By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
The death of a baby during pregnancy never leaves a parent. Emily York has seen those reverberations, as she works to provide ways for families to remember their children lost to miscarriage.
“We’ve had an elderly couple who told us ‘No one ever expressed our loss,’” says York, one of the founders of a group called Heaven’s Babies.
Based at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Ridgway, volunteers with Heaven’s Babies work to acknowledge the loss that families feel after a miscarriage, as well as provide them with information about their rights and options.
“It’s not always handled well emotionally, by medical personnel or clergy,” York says. “We know that hospitals will take care of you physically, and then they may send you home. But nobody tells you how you can contact the funeral home, if you want a burial.”
As a nurse, York has worked with parents whose babies have died in the neonatal intensive care unit. Most of those babies are older – at least 20 weeks’ gestation – and she says there are avenues for support for those parents. But for earlier miscarriages, she says, that support may be lacking.
“They may not be seen by a nurse who’s trained in maternal and child care,” she says. “I’ve heard heartbreaking stories about women who miscarried at home, and they called the hospital and were told to just flush it down the toilet.”
Parents are often in shock or distraught and don’t think to ask about the options for keeping the fetal remains for burial. Illinois State Law allows the mother to receive fetal remains from a hospital, or for them to be released to a funeral home. But York notes that hospitals are not required to inform patients of those options.
Cathy Scates says that after both of her miscarriages more than 20 years ago, she had to assert herself with hospital staff to ensure that her babies’ remains were given to her for burial rather than being incinerated with medical waste.
“That was just unacceptable to me, after seeing my tiny baby boy at 18 weeks,” says Scates, now a volunteer with Heaven’s Babies. “We had a private burial – a bunch of people thought that was very odd, but it was important to me.”
York herself has never suffered a miscarriage, but her mother did, and other relatives have told her about their experiences. She wanted to do something to support families going through this loss.
“I sat down with my pastor, and said this is something that, given my background and profession, I felt strongly about doing. And he did too,” she says. “Father Steven Beatty has been nothing but fantastically supportive on this whole front.”
Heaven’s Babies has focused on two avenues of education, with varying degrees of success.
At St. Kateri’s and at other local churches, the group has given presentations about burial options. York says donors are willing to provide a special burial “cradle” at no cost to families who wish to hold a burial, and two local funeral homes have likewise agreed to cover some burial expenses. The services are provided to anyone of any faith.
For families who can’t bury their child in a family plot, there is a designated plot in St. Joseph Catholic Cemetery in Equality dedicated to all unborn children, York says.
Heaven’s Babies hosts an informational table regularly at St. Kateri. York says it’s important to provide the information on a routine basis.
“We’re trying to get the word out to everyone before they might think about needing it,” she says. “Nobody goes into a pregnancy expecting this, so we want people to know about it beforehand.”
She says she’s been less successful appealing to hospitals for their help in providing information to families.
“There are not many religious-based hospitals in this area,” she says. “When we went to local hospitals to talk to them about it, they were very cautious about taking on the issue – that seeing an eight-week fetus as human will somehow be making a political statement about abortion.
“We’re not trying to do anything political; we’re just trying to provide compassionate care for people who want it.”
She hopes that as more parents understand their rights and ask for burial options, hospitals will begin providing information more readily.
In the meantime, Heaven’s Babies volunteers continue to provide their own support.
The group gives out “compassionate miscarriage bundles,” containing information about support groups, mementos, and a “certificate of life,” enclosed in a handmade satin and lace envelope.
Connie Payne makes the envelopes. Now 68, she had a miscarriage decades ago.
“It’s something you carry with you your whole life,” she says. “At the time, your family feels sad for you, but everybody else moves on. When I saw that Emily was doing this, I wanted to help, so that young ladies today know someone cares.”
The group holds graveside services and burials at St. Joseph Cemetery every other month. St. Kateri will hold a special Mass on Nov. 4 in memory of babies lost to miscarriage. York says the date was chosen because it comes at the end of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, as well as because of its proximity to All Souls’ Day. During the previous memorial, parents were invited to place white roses in a vase at the altar to commemorate the babies they lost.
All these observances resonate keenly with York’s parents, Mark and Nadine York. Both acknowledged feeling alone after Nadine York’s miscarriage years ago.
“There were no services offered by the hospital,” Mark York says. “We didn’t ask for anything from the church – we didn’t know there was anything to ask for.”
Nadine York says that some people said insensitive things, such as “at least you have other kids.” Others, worried about saying the wrong thing, said nothing at all.
“People don’t deal with it – it’s something that just gets swept away and you’re supposed to ignore it and move on,” she says. “There’s a need for learning how to deal with this, what to say. People have no idea, unless you tell them.”
If you are interested in obtaining a compassionate miscarriage bundle, please contact Cathy Scates at 618-534-3212.
St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Ridgway will hold a memorial observance of infant and miscarriage loss at 9 a.m. Mass on Nov. 4.