Maura Colleen McKeegan
From the May/Jun 2010 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
I don’t know why our third child stopped growing in my womb. All I know is that her birthday came far too soon, and the short months when our heartbeats intertwined feel like a dream.
It’s a loss of a different order, mourning someone I’ve never met. I’m missing memories we’ll never make, time together we’ll never have. Longing to see the child I’ll never hold, I wonder: What color were her eyes going to be? How would her laugh have sounded? Would she have been quiet or lively? Without an answer—without a face, a voice, or a personality to remember—sometimes it feels like our baby was only an idea or a hope, and not a person. But our baby wasn’t a dream. She was real. She is real.
I have called you by name, you are mine. (Is. 43:1)
Like many mothers, I’d never really stopped to think about what losing a baby would be like. After two healthy pregnancies, I wasn’t worried, and the darkness of miscarriage pushed my thoughts in lighter, happier directions.
But when one day, in my third month of pregnancy, amidst daydreams of slipping tiny socks on tiny feet, I began to bleed, I couldn’t stay in the light, happy place any longer.
The bleeding wasn’t much, but I feared the worst. Drifting off to sleep that night, I had a vision of our baby. In the vision, she was a girl. Her name was Joy, and she was going to heaven. I sensed, but hesitated to believe, that she was already gone.
I awoke the next morning to contractions. Less intense than full-term ones, but still strong, and agonizing. I was in labor, and I was totally unprepared.
It wasn’t that I’d never known anyone who’d miscarried. I’d just never heard their stories. It never occurred to me that natural miscarriage is childbirth, labor and all.
Blood gushed in frightening torrents, and I called the doctor, who gave me a choice: Go to the hospital, or stay home. My husband, Shaun, and I chose to remain in the quiet comfort of our home, where I could labor, rest, and pray in peace.
In those dark hours, one extraordinary gift brought us light: receiving Joy’s name. Later, in prayer, God gave us her middle name, too: Caeli, Latin for “heaven.” Joy Caeli would be our Joy of Heaven. Our baby’s name reminded us that Joy was a real person, not simply a dream. Not a failed pregnancy, but a member of our family forever. We had three children, not two.
Her name reminded us of something else, too: where we believe she went. Without theological certainty either way, the Church leaves open the door for us to hope in the possibility of salvation for babies who die without baptism. And God, in His goodness, can give individuals knowledge by private revelation or consolations. The vision we received of Joy in heaven renewed our trust in the mercy of Our Savior, to whom the “little ones” (cf. Mt. 18:10) are so precious. Each time we said Joy Caeli’s name, we felt a piece of the joy we believe she is experiencing in heaven. What more could a parent ask than for a child to spend eternity with Jesus?
It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:44)
The doctor said I didn’t need to save anything, but in a glass jar, I began to collect what passed. In my mind’s dense fog, I hardly knew why I was doing it; I just had a vague sense that I should.
It took two days for the contents of my womb to be expelled. In the end, what I saved in the jar was not recognizable. But I knew our baby’s body was there. While my contractions subsided, I felt a growing unrest in having the baby’s remains and not knowing what to do with them next.
Thankfully, God didn’t leave us in this anxiety for long. Our dear friend Sr. Mary Thérèse called our pastor with our question and learned that the local Catholic cemetery offers burial, at no cost to the family, for babies lost to miscarriage.
Relieved that the remains we’d saved would have a proper burial, and consoled that our Church would treat our tiny baby as a real person who lived and died, we planned a small, family ceremony.
A few days later, Shaun and I stood with our daughter, Grace, 5, and son, Finn, 3, while our pastor presided over the burial ceremony. We buried Joy’s remains, along with a blessed crucifix and a letter from her big sister, in a beautiful little wooden box we’d found at the local craft store. Our pastor’s prayers nourished our hearts, and we left the cemetery that day with a “peace . . . which passes all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 19:14)
Our daughter’s name and her Christian burial made a world of difference in how I coped with the loss spiritually. Physically, though, the side effects of miscarriage wrought their own particular havoc.
Hormonal imbalances sent my emotions spinning in ways I couldn’t control, and I can’t say I coped flawlessly. I forsook all healthy eating, swapping salads for pizza and Chinese take-out and ordering mochas with abandon. I prayed, yes, but I also felt awfully sorry for myself sometimes and sought consolation in earthly things. It’s the story of my life: my spirit soaring to Christ, while my humanity remains on earth, struggling.
In His mercy, Jesus, who understood my broken heart, knew that this walk would not be easy. He knew I’d fall. He saw that I’d need extra help along the way. When I look through heaven’s eyes, I see a little hand reaching out to pull me up. And I realize that my daughter isn’t just someone in heaven I’ll hopefully see one day. If she’s a part of the Church Triumphant, she will help me get there.
My friend Kelly, who also miscarried, told me she often asks her baby to intercede for her, saying simply, “Christopher, pray for your mama.” I fell in love with this prayer, because it carries such a deep hope in such simple words: that the baby she’s never met can see her, know her, and pray for her.
Mother Angelica puts it this way in her “Miscarriage Prayer”: “He was created and lived a short time so the image of his parents imprinted on his face may stand before [the Lord] as their personal intercessor.” What wondrous mercy!
While I’m still on earth, I might lose my footing. I might not always respond well to the graces I’m given. But, I believe, before the heavenly throne now stands a little girl who can whisper in God’s ear for me.
And since the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as she, I’d say things are definitely looking up for me down here.
Maura Colleen McKeegan writes from Steubenville, Ohio.
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