Yesterday I attended a funeral for a baby who died at twenty weeks gestation in the womb. The young parents and much of the extended family are Orthodox, so the service was the Orthodox funeral service for the death of infants. The tiniest coffin imaginable, simple, modest, hand made of smooth, blonde, unfinished wood, sat in the center of the church; the priest censed it again and again with clouds of sweet incense.
In the Orthodox Church icons and people are censed alike, without prejudice. To me a censor pointing in my direction feels like a surprising love note saying: you’ve just walked in from outside, tracking in toxins, rancid oils, and the decays of the pavements of the world on the soles of your shoes. You’ve also tracked in a head full of petty thoughts and lies. All in all, you are confused about who you are, partly because of your own weakness, and partly because you are swimming in a treacherous gulf of defective humanity. For a brief moment, stand still, look in this direction, and let me remind you that you were created to be a royal steward of creation. Your dignity remains intact, however far it has been pushed down into the muck.
The departed child, whose name is Adrian, and who, in the words of the funeral service, “did not reach his full stature,” was censed again and again. Stamped in the image of the divine, the muck of the world could not even come near him, and never will.
The night before the funeral I cried reading his mother’s blog post about the experience of delivering his tiny body. I think I cried even more just looking at the picture of his parents gazing at him. It’s not possible to add anything to this. The only thing I can really say is that I felt privileged to be allowed to share a tiny bit of the mourning. I live within a certain demographic: married graduate students who are mostly family-oriented and all in the childbearing stage of life. In a community of eighty families, there always seem to be at least five pregnant women at any given time, babies ever arriving. Most of the time their healthy births are joyously trumpeted in the University Village newsletter. But of course, for every few births openly announced, there are losses which are only whispered about from person to person. In fact, a neighbor here in her fifth month of pregnancy just lost her baby a few weeks ago. I heard the news as I was on my way to–what else–a baby shower. The mother was traveling to her home country in South America. She stepped off the plane, three hours away from any hospital, and began bleeding. When she returns, she will return to an apartment building quite literally full of pregnant women– three to be exact. Already the question on everyone’s lips is: What will we say to her? How will we approach her loss?
I am coming more and more to believe that the loss of an infant, whether in the womb or after birth, is not something that can be borne in isolation, but that it is difficult for others to share the grief unless they are somehow invited. Standing in the Orthodox service for the death of an infant, I couldn’t help but feel that the words were like the action of poison being sucked from the bite of a venomous snake–a drastic intervention performed just moments after a crisis. But it was not just a personal crisis; it was a crisis in the entire community. I have never suffered this loss as a mother, so I feel timid to speak about this with any authority, but I can only imagine that running away, withdrawing from others, shutting others out and not inviting them into your mourning, could only enable the poison and cause the wound to fester, and even spread, infecting not just an individual, but relationships as well. As someone standing on the outside of such a grief, and speaking for others who do, I can only say: people want to be let in, people need to be let in. Maybe this comes as a surprise to the ones suffering, but it is true.
My dear friend from seminary Jenny Schroedel wrote an entire, much lauded book devoted to this topic, called Naming the Child. I have little to say in comparison, but I know that the impetus behind the book was to help change the culture of silence and isolation surrounding infant loss, and I hope it succeeds. I know that what I witnessed yesterday at the funeral, graveside service, and warm reception with family, friends, swarms of children, and food afterward–the very opposite of silence and isolation–was right. The mother’s own brother placed her baby into the ground; her nephew, in his little golden altar server’s robe, assisted the priest by holding the holy water at the grave. Maybe those parents who take the difficult step of inviting people into their mourning will not mourn less, but after the witness of yesterday’s funeral, I feel sure that their mourning will be blessed.