Besides being Respect Life month, October is also National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, a time to support those who have suffered the loss of a child.
Miscarriage, which affects as many as one in five women, is one of the most common causes, and one reason why many parishes offer a pastoral care person or befriender ministry to comfort those in mourning.
One such ministry is Elizabeth Ministry International, a Kaukauna-based Catholic organization with about 500 parish and community chapters. Its mission is “to offer hope and healing for women and their families on issues related to childbearing, sexuality and relationships.”
The organization’s name refers to the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, explained April Jaure, Green Bay, EMI’s healthy living coordinator. When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, he tells her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, despite her advanced age and supposed barrenness, and gives Mary the gift of an older woman who understands her situation.
Jaure, who teaches natural family planning, writes for grants and does various other things for EMI, has felt the benefit of learning from women across the generations. A few years back, Jaure was recovering from her third miscarriage when she heard Jeannie Hannemann, director and founder of EMI, speaking at a conference.
“She just had some really beautiful, powerful things to say about miscarriage,” Jaure said. Afterward, they struck up a conversation that resulted in a job offer, and Jaure has been with the organization ever since.
Jaure describes herself as the mother of three living children and three in heaven, and she understands a mother’s grieving as well as the desire to comfort sufferers.
“In a sense, the death of any person, there is really nothing you can say,” she admitted, but added, “I do think saying something is good.”
What to say, not say
Women grieve differently, according to Jaure, and some want the opportunity to share their sorrow, while others prefer to be private.
Either way, friends and family can be supportive by saying, “I’m sorry. I’m praying for you,” extending an invitation for coffee or sending a small Mother’s Day gift, even if the woman has no living children, Jaure said.
Jaure’s list of comments that are “definitely not helpful” includes: “Well, this must have been God’s will,” and “You can always have more.”
Compassion, understanding and cross-generational mentoring are all benefits of Elizabeth Ministry, Jaure added.
“I think, for an older woman, who maybe has had the experience…it’s a really beautiful way for her to help support a younger woman who is now going through that, and offer her wisdom,” she said. “I know, in smaller parishes, it’s hard to have tons of organizations in the parish because there’s not that many people. But I always feel Elizabeth Ministry is really necessary, no matter the size of the parish.”
Diocesan response to miscarriage
Many parishes in the Diocese of Superior do not currently have Elizabeth Ministry chapters, but according to Megan Noll, director of youth, marriage and family for the diocese, most parishes have resources for families grieving the loss of a child.
“If people call the office about miscarriage, we would highly recommend a memorial Mass for their loved one through their parish,” she said. “We have several resources on grief, the loss of a loved one, and bereavement that could be used.”
Noll also directs callers to medical professionals who can help.
“I also believe that women can benefit from fertility awareness classes to help reveal underlying health issues that cause miscarriage,” she added. “When this arises, my office would make a recommendation to a Catholic doctor or nurse practitioner to assist medical concerns relating to miscarriage.
“Healing,” added Noll, is “physical, emotional and spiritual.”
One woman’s story
Mary Jane Moffett heads an Elizabeth Ministry chapter in Hayward. Never having lost a child to miscarriage, Moffett did not realize how commonly they occur.
“I was quite surprised at the number of women that had this experience,” she added.
“I had three of them,” said Mickie McGinnis, 75, a parishioner at St. Joseph, Hayward, and one of about 20 members in its Elizabeth Ministry chapter. “The first one was the hardest, because that was my first pregnancy.”
After the traumatizing loss, McGinnis, then in her 20s, needed time to heal, she said. The second miscarriage happened after she had two daughters, ages 1 and 2, and she didn’t feel ready for another. When she miscarried, McGinnis felt God was punishing her for not wanting the baby.
Her doctor told her it was God’s way of taking home a child that had problems.
“My doctor was fantastic,” she said.
McGinnis’ final miscarriage occurred after she and her husband had three children.
“In the end, I ended up with four children, and that was fine,” she added.
“It’s a very difficult thing to explain to people how much it hurts, because you feel like you’re losing a child,” McGinnis said of her experiences. “You have to reconcile yourself to that fact, and that it is God’s way.”
Much has changed since McGinnis’ mother’s time, when women didn’t tell anyone – not even their husbands – when they were pregnant. McGinnis thinks today’s reproductive technology may actually increase the burden on younger women.
“I think now, most women know when they’re three weeks pregnant, to start with. In my day, you weren’t sure until you were three months along,” she said. “I think in my day, a lot of women had miscarriages they didn’t know they had.”
Cultural shifts have enabled more discussion of miscarriage and other reproductive matters, but McGinnis still feels the loss is very personal.
“I think a lot of women carry their grief alone,” she observed. “And if that’s their way of dealing with it, fine. As long as they are progressing toward a normal life again.”
Helping women who need help
According to McGinnis, Elizabeth Ministry’s main purpose is “to help women who need help.”
“We do several things,” she said. “We take gift bags to the hospital for the newborns. We try to talk and comfort women who have had a miscarriage or an abortion or lost a child in some manner. We have baby clothes and that type of thing that we distribute to needy mothers.”
The Hayward chapter includes women beyond their childbearing years, as well as younger women in their 30s and 40s. McGinnis said it helps having a diverse membership.
“Sometimes the younger moms don’t relate to an older one really well,” she added, but some women like to confide in a grandmotherly figure.
“It takes all kinds,” she said. “You feel your way out.”
Where to Find Help
For resources on coping with miscarriage, contact Megan Noll, director of marriage, family and youth, at 715-234-5044 or .
To learn more about Elizabeth Ministry International, call 920-766-9380 or email .