For Mother's Day, the Religion News Service this week has a remarkably sensitive piece on a memorial garden for mothers of deceased babies.
The feature poignantly tells of their grief and their need for closure. It looks also at religious and spiritual sensibilities, at least for Catholics.
An RNS reporter looks in on Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery, near Albany, N.Y., built for mothers of miscarried, stillborn and short-lived infants. For some of the women -- like Dorothy Caruso, who lost her child back in 1968 -- it's the first time some of them get to mourn their children:
Most Holy Redeemer’s Remembrance Garden honors the youngest of lost lives, and comforts young, recently bereaved parents. But its creation two years ago was inspired by an earlier generation of mourners.
Like Caruso, these mothers never had an opportunity to grieve for their lost children; some never even had a say in what would happen to their remains.
You may shake your head in disbelief when you read about the four mothers profiled in this story. They named their children; Caruso bought clothes and toys for hers. Then the children died as infants.
Worse was what happened after that. Caruso watched in shock as a nurse casually tossed her stillborn child in a garbage can. Another asked a nurse to take care of the baby's remains -- a decision she still regrets, seven decades later. Still another is troubled that she didn't name two of her three deceased sons, and doesn't know their final resting places.
Even worse, no one else seemed to want to remember the children. They assumed the mothers didn't want to dwell on the grief. Yet the grief stayed -- for decades.
“It was kind of like everybody just wanted to forget it,” a 70-year-old tells RNS. “It never goes away and it does affect a woman for her entire life.”
The story affected even the former head of RNS, Debra Mason. After reading it, Mason wrote on Facebook about her own son who was stillborn in 1997. "But I will always remember the tender way the hospital in Columbus, Ohio, let us hold him and grieve with him as long as we wanted. And we regularly got invites to Riverside Hospital's annual ceremony for babies who died before term or soon after."
Lauren Markoe, the writer of the article, posted her regrets and said researching the story made her cry with the mothers herself. "I can't believe so many people have been so willing to talk . . . or maybe I can."
As an RNS story, the piece necessarily moves into religion and how it affects grieving. But it concentrates almost exclusively on Catholic belief and practice:
A woman’s religious beliefs can also play into her response to miscarriage.
“If you come from a Catholic upbringing and you think of a very early embryo as a person like anybody else, just hidden from view in a woman’s body, then you’re going to have a different reaction than if you had a different upbringing,” Steinbock said.
For many of the women who take comfort in the Remembrance Garden, another lesson from their Catholic education could make coping harder. Caruso, for example, said she was taught that an unbaptized baby would not go to heaven.
The theory, first elaborated upon in the Middle Ages and still believed by some devout Catholics, holds that the soul of an unbaptized infant is consigned to neither heaven nor hell, but “limbo,” a place where children would never unite with God or their mother.
But the article treads shaky ground by adding: "In Catholic tradition, often the father and a priest would whisk the baby away, bury it in what was most often an unmarked grave, and tell the mother nothing." Tradition, custom or just a social practice? I doubt the Church sanctioned whisking away dead babies. Nor does RNS cite a Church source.
To its great credit, however, the story directly addresses the question of limbo:
In 2007, the Catholic Church clarified its teaching on babies who die unbaptized, giving devout Catholics hope for their child in the hereafter.
Though an infant should be baptized as soon as reasonably possible after birth, that doesn’t mean parents should despair of these children’s salvation if that doesn’t happen — “quite the contrary,” said the Rev. Peter Ryan, executive director of the Secretariat of Doctrine and Canonical Affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"A Father who sent his own son for our salvation wants each person to find salvation,” he explained. “You know that the Lord has a heart for that infant."
I admire how RNS took both routes: linking to the Vatican document and getting live quotes from an American Church representative. That both establishes doctrine and humanizes it. Still, to my eye, a 2007 article by Catholic News Service is clearer on the matter.
For one, it points out that limbo was itself a medieval development from St. Augustine's opinion that unbaptized infants were hellbound, but that it was never an official Church doctrine. CNS also notes that the Church in 1970 introduced a funeral rite for infants whose parents intended to have them baptized. That suggests doubts about limbo even a generation ago.
And maybe it's because this story is so long, it veers away from what seems an obvious angle to me: mothers who report similar emotional problems after abortions. Whatever position you take on abortion, those mothers -- and their feelings toward their deceased children -- also deserve a hearing. Maybe for a follow-up story down the road.
Even Lori Biskup, family service manager at the Remembrance Garden, tells RNS that the families regard Rememberance Garden as sacred ground: "The garden says to us: 'You matter. Your baby existed. He or she matters. We remember.' "