I have been very privileged to read a copy of Fr. Peter Jon Gillquist’s thesis entitled, “An Orthodox Pastoral Approach to Miscarriage”*. With his permission I would like to share parts of it with you here.
How came Fr. Peter to write on this topic? From the introduction:
“On the morning of Holy Thursday, 2003, following the celebration of the institution of the Mystical Supper, my wife Kristina suffered a miscarriage. Prior to this day, I had not given much thought to losing a baby. I remembered vividly the time my sister’s son had died in the womb at five months – the footprints taken at the hospital, the tiny casket at the cemetery, and the devastating months of tears that followed – but this was the first time I had experienced the harsh reality myself: my child had died.” (p. 2)
Fr. Peter then began a journey through the rocky terrain of pregnancy loss. He wanted to bury his child, but where? Who would do it? Who could guide him on this unfamiliar journey? His parish priest was kind but couldn’t offer help. In the end his child Zoe was buried at a monastery in an area created just for this purpose (on the occasion of Zoe’s burial).
“The burial was quite moving. The sisters greeted us with their characteristic warmth, but the countenance and embrace of each was as if each of them had lost a family member of their own! They took our loss personally. Because the burial took place on Bright Monday, the service essentially consisted of a procession from the monastery garden to the cemetery singing “Christ is Risen.” The abbess offered her headscarf to lower the small wooden box into the deep, narrow grave, and then left the scarf to be buried. A visiting local priest led a Trisagion prayer service. A local sign-smith crafted a plaque for the grave, free-of-charge, which read:
Before He formed me in the womb He knew my name
Zoe Michelle Gillquist
Born to Heaven April 24, 2003.” (p. 3)
It was afterward that Fr. Peter began to look for answers. He was confused that so many clergy he contacted were unable to help. There seemed to be no universal rules for dealing with miscarriage and stillbirth in the Orthodox Church. When he contemplated how as Orthodox we champion the unborn, fight abortion, etc., it seemed very contradictory that the Church should be so silent on the plight of those lost before birth and their suffering families. While on this quest for answers he and his wife lost another baby, Gabriel, and this increased his motivation.
Fr. Peter discussed the attitudes and writings of the early (and later) Church Fathers on the plight of the unborn. [Many of these are already present on my Prayers and Liturgics page. -ed.] To sum up,
“It seems, then, that the majority of persons in the East who have chosen to write on the topic of the fate of unbaptized infants have taken a positive stance, seeing them as the beloved little ones of Christ. St. Gregory of Nyssa went so far as to suggest that the pure state of infants, baptized or not, was something to which we should all strive to return. The few Orthodox voices suggesting something other than this appear to have been influenced by Augustinian or some other Western teaching.”
In his paper, Fr. Peter explains how important it is that the Church concern itself with the matter of pregnancy loss:
“The ministry of the Church is of utmost importance in the face of crisis. With miscarriage, as with any major loss, people need to be reassured of the love and mercy of Christ – both for them and for their child that has died. To date, there have been few tools in the hands of priests seeking to ease the pain of the bereaved parents of miscarried babies. In general, there are few guidelines and prayers available to such priests.” (p. 29)
(He also notes that the loss of a child creates a large risk for the destruction of a marriage, certainly a matter that priests deal with frequently. )
Fr. Peter outlined some of the reasons why the suffering from pregnancy loss can be magnified, not ameliorated, by the policies and actions of the Church.
First, the long-standing prayer for a woman after a miscarriage (and stillbirth) begins in this way: “O Master Lord our God, Who wast born of the holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, and lay as a babe in the manger: According to Thy great mercy do Thou Thyself have mercy upon this Thy handmaid, who today lieth in sins, having fallen into manslaughter, casting out, willingly or unintentionally, that which was conceived within her;and forgive her transgressions, voluntary or involuntary.” [emphasis mine -ed.] The implication that the woman has possibly aborted her child willingly is an extremely painful thing to hear by a woman grieving the loss of her much-wanted child. The origins of this prayer seem to be Western at least in theory if not in actual wording. (Fr. Peter discusses the Western notion of guilt and original sin in the course of his paper.)
Second, the common practice of the Church is to not offer prayers for the miscarried child within the church building due to the lack of baptism (meaning the child is not a member of the Body of Christ). The only suggestion is for unbaptized children to be buried with the Trisagion prayers. The practice of relegating miscarried children to an area outside the Church is a very painful and alienating thing for a bereaved family. Fr. Peter: “Children who die in the womb are among the only human beings who are currently denied any place in the liturgical life of the Church.” In addition, they are not even able to be mentioned by name in the prayers for the departed during church services. Given that we celebrate and mourn as a church family, this alienating practice of the Church means that bereaved families must suffer alone as there is no context for grieving as a body.
Third, not only are they not allowed a church funeral but they are denied burial within consecrated ground. This separation from the rest of the family is difficult logistically but also psychologically because it enforces the thought that these children didn’t really exist and aren’t valued by the Church.
Because these seemingly cold policies exist there have arisen local practices which are at odds with the overall practice of the Church. Some parishes perform funeral services in the church building for miscarried and stillborn children; some will then bury them in consecrated ground while others compromise by having an area set aside for the purpose. Some parishes will mention these babies by name in the prayers of the Church. All of these concessions are with an eye to providing comfort and compassion to the bereaved family. While many priests know full well that they are acting at odds with the rest of the Church, they simply can’t bring themselves to inflict more pain on an already grief-stricken couple. Some priests, while trying to be obedient to what they have been taught, will at the very least offer Trisagion prayers at the graveside, providing all the comfort they can. As Fr. Peter points out, this leaves the burden on the individual priest to figure out what to do. Without universal guidelines they are just set adrift, and at risk “for unintentional misuse or misapplication of the liturgical services.” (p. 48)
In closing Fr. Peter makes a few important recommendations:
“First, the idea that the infant children of Orthodox parents who die without baptism are somehow unworthy to be buried on “hallowed ground” must be eliminated.”
“Second, it is very important that an official service of commemoration/burial of miscarried/stillborn children be developed.”
“Finally, clergy must be educated about pregnancy loss in seminary.” [Goodness knows I agree with him here. See my post about it. -ed.]
“It is my belief the present set of responses to the death of an innocent child within the Orthodox context is not only potentially harmful to grief-stricken parents, but it is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the overwhelming ministerial Spirit of the Church in general. It is my hope that the Church hierarchy will seriously consider and discuss the inadequate response of the Church to this crisis, and decide upon a uniform plan of burial and commemoration of miscarried children, as well as an educational program to help local clergy develop an effective plan of pastoral treatment of women and men suffering the loss of an unborn child. In doing these things we will be taking further strides towards being “all things to all men” in order that we may save some (I Cor. 9:22).”
*This paper is not published. If you would like to read it Fr. Peter has given me permission to forward a PDF copy to you at your request. Please email me to do so.