Story by Lesa Tines
(SNR) – When a couple first learns they are expecting a child, their life is filled with anticipation and joy. They spend their time daydreaming about their child; will they have boy or girl, who will he or she look like and which name will they choose?
For some couples the excitement of a new child is never realized. Unfortunately, many couples will deal with the loss of a child through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.
Healing Hearts, a grief recovery program offered through the diocese’s Office of Family Life and Evangelization will sponsor an event Dec. 28 to support these families and honor their children.
On that day, the feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates when boys under 2 years of age were slaughtered by Herod in his attempt to eliminate the Christ Child (Matthew 2:16-18), an annual Mass is celebrated for children lost through miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. This year, Dec. 28 falls on a Sunday which is also the feast of the Holy Family. To incorporate both celebrations the official title of this year’s event is the ‘Mass of the Holy Family in honor of the Holy Innocents.’
The Mass gives grieving parents a chance to celebrate the life of their child. Parents submit the names of the children they have lost to the Family Life Office. Each child’s name is read aloud prior to the Mass and printed on a banner.
“Families suffering the loss of a baby, no matter the age, need to affirm the life of their child,” said Sandy Danek of the Cathedral of the Risen Christ Parish in Lincoln, coordinator of Healing Hearts. “This is why this Mass and the reading of the names mean so much to these parents.”
Erica Ostgren of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Seward said she was excited when she heard about the Mass. In June 2013, Erica and her husband Mitch gave birth to their son James. Early in Erica’s pregnancy, James was diagnosed with anencephaly, a birth defect which results in the death of the child within a few hours or days of birth.
“Being sad was an understatement.” Erica said. After completely surrendering herself to God’s will, she described the time she carried James in her womb as the most beautiful time of her life.
“It put life in perspective like never before,” she said. “Christ’s presence was never stronger.”
The Ostgrens were also surrounded by loving friends and family during that difficult time. On the night before they checked into the hospital to deliver James, Mitch and Erica’s sisters and brother presented them with a special gift: a box filled with cards. The cards held prayers from friends, family and even strangers from all around the country.
“Their support was very important,” Erica added.
James was born on a rainy summer day and lived for nine hours. During his time on earth he only knew love. He was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic faith. At the moment of his last breath, Erica said she remembers hearing a loud clap of thunder.
“It was the most comforting sound,” she said. “God was with us and he (James) was with God.”
Mitch and Erica attended the Mass of the Holy Innocents for the first time last year. She describes it as “really beautiful.” Being a part of the Mass made the loss of James less isolating, she said, and it helped her understand that she wasn’t alone in her grief.
Along with the Mass of the Holy Innocents, Healing Hearts also offers grief support. A series of six sessions gives the participant an opportunity to understand issues such as the grief process, a Christian perspective of suffering, effects of grief on relationships, comfort from Scripture and restoring balance. Held at the John XXIII Diocesan Center each spring and fall, the group setting allows time for discussion and is directed by a professional team, including Father Sean Kilcawley, director of the Office of Family Life and Evangelization.
“Grief is a personal and individual experience,” Danek said. “Couples will communicate their grief in different ways with no specific time-frame. This is why communication and understanding is so important.”
Even the loss of a baby at its earliest stages can be devastating to a family.
“I was empty and numb inside,” shared Sarah Weber of St. Patrick Parish in McCook, who lost her baby at only six weeks gestation. “The worst was when I had quiet time. I was trying so hard to not fall apart or hurt.”
“All my life all I wanted to be was a mother,” said Tracy Adams of St. James Parish in Trenton, who experienced two miscarriages, one at 14 weeks and one at six weeks, “so both of my miscarriages were devastating. I struggled most at the baby’s due date.”
Both women said support from family and friends helped them during their time of grief.
“A hug or saying ‘you’re in our prayers’ goes a long way,” Weber said.
“Often people will think it is better to not bring up the issue, especially during the holidays. However, their baby is constantly on their minds, so avoiding it can only make them feel isolated. A simple acknowledgement and show of concern offers great comfort,” she suggested.
The reading of the names begins 2 p.m. Dec. 28. The Mass will be celebrated at 2:30 p.m.
Those parents who would like to have their baby’s name added to the list may call the Family Life Office at 402-488-2040. A child’s name can be included on the list even if the family members are unable to attend the Mass.
No names are ever removed from the list once placed there. Currently there are more than 800 names read at the Holy Innocents Mass.