Ask Father Cathie

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  Question: How would you think and talk theologically about a miscarriage? The one I experienced happened so early on that addressing it in the same way that one would address the death of a child doesn't seem quite right, but there is still a deep sense of loss there, and we are still processing the pain.

Answer: First of all, I am so sorry for your loss. It seems to me that human life, especially its beginning and its end, are the most powerful theological territory we ever enter. Full of mystery, meaning, wonder, and fear, the liminal spaces between when we take our first breath and when we take our last are palpable with God's presence, and we know this because we are so often at a loss to know what to do, what to say, what to think. Literal life and death are so far out of our power to control that we feel the appropriate awe, along with all spectrum of emotions, as we find ourselves utterly in God's hands.

When God made the first humans God breathed life into them, and even now when a baby draws that first breath, makes that first cry, we mark this as the beginning of a new life. Similarly, when someone ceases breathing, we can actually see their life leaving them. Regardless of how we explain this to ourselves or what we believe, these moments are holy ground, utter miracles that mark the passing between this world and the next, that only God has answers to, and only God can see us through.

And so, of course, the expectant time between when a life starts forming and when it becomes a brand-new human being is full of excitement, joy, sometimes trepidation, and a sense of risk. It is a journey, not entirely dissimilar from the one we take at the end of our lives, and with it the heightened sense of God's presence in exactly those places where we know we have no control and we are as much witnesses to this process as we are caretakers. Think of all the ways we have to take care of ourselves when we are pregnant - much of this is very good, of course, but a lot of it is in service of the mystery of life, an acknowledgement that we can help things along, but the bringing of new life into the world is ultimately something that we bear witness to, that happens in our presence rather than through our power.

And so, when things go wrong, we are well-aware of our powerlessness, and our grief and confusion. How could the process of life turn in the opposite direction? How can the God of life not protect this one? Suffering can feel very much like abandonment. And of course, I do not have any answers here, I can only stand before God with you, feeling that same sense of humility in the face of things we don't understand.

I believe, though, because I am a follower of Jesus - who suffered death and then defeated even that for the love of us - that even though God does not promise us we will not suffer, God does promise that all our suffering will be redeemed. That in the end we will all know everlasting life, that every tear will be wiped from every eye.

And, as you say, it is true that where a particular journey ends may have a different character, a different experience of loss, even a different theological weight depending on when it happens. I do think there is a bright line at that first breath, and at the last, that sense of 'inspiriting' when the wall between life and death is breached in those holy moments.

And at the same time, our response to these moments, and the ones before and after them, are not to be judged, I don't think. Do we have the 'right' to grieve a life lost before its first breath? Or a death before it happens? It seems to me that these questions - which you didn't ask but sometimes people do - are pointless and can even be cruel. Our emotional response to losing life is understandably along a spectrum, but that doesn't mean that each loss is assigned its own point. It means, I think, that we can find ourselves anywhere on it at any time, and this is to be respected by ourselves and others. Grief can be just as sharp and disorienting when we lose a life before it is born than after (just as it can be when we anticipate the death of someone, before they actually draw their last breath).

And in terms of theologically or liturgically marking such a loss, a point where we memorialize a life no longer with us, we do two things as the church in the face of death: one is, we walk with the dead back towards the arms of God. For those who have never taken a breath (and I think, for those whose last breath was a significant length of time ago), this part is unnecessary. They are still in the arms of God, on the other side of life/death barrier (or else, in the case of the long-dead, they have returned some time ago).

The other thing we do, however, is to memorialize a life for ourselves, lest we forget it existed, lest we seem to neglect the holiness and power of being so close to it. And in this, I think it is fully appropriate to offer prayers for this lost life, to carry a token of it, to acknowledge our grief of it. It is theologically different from a funeral, but that does not make it unimportant. Again, it is sometimes easier to conceive of this on the other end of the spectrum - honoring, celebrating, ritualizing the life of someone nearing the end of a long life, versus when they have actually breathed their last. Both are powerful, but mark different things.

As a priest I offer you the blessing of God during this time, and the peace of God which passes all understanding. As a fellow human being, standing before the same mysteries of life and death, I offer you my beliefs but of course, no more answers than you probably already have, and just as many questions. And also companionship in your time of grief.