Miscarriages and Death Care Part One: Practical Matters
26% of all pregnancies will end in miscarriage. In the US alone, that’s at least 500,000 naturally lost pregnancies every year.
A lot of parents experience such lost pregnancies as traumatic deaths. Many of these families will formally observe their loss through funerals and religious services, even including cremation or burial for the remains. Many funeral homes already perform such services for infants – full-term and otherwise – free of charge.
But for the greater public, in circumstances of miscarriage many people simply aren’t aware that marking a loss of this kind with a service of any sort is even an option … because the subject is borderline taboo.
Funerals and burial or cremation of fetal remains have become increasingly common for lost pregnancies for a number of reasons; technology, for one thing, has advanced to the point where it’s possible to get a close view of the fetus well in advance of the due date via ultrasound. Now that it’s possible to actually see the “baby-in-progress” much earlier than the historically traditional way (after a 9-month wait), emotional bonding may begin far earlier … a significant change which affects the way people understand and think about pregnancy, and the process of fetal development.
Medical developments in the field of fertility are another contributing factor to the change in public perspective on pregnancy and what qualifies as the beginning of “life” – in vitro fertilization is one prime example of how modern medicine continues to widen social focus on fertility issues and human lives’ earliest stages of development. When scientific endeavors run up onto issues of conception or closely- related subjects like, say, stem cell research, what were once murky ethical questions have become the evening news, resulting in more people giving thought to their own opinions of what constitutes “life.”
Add to that the very public furor over the definition of when a baby can be called a baby versus a fetus, (along with the controversy over what either of those terms mean), the “Right to Life” movement and other political positions, and our own country’s most recent laws and activities on the issue of miscarriage vs. abortion … public thought is much on the matter of life’s very beginnings, and its earliest endings, to unprecedented degrees.
Hidden public health crisis?
Even in the midst of so much normalizing attention, not all women who miscarry will tell someone else about it. In fact, many women will keep their experience to themselves, or tell only a partner – a potentially catastrophic choice, as not all partners are supportive, and many women who miscarry are shocked to find themselves unexpectedly grieving hard for the loss of a pregnancy that maybe they hadn’t even been optimistic about in the first place.
In America as in other western societies, studies demonstrate that the recovery of women whose loss of a pregnancy resulted in a psychologically difficult recovery for them was aided by a positive social support network. The greatest source of support cited was that of others who knew what had happened and supported them through their ordeal, particularly other women who had been through the same thing. But how to seek out help when nobody wants to talk about miscarriage, especially to the grieving mother? And especially if she’s surprised or embarrassed by the size of her own grief?
It’s perhaps the lattermost aspect of our longest-held social death anxieties, the tail end of our old ways, on its way out as the death-positive movement advances. A problem not socially recognized – or validated – as the trauma it in fact is. Not the way that the loss of a born baby might be.
But a baby is lost all the same.
When families wish to pursue funeral observations or services including disposition of fetal remains, the options available to them are various, and expanding all the time. There are of course restrictions by state, and the legalities can frequently be complex and confusing, often even for medical staff.
Families may not recognize erroneous information, particularly if they’re told in a hospital setting that there’s no possibility to recover their fetal remains for burial or cremation. Many who miscarry in such a medical setting assume there’s no way to recover the remains of their lost pregnancy, if they would choose to claim their fetal remains given the opportunity.
Sometimes families are told that they cannot receive their miscarried fetus because of legal reasons, saying that the “products of conception” are “medical waste.” In cases where families do not recover the remains, such fetal remains are typically incinerated with excised tumors, gallstones, and the like.
When this is the fate of a spontaneously aborted fetus to a family that deeply wished for it and awaited birth, the results to the entire family can be devastating.
But restoration is possible.
Coming Soon: Part II: Restoration by Ritual, With or Without Remains