I’m Terribly Sorry For Your Loss

The ultrasound revealed that I was pregnant with twins (amazing! miraculous! joy!), but that one of the babies was not moving (joy fled). I just knew both babies were alive. Then, with urgency, the doctor told me that I needed a specialist and sent me to the Emergency Room. This only increased my hope. Why hurry if my little one was already lost?

Before I could wonder what would happen next, I was receiving another ultrasound. My new doctor pointed to the screen and said, “There’s the first one, see? And there’s the second.” My heart soared.

Then he looked at me, and said, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

A Rare Condition

He explained that the twins had a rare condition called Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. They were girls. I asked him to tell me so that we could name the baby who had died. We named her Stella. Because they shared an amniotic sac, Stella could not be born until her sister Sylvie was. They released me the next day, and told me that the pregnancy should continue normally, now.

The twins were born a few days later, after an emergency caesarian. Sylvie went to the NICU. Afterward, they placed Stella’s thin, wrinkled body in my arms. I kissed the top of her head, and made the sign of the cross with my thumb, on her forehead. Her eyes were closed, and she was so still.

A young girl introduced herself to me as the hospital chaplain and asked if I would like her to say a prayer. I nodded. She intoned this rather silly poem about how we would see Stella in the clouds, and the rain, and in the leaves of the trees. (Later I wondered: why not in mustard or truck tires?). I didn’t want to ever hand Stella back, but eventually I had to.

The specialist doctor, who had administered the ultra-special ultrasound when I first found out that Stella had died, came to my room the next day. “After you left the hospital, the last time?” he asked. “You had to carry your child, your dead child?”

“I felt like a human tomb, for my own baby.”

“But….”

“Yes, I was also still pregnant with a living baby.”

What Is it Like?

“What is that like?” he asked. “I can’t imagine how that would feel? What you must have gone through. And now you’ve given birth to a child who succumbed, but you have another child who is in the NICU?” He looked amazed and overwhelmed.

“I don’t know. All I know is that it is possible to feel devastating grief and great joy at the same time, that both emotions can exist together.” At the time, I remember being under the impression that perhaps everything had happened the way it had so that I could testify to this mind-boggling human truth.

He nodded and then murmured, “Different people respond different ways to terrible things when they happen. But it seems to me that the only way to cope with them is if you have some sort of religious belief?” That statement came out as a question, filled with urgency.

I nodded. I could have said so much, with an opening like that one! But I sensed that he wasn’t asking for my credo at that moment. I felt much more that I was in the presence of a man of faith, and that he simply needed confirmation from me that I was aware that I was in much better hands than his. My nod seemed to be sufficient for him.

Stella’s Baptism

When I returned to my own hospital room that first evening, there was a note from the hospital chaplain waiting for me on my bedside table. This was not the same chaplain as the one who had prayed over Stella, but she was also young and inexperienced. She had been assigned the task of helping me to make Stella’s funeral arrangements.

She had left some paperwork for me and a brief note, in which she’d written my daughter’s name in quotation marks: I need you to fill out these forms, so that the morgue can release “Stella” to the funeral home. Who could have guessed that two small marks of punctuation could cause so much pain and anger? Even as I tried to explain to myself that the chaplain was young and perhaps it was just a problem she had with English usage, I wanted to strangle her.

When my nurse came to check on me, she found me sobbing in my bed. Wordlessly, she brought me tissues and then went to sit in a chair in a far corner of the room. She stayed there, for two hours, while I cried. She neither spoke nor took her eyes off my face. Her own expression was one of deep sorrow. She only left after I had quieted down.

The only date that would work for Stella’s funeral was April 9, which also happened to be my birthday. Our associate pastor performed the funeral liturgy in the cemetery chapel. When he sprinkled Stella’s coffin with holy water, he told us that the Church recognizes three forms of Baptism: by water, by blood (the martyrs), and by desire. He explained that Stella had already received Baptism of desire, through our desire as parents. He explained that sprinkling her coffin was in memory of her Baptism.

The Other Graves

It was raining, and the cemetery was muddy that day. I wanted to stay to watch the burial, so my husband brought our three girls back home. Our priest stayed with me, though, holding a big black umbrella over my head.

As we stood there, I looked at the other graves near Stella’s. Just behind her, and a little to the left, there was a large headstone. From where I stood, I could read the name carved into the granite: Francis Xavier Cabrini. What a gift that was to me! Such a great saint of the Church, who would be so near to Stella’s final resting place. I entrusted my little girl to her special care.

 

Suzanne Lewis is the founder and coordinator of the Revolution of Tenderness, and a long-time catechist and formation leader for the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

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