By Rebecca Oas, PhD
WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 11, 2012 (Zenit.org).- One of the traditional names given to the Blessed Virgin Mary is “Our Lady of Sorrows,” a title under which the faithful reflect on the sorrowful events of her life, specifically the traditional Seven Sorrows. Each of these focuses on a painful event of separation from her Son Jesus, whether prefigured in the prophecy of Simeon, threatened during the Flight to Egypt, experienced briefly prior to the Finding in the Temple, or finally embraced fully in the events surrounding the Crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
The grief of Mary has been expressed beautifully in art through the centuries, such as Michaelangelo’s famous Pieta, and for many women who have experienced the loss of a child, the sorrows of Our Lady carry a particularly personal significance.
Because of the uniquely strong bond between a mother and a child, added to the sense of untimeliness when a person dies before his or her parents, the effects of maternal bereavement have been a frequent topic of study and concern for psychologists.
A recent study from the University of Notre Dame analyzed a large population of mothers in the United States aged 20 to 50 and found that in the first two years following the death of a child, the mother’s own risk of early death was elevated 133% over those mothers who had not lost a child (1). The authors found that the effects of bereavement were great regardless of the age of the child or the cause of death. While this study did not examine the impact of bereavement on fathers, the authors cited a previous study from Denmark in which the risks were shown to be elevated for mothers compared to fathers (2).
Although both the Danish and American studies took into account socioeconomic factors, education level, and marital status of the bereaved mothers, neither considered the impact of religious faith on their ability to cope with the tragic loss of a child. However, many other reports have cited the positive effects of faith when dealing with stressful situations, including a review article which specifically highlights the importance of religion and spirituality when coping with the death of a child (3). The authors of the review emphasize that the death of a child is an “uncontrollable life event” and outlined some of the specific ways in which religious practices help a bereaved parent cope, such as the surrendering of control of the situation to God, the choice to seek intimacy with others in a religious context and closeness to God, and the search for supernatural meaning in the midst of loss.
While the loss of a child is particularly devastating to the parents, it is a grief shared by the larger community of those who knew the child during his or her life. The loss of an unborn child, in contrast, is a far more private tragedy, especially if the parents had not yet shared the news of the pregnancy. Further complicating matters is the ongoing worldwide debate over abortion rights, which has resulted in fierce semantic and even legal battles over the treatment of the unborn baby as a distinct person.
In recent years, one manifestation of this debate involved the decision whether or not to issue birth certificates for stillborn babies (4). When a miscarriage occurs earlier in a pregnancy, the mother’s grief can be exacerbated both by its private nature and by the absence of the tangible practices associated with the burial of the body of a loved one, surrounded by one’s family and friends. A 2008 literature review on the topic of grief after a miscarriage noted the benefits of “concretizing” the experience through practices such as keeping mementoes and holding a memorial service (5). However, the squeamishness surrounding the abortion debate adds yet another layer of trepidation, not only among well-meaning friends and caregivers, but potentially to the mother herself, as evidenced by the account given by a staunchly feminist author attempting to develop a terminology to describe the grief following miscarriage without undermining her pro-choice efforts:
“…after my miscarriages, my confidence in the terms embryo and fetus began to slip away. Somehow these terms were starting to feel too cold, too detached, to name and reference beings about which I had been so excited and hopeful. I began to find the notion that I had lost “babies” oddly comforting, in spite of worries that I was being unwittingly swayed by the “other side” to which my pro-choice politics had been so long positioned.” (6)
From a psychological perspective, the intensity and duration of grief following a miscarriage is described as being similar to that which occurs following other significant losses (5). As scientific studies and new medical technologies enable a greater understanding of the process of prenatal development, the relationship between a mother and her unborn child is also a key focus of study, including the search for the most helpful way to deal with the aftermath of a miscarriage. An article written to advise nurses treating women who have suffered miscarriages points out, among other recommendations, that investigating the cause of the miscarriage helps to alleviate potential feelings of guilt in the mother and reassure her that the tragic event was, in fact, beyond her control (7).
But what of those mothers for whom the loss of a child was not an “uncontrollable life event,” but, rather, a matter of her own choosing? A longitudinal study conducted by a Norwegian group assessed the mental health of women following an abortion or miscarriage and at time points up to five years after the event. While the women who had miscarried exhibited greater distress at the ten-day and six-month time points, their subsequent recovery was more pronounced than that of their counterparts who had undergone elective abortions. Furthermore, while the women who had miscarried exhibited feelings of loss and grief, the predominant feelings of those who had aborted were guilt and shame (8).
The loss of a son or daughter, whether unborn, a child, or an adult is a deeply painful event, particularly for the individual’s parents. Surveys and studies of bereaved parents demonstrate that, particularly within the first two years of the loss, an intense grieving process occurs, and this process can be helped by religious faith and practices, as well as participation in a community of fellow believers. When the lost child is unborn, and particularly when the miscarriage occurs early in pregnancy, the grieving process for the mother can be helped by acknowledging the actuality of the loss, and through practices which memorialize the life and individuality of the child. These practices, however, are in stark contrast to the attitudes taken by those who are willing to go to great lengths to strip away all semantic traces of the humanity of unborn children, even as the mounting medical evidence reveals the ultimate futility of such efforts.
Women who miscarry, regardless of their political views, are conscious of a loss, and one worth grieving. By attempting to use language to negate the humanity of the unborn, abortion rights advocates deny not only the basis for grief after a miscarriage, but also the words to express it. This is in direct contrast to study results which demonstrate that treating the loss as more than symbolic is beneficial to the mother’s recovery. Thus, the promotion of access to abortion is not only detrimental to the women who experience guilt and shame after undergoing the procedure, but also results in collateral damage to those whose unborn children were lost through no choice of their own.
The loss of loved ones is a sad but unavoidable fact of our mortality, but as Catholics we not only live in the hope of everlasting life, but we can take comfort in the fact that our Lord Himself grieved the loss of friends and family who died during His time on Earth. As we reflect on the sorrows of Mary and the sufferings of Christ, we can extend sympathy and understanding to all who are bereaved, especially parents who have lost children, regardless of the circumstances of their deaths, and take comfort in the knowledge that, like Our Lady, those who mourn will one day be reunited with their children in the life to come.
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Rebecca Oas, Ph.D., is a Fellow of HLI America, an educational initiative of Human Life International. Dr. Oas is a postdoctoral fellow in genetics and molecular biology at Emory University. She writes for HLI America’s Truth and Charity Forum.
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1] Espinosa, J., Evans, W.N., Maternal bereavement: The heightened mortality of mothers after the death of a child, Economics and Human Biology (2010), doi:10.1016/j.ehb.2012.06.002
2] Li J, Precht DH, Mortensen PB, Olsen J. Mortality in parents after death of a child in Denmark: a nationwide follow-up study. Lancet. 2003 Feb 1;361(9355):363-7.
3] Ungureanu, I,. Sandberg, J.G. ”Broken Together”: Spirituality and Religion as Coping Strategies for Couples Dealing with the Death of a Child: A Literature Review with Clinical Implications. Contemporary Family Therapy (2010) 32:302–319
5] Brier, N. Grief Following Miscarriage: A Comprehensive Review of the Literature. Journal of Women’s Health. Volume 17, Number 3, 2008
6] Parsons, K. Feminist reflections on miscarriage, in light of abortion. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. Spring 2010, Volume 3, Number 1
7] Bacidore, V., Warren, N., Chaput, C., Keough, V.A. A Collaborative Framework for Managing Pregnancy Loss in the Emergency Department. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing. Volume 38, Issue 6, pages 730–738, November/December 2009
8] Broen, A.N., Moum, T., Bødtker, A.S., Ekeberg, O. The course of mental health after miscarriage and induced abortion: a longitudinal, five-year follow-up study. BMC Medicine. 2005 Dec 12;3:18.