The rules around infant death vary, depending on where you live, but there are many groups in the US, UK, and Canada to turn to.
Being pregnant is supposed to be a time of joyful anticipation. But for the one in four women who experience a miscarriage at some point in their lives, or the one in 22 parents whose child is stillborn, quite the opposite is true. Yet it can be hard for parents to find emotional and spiritual support.
Sharon St. Pierre of Los Angeles is a licensed clinical social worker and works for By Your Side LA, a ministry that helps parents who have lost a baby. She told Aleteia that parents often experience what she calls “disenfranchised grief.” She said giving a name to a child who died before birth and finding a way to memorialize them makes the child and the death real. This gives parents a place to hang their grief, so to speak. Being able to bury the remains of the baby helps with this, but having a burial can be a challenge.
What are the rules around infant death in different places?
Hospitals have to report and issue certificates for stillbirths for vital statistics purposes. The definition of stillbirth depends on how far along in the pregnancy the death happened, and where you live …
In the US
- Most states consider a death at 20 weeks gestation or more to be a stillbirth.
- Pennsylvania considers death at 16 weeks gestation or later to be a stillbirth.
- American Samoa, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, New York, Northern Mariana Islands, Rhode Island, Virginia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands require reporting at any stage of gestation.
Some hospitals will release the baby’s remains to a funeral home, if the parents wish. In some states parents have to ask for their baby’s remains and make all the arrangements themselves.
In the UK
- Any death After 24 weeks it is a stillbirth.
- At any stage in gestation hospitals must ask parents about their wishes for their baby’s remains.
- Hospitals must help parents who want a burial to make the necessary arrangements.
- Any death after 20 weeks as a stillbirth.
- In some provinces and hospitals, staff must ask parents if they want to see their baby and what they want to do with the remains. They do this no matter when the death occurred.
Catholic and non-religious cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada have started offering special burial plots for miscarried babies. Funeral homes are now helping parents find ways to mark the death of their unborn child.
What about spiritual support?
Twelve dioceses in the United States have miscarriage ministries. Each provides different types of support. Family Life offices in most dioceses offer bereavement programs and support groups. Outside of these dioceses, hospital chaplains and parish-based ministries are available.
In the United Kingdom, hospital chaplains and parish priests are the first line of support for parents. Hospital staff have to refer parents to SANDS, a national non-profit organization for parents who have lost a baby. As well, Tommy’s provides on-line resources and does in depth research on what causes miscarriages.
Canadian dioceses also vary in their approach. In most cases, hospital chaplains provide the first line of support and parish priests help continue the healing process. Many dioceses hold an annual Mass to remember infants who died before birth.
A miscarriage can be such a shock that parents sometimes don’t remember to ask for the hospital chaplain. Many dioceses have developed special liturgies or prayer services to use after the fact to remember a child who died and even give parents a chance to name their baby.
Resources to help if you’ve had a miscarriage
Elizabeth Ministries: an international ministry with parish-based chapters that provides support regarding relationships, sexuality, and childbearing.
Catholic Miscarriage Support: a site created by Catholic parents who have experienced miscarriages and offer practical and spiritual advice and resources.
Colorado: Angel Bed Project helps provide burial for miscarried or stillborn infants.
Florida: Bereavement seminars for parents who have lost a child.
Georgia: All Embrace is a ministry for infant loss that also trains priests to be able to provide support to parents who have lost a baby.
Illinois: The Haven Network is an independent, Christian ministry for parents facing miscarriage.
Indiana: Miriam’s Blessing helps couples who have received an adverse prenatal diagnosis.
Kansas: Alexandra’s House is a local Catholic organization that helps parents who receive an adverse prenatal diagnosis through their journey from diagnosis to delivery and beyond.
Minnesota: Embrace is a parish based miscarriage ministry.
North Dakota: Finding Hope Ministries A diocesan ministry for parents dealing with miscarriage or stillbirth.
Philadelphia: Lily’s Gift provides practical guidance and compassionate care to parents faced with an adverse prenatal diagnosis.
Rhode Island: My Child, My Gift is for couples carrying to term after receiving an adverse prenatal diagnosis. And St. Gabriel’s Call is a ministry for crisis pregnancy, but also helps couples dealing with miscarriage when needed and can refer to other organizations and services.
Virginia: Morning Light Ministry provides over the phone help to parents, anywhere, dealing with the loss of a baby. Volunteers are parents who have also lost a child. And A Mom’s Peace helps parents deal with grief, the burial process, and memorializing their baby.
Remembering and naming a miscarried baby
Here are resources for having a Mass for babies who’ve died before being baptized.
The Archdiocese of Boston outlines what liturgical options are available when a child dies before or shortly after birth.