.  I wanted to try to get back to normal and really didn’t think there was anything he could do for me at home.  He left for the trip.  The night he left, after I put the kids to bed, I regretted encouraging him to go.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  Through my tears I prayed in a desperately demanding sort of way.  “Lord, intellectually I know that you are there, but right now I really need to feel your presence physically.  I need to feel your comfort, your embrace.  I need you to hold me.  I need a big strong shoulder to cry on.  Please Lord!”  And then I cried myself to sleep.

In the morning I went to daily mass for the first time since I had miscarried.  My grief and fluctuating hormones left me feeling emotionally unstable so I didn’t want to be near anyone.  I sat in the very last pew.  The closest person was at least 15 rows ahead of me.  Then a few minutes after Mass started, a young man and his son came in and sat directly in front of me.  The man was extremely tall, at least 6’ 6”, and his son seemed to be around 8 years old.  My thoughts were not particularly charitable: “REALLY??? There are 30 empty pews and you have to sit right in front of me.”

During Mass I couldn’t help it; I began to weep softly and silently.  I was distracted and looking off to the right when I felt something touching my left knee.  I turned and saw that it was the man’s hand.  He bent backwards just enough to reach me.  I have to say that having a stranger place his hand on my knee would normally have upset me, but oddly I felt comforted by this stranger’s gesture.  Then at the sign of peace, the man effortlessly leaned backwards and embraced me. I felt consoled, physically.   After Mass he knelt beside me in the aisle and told me that he was praying for me.

Immediately I knew that our Lord, in his great compassion, had answered my prayer and had sent this man to comfort me.  He was so tall, and so compassionate.  I felt our Lord’s embrace and our Lord’s love and comfort. I prayed with gratitude in my heart for this tangible answer to my previous prayer.

A few days later a woman who had been at that Mass approached me.  She wanted to know who the man was that had knelt beside me.  I told her that I didn’t know his name but it seemed that he had been sent by God.  She told me that she had been in line behind him to greet the priest on the way out of Mass.  file000871375277She said that he was weeping.  I remembered, John 11:35 And Jesus wept.

Recently, John 11:35 was included in the Gospel for Sunday Mass.  The priest’s homily touched on why Jesus, who knew all and could change all would weep.  He said that Jesus wept out of compassion because he knew how painful death was and that, but for the fall, death wasn’t meant to be.

I know with both my intellect and my heart that Jesus was with me every step of my struggle through these miscarriages.  He was grieving with me and helping me to carry the pain of losing my babies.  I find great comfort and strength in that.  It makes our heavenly Father’s love so tangible to me.

Yes, I have lost two babies, but I have also received a gift.  If you have ever miscarried, please take any part of my story as your own.  Know that our Lord was with you as well and wept for the loss of your baby also.

Together, my children and I named their two siblings, Jack and Lily.  There is great dignity in having a name.  We registered them in The Book of Life at the Shrine of the Holy Innocents, dedicated to the memory of children who have died unborn.  They sent us a certificate that we keep in our family photo album.  I believe that Jack and Lily may be our most powerful intercessors.

God is so Kind, so Generous and Merciful

My husband and I were Evangelical Protestants. We used contraception for the first years of our marriage. That was, we believed at the time, the most responsible thing to do. We were taught not to become pregnant until we were financially “ready,” and then it was probably most responsible to have only two children. More than that, and you would find it difficult to be a “good” parent. Having more than two children, we would also risk being “selfish.” I, however, was willing to take that risk. My dream was to have many children. My husband’s dream was to have two. That, he hoped, would be our family. That would be our responsible plan.

But then, that was not God’s ultimate plan for us. I look back on those days and think of myself as, hard as it is to say, arrogant — to believe that my plan, our plan, could be “better” than whatever God would have planned for us. But I really did not understand, nor had I ever heard, the Catholic teachings of God’s plans of procreation, of sexuality, and of the gift of children.

When we decided we were ‘ready” for children, we found we had infertility problems. After many months without contracepting, we were finally blessed with our first child, and then subsequently suffered our first miscarriage. More infertility, and finally we were blessed with a second child. After several years, I was able to convince my husband to try for just one more child. We had, however, years with more miscarriages.

After four miscarriages (the pregnancies were achieved through infertility treatments and medications), we were told by the doctor that I would never give birth to another child, and so we adopted. My husband was reluctant at best when we began the process, and only came around because he realized how desperately I wanted another child. The day our baby arrived, however, she became the light of my husband’s life, and that light has only become brighter with time. They adore each other, and God created this special relationship, just as he had created our first two children. At this point, my husband told me, no more adoptions. Our family was complete. While his decision saddened me, for the first few months of our new baby’s life, I was too distracted by the carpools, after school sports, diapers, and nap times to really absorb the finality of his decision to close our family at this point.

Then God opened it again. One day, when my husband was away on a business trip, I went to the drugstore to purchase something I never thought I would ever buy again — a home pregnancy test. Without any fertility treatments, my body was beginning to show all the signs of pregnancy. I felt numb — if this were true, it most likely meant I would have to live through the devastation of miscarriage again. How would I ever get through this yet another time, I wondered.

The test was positive, and I knew my husband wouldn’t believe me — he would think it was a practical joke. In fact, he did laugh when I told him, but soon the truth settled in on both of us that I was indeed pregnant, and we would, in all likelihood, have another miscarriage.

But God is so kind, so generous and merciful. And He allowed us to give birth to our last child. He was born strong and healthy, and he is truly our miracle baby.
I believe that the gift of this baby was, in part, God’s way of showing us that it is indeed He who is in control. His love for us is greater than we could ever imagine. And His plans for us are greater, as well.

After our last baby was born, we came to the Catholic Church, by the grace of God, and through the writings of Pope John Paul the Great. The Pope’s theology of the body explains the great love God has for us, and how He allows us to participate with Him in His creation. We learned that it is a great privilege to partner with God in the creation of His precious children. We are grateful for this gift, and we are grateful, as well, for His bringing us into the fullness of the faith, in His Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Submitted from Virginia