Thursday, January 19, 2012

Role of Miscarriage and Stillbirth in Seminary Education

A friend told me that after her daughter was stillborn a year ago she had trouble finding a priest to offer a memorial service for her. She wasn't living in the wilds of Montana where there are very few Orthodox churches, she was living in New York in an area stuffed with priests. The priest who eventually did the service was reluctant. This struck me as unreasonable. Why would we not do a memorial service for a departed infant? The answer was, the baby was not baptized. Even though infants who die before birth have no need of baptism (explanation here) consider what a comfort for the grieving family a memorial service is. By not permitting any sort of memorial service to be done we would in essence be denying the existence of the infant.

There is an excellent article on this site (Touchstone Article) that addresses the question of how the Church ministers to miscarried and stillborn children and their families. The upshot is that work needs to be done. The situation I described above certainly illustrates that. You would think that the Church has never addressed the situation but that is not the case. Below is an excerpt from that article:
It is in the other aspect of ministering to pre-born death—services for the infant himself—where there is more room for improvement, or at least for clarification. There are no prescribed Orthodox services for a miscarried child: no funeral, no commemoration, no anniversary observances. This is because the unborn child is not baptized. Indeed, there is a school of thought that the pre-born dead cannot partake in the fullness of God’s kingdom for his departed, and therefore should not even be buried in the same part of the cemetery with the faithful.

Thankfully, this custom—which has been condemned as “nothing less than barbaric” by Fr. Alexander Rentel, a professor of Orthodox canon law—is not universal and was not applied in our case. The funeral service for infants was read, with some modifications, over little Constantine. The monastic community at St Tikhon’s stepped in out of loving concern and conviction regarding the sacredness of all human life, and made room for Constantine among all the other Orthodox awaiting the resurrection in that place. The only distinguishing aspect of the pre-borns’ grave markers at St. Tikhon’s is that they bear only one date. Other monasteries exercise similar care over the pre-born dead.

Some progress is being made toward addressing the perplexities of theology and custom that have inhibited pre-born funerals for the Orthodox. In March 2001, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece set guidelines for burials of unbaptized babies, classifying children of Orthodox Christian families as “candidate members” of the church: “After the establishment of infant baptism, the unbaptized children of Christian parents occupy the place of catechumens.” And catechumens may receive a Christian burial in the Orthodox tradition. [emphasis mine]

This decision by the Greek synod may be a welcome step toward ending the situation in which, in the words of Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist, “children who die in the womb are among the only human beings . . . denied any place in the liturgical life of the church.” We look forward to the day when such precedents will spread across Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole, and extend to the pre-born dead the full range of services for the dead.
"...unbaptized children of Christian parents occupy the place of catechumens." Any Orthodox Christian knows that catechumens have their own special litany during every Liturgy. We even (with a special blessing from the bishop) have conducted memorial services in church for non-Orthodox family of members of our parish. It has been painful for me to hear catechumens commemorated when my own babies are not and to attend memorial services in church when my babies' services were restricted to the graveside.

It would seem that while at least one local Church has made an official statement, there is still a gap to be filled by the rest of the Church*. To the best of my knowledge the topic of miscarriage and stillbirth is never brought up at seminary unless it is in passing by a priest who has experienced it personally. A seminarian remains ignorant on the subject and is ordained and sent out to a church not knowing what to do if a woman comes to him having lost a baby. Chances are he will have never thought about the matter until it is staring him in the face. Certainly, that was the case with the loss of our own son Innocent in April of 2011. My husband was at a loss, not knowing what was going on, not knowing what services would be appropriate, not knowing what to say to me. Mercifully, his spiritual father was able to provide comfort and a service we could do at the graveside, he himself having buried six of his own miscarried grandchildren.

We need to do a better job in seminaries of educating men on the subject of miscarriage and stillbirth. It would be unthinkable for them to graduate and be ordained having no idea what to do upon the death of a child or adult, but we leave them empty handed when it comes to the unborn. It is not only unfair to the priests, it is profoundly unfair to the faithful to whom they minister. I don't know how many women have written me, telling me they went to their priests for solace, advice and services and were turned away or treated insensitively. In this day and age, when we can see unborn children when they are comprised of but a few cells, when we can perform surgery on them, when we know more about them than has ever been known, to ignore their plight and deny them the services of the church and to send their grieving parents away with empty words is absurd and wrong.

I don't know where exactly to start with this - I am but a single matushka in the middle of nowhere (as far as the Orthodox church is concerned). But really, this has got to be improved. Surely we can do better than this.

*Matushka Euphemia has emailed me and pointed out that the Romanian Orthodox Church has made a similar statement which predates by many decades that by the Church of Greece. The original statement is in Romanian but below is a translation. This is a tremendously important statement. Note that it predates Communism in that country, the ecumenical movement, etc.
The most important source is the decision of the Romanian Orthodox Church Holy Synod of 5 May 1908. It says:
Also, regarding the address of the same Holy Metropolis, relative to the issue whether it is proper to have the religious service of burial of children who die before they are baptized as well as those who are born dead.  After the discussion which followed, the suggestion of H.E. the primate Metropolitan and H.E. the Metropolitan of Moldova to allow the priests to do the religious service for children born dead as well as those who die before being baptized, being children of Orthodox parents.
 (Thanks to Fr. Peter Andronache for the translation!)


  1. I can very much relate to the women who have been treated insensitively by clergy during and after a miscarriage. I miscarried our first child while my husband was attending seminary in 2009. No one, not even my spiritual father at the time, asked more than a passing question about me or my child. Even my husband was less than supportive and sympathetic to my grief and emotions. It was a very early loss, 6 weeks, and it is understandable that none of the men in my life or surrounding me understood the unique heartbreak that a mother has when she knows that the life inside her is gone, even as young a life as my Adam's.

    Seminarians and professors spend hours debating ethics and especially the issues surrounding abortion and euthanasia. I still find it astonishing that no time has been given to what happens when that life that they all agree is there has been extinguished before baptism is possible. As Orthodox Christians it makes no sense to celebrate a life as it grows inside a mother's womb, but avert our eyes and hearts when we have to bury that life.

    I really pray that they screws this issue with haste. I know too many ladies who have lost a child and we all need comfort and closure, especially from the Church.

    ~Marushka Valerie

  2. Forgive my autocorrect. The last paragraph should say I hope they address this issue.

  3. Thank you for sharing, Matushka Valerie. I'm sorry you had such a hard experience when you lost your first baby. May his memory be eternal!

  4. I've just lost my 3rd baby. I'm struggling with how to handle it. When I went to confession a few weeks ago I brought up being afraid about having another miscarriage. I have had two in the last year. And I was having concerning signs and low hormone levels. My priest's immediate response to me was to tell me that I am a very negative person. He did not ask if there was a reason to be worried other than the natural worry after two miscarriages. He didn't know of the test results and concerning ultrasounds. He just told me I was negative and had always been that way. And that if we worry or focus on the worst that can happen then we will actually cause that to happen. At that point I asked if he was saying that worry or fear would cause a miscarriage and he said no that worry was one thing and a miscarriage was another. I have no idea what the point of his remark was then since that was his sole response to my fear of another loss. He then just told me to pray a lot and call him and let him know what was going on. I can't even return to him after losing this baby now. I am astounded at how cold and calloused he was. It's not the first grossly insensitive remark regarding my miscarriages he's made. But it was the worst confession I'd ever experienced. There was no spiritual guidance only berating me. Telling me to pray was it. God was never mentioned. I feel so sad and now just angry that there is no place for my losses in the Church other than a prayer to make me feel guilty for possibly being the cause of my losses. I did absolutely everything I knew possible to try and keep those babies. I avoided all possible things linked to miscarriages, took progesterone right after ovulation, took supplements etc. And what hurts even more is that I know my priest knows I've had a miscarriage now, knows I had to have surgery on Friday and has made no effort to contact or console us at all. None. But I guess being bothered and hurt by all this is just about me being a negative person.

  5. Anonymous,

    I'm so sorry for the loss of your three children, especially over such a short period of time. Being worried that you would miscarry again was a very natural thing given your history. I'm sorry you did not receive comfort from your priest. The sad fact is that many people (not just priests) have no personal experience with the loss of a child and simply don't understand the depth of pain it causes. Because this is something that generally doesn't come up in seminary, those priests who have no such personal experience aren't given any help in addressing the natural fears that someone may experience. Nevertheless, one priest does not = the Church and I think it permissible for you to seek out another spiritual father.

    You're not a negative person (from what I can tell), but only someone filled with grief, pain, disappointment and loneliness. Feel free to email me if you like: (lostinnocentsorthodox (at) gmail (dot) com).

    Memory Eternal!


    Link to site that contains services for stillbirth.

    - kyra kirtyan

  7. Thank you for the link, Kyra! I'll add it in to this site.

  8. being the (Christian) father of a stillborn (Holly i.m. 1993) I created an illustrated video of hope, GOODBYE, AU REVOIR, SLAN - to mark my daughter’s would-have-been 21st birthday. It is available also as a booklet.

    I also wrote a passionate poem about the cruel treatment of marginalised, unbaptised stillborn babies, in Irish religious and traditional funeral practices

    perhaps your readers might appreciate knowing of these.

  9. Years ago, a close friend went to a priest-monk for confession. She had recently miscarried and was shattered by the experience. Her mother urged her to go see this priest-monk, stating he was very wise and spiritual and would offer a consolation that her psychiatrist could not.

    My friend reluctantly went. She wasn’t as close to the church as she had been as a child and didn’t really know what to expect. She came out of the experience even more shattered.

    The atmosphere of the confessional was so clinical. As she was going through her confession, the priest-monk kept saying “allo”—sometimes even before she finished her sentence—which meant, “next” (or, to capture the tone, add a sigh or huh before the word allo, sometimes with an eye roll). She was saving her miscarriage for last, because it was difficult for her to talk about. But the priest-monk kept rushing her because “I have a lot of people to see today and I have to see them all before the bus leaves.” She apparently went over the 10 minute mark she was allotted which was agitating the priest-monk.

    Finally, she brought up her miscarriage—not as a sin in confession but rather something she needed to talk about. As soon as she mentioned the word “miscarriage” the “omg” look on the priest’s face reverted to all seriousness and then a barrage of questions. Besides the seemingly false empathy, combined with hints that God allows these things because of the mothers’ sins, the priest-monk then explained why he was being lenient with only giving her a 3-year penance of no holy communion (1 year for the miscarriage, 1 year for fornication, i.e. sex outside of marriage, and 1 year for other stuff).

    To top it all off, the forgiveness prayer he read for her essentially stated she involuntarily murdered her child. I do not know if the forgiveness prayer for miscarriages is the same in all orthodox jurisdictions, but the Greek one is a little sickening as it doesn’t really differentiate between women who have abortions and women who miscarry—their “sin” seems to be equal in the prayer book.

    And that was that. Nothing more to talk about, other than he gave her a 33-knot prayer rope and said he wanted her to do 4 of those a day (3 to Christ and 1 to Panagia) and to come back again to see him soon, suggesting that if she came on a weekday he’d have more time because it isn’t as busy.

    She was also instructed that at the end he’d go out to the bookstore to read the general forgiveness prayer over all the pilgrims who confessed that day—something he did to save time since reading it for each individual person took up too much time—and that she should be there because the prayer he read is specific only for miscarriages.

    So, not only did she leave without any consolation, she felt even more shattered, and, as she stated, “I felt like I was mentally and emotionally raped.”

    1. I'm so sorry about your friend's experience. It's true that the traditional prayer for a woman after miscarriage seems to treat it no differently from abortion. Without getting into the whole history, suffice it to say that a more recent version has come into use that does not make the same blunder. An older hieromonk would not be familiar with it. (You can read both prayers on the "prayers and liturgics" page.) I think your friend would do better to find a spiritual father at a parish local to her. They would build a relationship over time and she would get the individual attention she needs.

  10. Thank you for posting all of these comments. I, myself, "miscarried" twice. (I quote that word because I don't believe I carried the children "mistakenly," “wrongly,” or “incorrectly.” I use that word because it can mean ill-carried... and the loss of children was certainly due to illness—which may result from sin, but is not a sin in and of itself. Glory to god for all things.)

    The first child, in particular, I loved dearly and lost at three months. The next was so early we never found a body. The only consolation I had—and these occurred a year or two before I became Orthodox—was that God had taken the children (at least by allowing their deaths) and that they were not lost to Him. Further, I had to admit that He is a better parent than I, and so no "harm" had been done them. The pain in my heart, I figured, was due to my selfishness that wanted ME to be the one to raise them—but God had other plans.

    I was not able to name them, as I knew not whether they were boys or girls. I had to trust that God knew their appropriate names—as he knew Abram's should be Abraham and Sarai's should be Sarah. I pray one day he tells me.

    In those days—living in a small town via the military—we consulted the two religious authorities available: both a protestant minister and catholic priest. We knew not what to do with the child's body, but we knew we would move soon and I didn't want to leave the child with no one to pray for him/her. Both said it would be fine to cremate and take the body on our transfer. As that seemed the only option to preserve honor for the child's life that is what we did. Now, I hear I'm supposed to "find some place to bury the child"... but that can't be an Orthodox cenetery. To which I reply, I don't want to be buried with my child being buried alone and apart from me and the church. I would rather forego my burial in an Orthodox cemetery than leave my child to be resurrected alone.

    There may be theological mistakes in my reasoning, but without people trained to address them, where can I turn for guidance? I must sinply acknowledge my blindness, admit I'm "flying by the seat of my pants." Instead I get through daily reminding myself to "trust the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding," that He will have mercy, though the Church appears to offer none.

    I put off this issue of burial for my child—though I know it will need addressed by someone some day. I still have the urn and remains, and I pray against the advice I've heard—that we may we be buried together one day. (I was chrismated Orthodox upon the baptism and chrismation of the very next child I bore—about a year after the two I lost. Glory to God for all things.)

    Any guidance would be appreciated... maybe I should ask the bishop for dispensation... I know I cannot in good conscience break the law of love (for the Lord's child He gave me) for the convenience of any clergyman's off he cuff surmising.

    But Glory to God for ALL things. I know without a doubt that He overcomes ALL this and more.


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