In the first part of this series, I shared my own story of miscarriage and infant loss, and how grieving those children brought me into contact with parents whose children died in very different circumstances. While the pro-whole-life movement addresses an array of issues, my experiences have taught me that there are specific things that we can and should be doing as a Church to address the needs of parents who are facing a terrifying diagnosis for their unborn child or pregnancy.
We must be relational
We follow a relational Savior. While Jesus certainly gave sermons to large groups of people, many of the Gospel accounts involve very personal encounters with those around Him. The woman at the well and the story of Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10) are perfect examples of this, but we also see it in the way that Jesus abided with His disciples and healed the sick who sought His help. Jesus was not someone who just made a declaration and moved on. Real, meaningful human interactions were important to Him. In fact, they were so important to Him that He touched an untouchable leper (Matthew 8:1-4) and took time out of a life-saving mission to speak to a chronically bleeding woman (Matthew 9:18-26). Even the Mass itself was born out of a dinner of fellowship (Luke 22:7-38).
In the same way, the Church, as Christ’s representative on earth, must be a relational Church. We cannot just make pronouncements about what is right and wrong and expect people to follow us. Instead, we need to be able to identify with and understand those around us and engage with them in dialogue as we build relationships with them. As Pope Francis has said, “If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue. We are called to promote a culture of dialogue by every possible means and thus rebuild the fabric of society.”
In the case of abortion for medical reasons (abortions that are sought at the recommendation of a doctor due to severe prenatal diagnoses or grave risks to the lives of the mother or her baby), we can only foster these relationships by entering families’ profound grief and agony without judgment. Many parents grieve profoundly following abortion, even when apparently freely chosen, and this grief is often downplayed or dismissed. We must grieve with them for their children, just as Jesus wept with the crowd that gathered outside of Lazarus’s tomb. By connecting with families in this way, we not only witness to the dignity of their children’s lives, but we ourselves can become sensitive to the ways that our communication about abortion might trigger extremely painful emotions for others. We will also better understand the decisions parents face and be able to help them problem-solve for better solutions. We will be more able to gently identify and define any fundamental differences in the ways that we understand abortion so that everybody is able to “speak the same language” and true dialogue can occur. In short, we will become more empathic, which, rather than ceding ground, will make us more capable of love. Out of that love, meaningful relationships and dialogue become possible.
Drawing near to families who face horrific diagnoses is essential if the Church is to have any moral authority. As Pope Francis said early in his papacy, “…the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”
We must teach the whole truth
Our glorious and powerful Christian faith holds the answers to all our questions and is the balm for all of our wounds. But too often, we focus narrowly on the things that we “can” and “cannot” do and allow our faith to become something that is limiting rather than fulfilling and liberating. We lay a heavy legal burden on our neighbor’s shoulders when Jesus has said that His yoke is easy and light. Pope Francis recognizes this which is why he said in the same interview, “We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The Gospel must be more simple, profound, and radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences flow.” When we focus on making arguments about how abortion is wrong, we lose sight of the wonder of God’s right and holy plan – a plan for all lives to glorify Him and to be made beautiful through His redemptive love.
When families face grave medical diagnoses for their unborn children, our communications with them should be lovingly Christ-centered and rooted in the confidence that Jesus offers the only answer to the pain they face. When Noemi died, I told my childhood pastor, “If Jesus’ salvation and Resurrection aren’t real, then I don’t think I can handle this.” For parents who are facing their child’s disability or imminent death, the words of St. Peter are profoundly true, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) The Gospel provides families with the strength to face what seems impossible. It offers them the reassurance that their child’s suffering is not in vain. It gives them the comfort of a God who walks with them through their grief and who guides them on the paths they should take. Perhaps most significantly, it provides them with the hope that whatever life their child has will be meaningful, precious, and unending.
When we share the Good News with families who are suffering, we are offering them so much! We are revealing an infinitely good God who works all things together for good – even the nightmare that they are currently living. Rather than imposing our belief that abortion is wrong, we are sharing the joy of our Lord who guides us to all that is good and who gives the strength to entrust even our most vulnerable children to Him.
The Christian faith is the foundation of the idea that the life of each child is, in the words of Pope Francis, “a gift that changes the history of a family…and this child needs to be welcomed, loved and cared for.” It is also the well from which suffering families can draw the strength they need to embrace that life in all of its forms. St. Zelie Martin was keenly aware of this. It was only because of her faith that she was able to write:
When I closed the eyes of my dear children and buried them, I felt the sorrow indeed, but it has always been resigned sorrow. I did not regret the pain and cares I had borne for them. Several people said to me, ‘It would have been better if you had never had them,’ but I could not endure this sort of language. I did not think that the sufferings and anxieties could be weighed in the same scale with the eternal happiness of my children. Then they were not lost forever; life is short and full of miseries, and we shall find them again up yonder.
When we share Christ, we direct grieving families to the same means of choosing life that enabled St. Zelie to discount her own suffering in light of the heavenly joys of her children.
We must all go through the “dark night”
While we know that God has unimaginable blessings in store for families that choose to give birth to children with serious medical conditions, we cannot deny that these families pay a heavy price when they choose to protect that child’s life. There is a huge emotional and physical toll on all members of the family. This emotional cost is compounded when families lack the resources to provide their infants with appropriate medical care – whether that care takes the form of life-sustaining treatments or the ability to have a peaceful, painless death.
Additionally, the financial cost of having a child with severe medical issues is high, even when the babies do not live for long. While many families receive support from their communities and charities, funeral costs alone can overwhelm many families’ finances. My family experienced this firsthand, when we discovered that we had exhausted all of our savings within a month of our daughter’s death, despite the immense generosity of our family and community during that time.
For families whose children survive but live with life-impacting disabilities, these costs grow exponentially and they last for the duration of many children’s lives. This is also the case for families of mothers who choose to sacrifice their own lives for that of their unborn child. These mothers leave behind a mother-less family that feels her absence in every imaginable way. Deciding to give birth is not the endpoint for these families, but the starting line; we need to be prepared to run the rest of the race with them through ongoing emotional, practical, and financial support.
While some of the difficulties that these families face are unavoidable, many can and should be alleviated. Doing so demands we recognize that pro-life ministry to these families does not end with a successfully avoided abortion. Pope Francis describes the role that we must play thus: “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” When families see that they will not be alone if they birth their infant, no matter the cost, they are freed to choose life for their child, rather than feeling driven by fear to abortion. When they know that their child will be welcomed and integrated into their community, they are better able to welcome their child themselves. And when gravely ill mothers know that their family will be enveloped in the care of their communities, it is easier for them to say goodbye.
As a Church, we can be instrumental in supporting these families in systemic ways: by advocating for universal and comprehensive health insurance, a living minimum wage, flexible work hours, quality childcare options, better access to mental health care, and paid family leave. We can also support them by promoting perinatal hospice and palliative care, bereavement resources for all family members, and programs that offer respite breaks for families that are providing round-the-clock care. However, we can also do it in smaller, more personal ways like ensuring that all areas of our churches and Catholic schools are truly handicap-accessible, with adequate facilities (including family restrooms and other areas) to address the needs of people with disabilities at all ages. We can do it by welcoming the “joyful noises” of all children, but especially those with disabilities, in our Masses. We can even support these families by promoting environments that protect their children’s health through vaccination and other basic public health measures. Additionally, those of us who are privileged to know families with medically fragile and disabled children can be intentional about reaching out to and including those families in our activities and lives.
The benefits of living in relationship with families whose children face medical challenges and disabilities are manifold. Most relevantly, many families within our parishes have never encountered the kinds of disabilities that families face when their infants are given grave prenatal diagnoses. When these same families find themselves faced with such a diagnosis, they have no model for how to parent such children and no way to envision how their child might fit into and bless their families and communities. The more we make our churches places where the disabled and medically fragile are embraced, the more all of our families will be able to witness God’s work through these individuals and their families. We will be better and stronger communities and we will help families who face similar diagnoses to imagine the good that could be, rather than being trapped by the fear of their child’s needs. At the same time, we will create a space for families to communicate more freely about complex and difficult topics like end-of-life care and caregiver burn-out.
We must dream
There are many things that we, as a Church, can do to walk alongside families that are struggling with terrifying medical diagnoses in their children. However, if we are going to do so in a way that changes lives and hearts, we are going to have to be dreamers. Our society is not set up to allow children with severe disabilities and their families to thrive. The endless pursuit of progress and growth, even in our own spiritual lives, is not conducive to integrating children whose progress is often hard to see. Our drive to succeed keeps us from valuing the beauty of those whose energy is directed more towards day-to-day survival. The fast pace of our lives keeps us from savoring those who journey more slowly. Our belief that our possessions are things to be earned and deserved, prevents us from recognizing the blessing of uplifting one another.
We must change. We must reorient ourselves towards the value of whole lives. We must become a place where the first is really last and the last truly comes first. We need to foster a world where those who suffer are embraced and supported and where hope is kindled. We must build bridges between one another and foster true, deep, impactful relationships that lead us to action. In short, we can do what Pope Francis calls us to in his book, Let Us Dream: “We can reorganize the way we live together in order better to choose what matters. We can work together to achieve it. We can learn what takes us forward, and what sets us back. We can choose.”
If we want to help families that are wrestling with a serious prenatal diagnosis, we must choose to dream about what can be and keep on dreaming.
Image Credit: Unsplash.
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Ariane Sroubek is a writer, school psychologist and mother to two children here on earth. Prior to converting to Catholicism, she completed undergraduate studies in Bible and Theology at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. She then went on to obtain her doctorate in School and Child Clinical Psychology. Ariane’s writing is inspired by her faith, daily life experiences and education. More of her work can be found at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://mysustaininggrace.com.