With Mother's Day coming soon, the Catholic Church wishes to reiterate its focus on the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. The faithful pray and protest to end abortion, while at the same time working in hospitals and with the government to care for those who are lost before birth.
In the Diocese of Buffalo, Catholic Health designed Footprints of the Heart to help families cope with the loss of babies caused by miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth and newborn death. The program offers bereavement information to couples, counseling, burial and even time with their babies.
When mothers who come through Sisters of Charity Hospital and Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, or Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston experience a loss, they receive a 45-page booklet of information detailing what they will go through physically and emotionally in the grieving process. A lending library has information to help fathers, grandparents and siblings deal with their loss.
Amy Creamer, MHC, coordinator of Perinatal Bereavement at Sisters of Charity Hospital, runs support groups open to anybody in the community, not only for loss, but also for women who deal with a pregnancy after a loss. "That tends to be a stressful time and period in women's lives when it wasn't the first time they went through a pregnancy, so they tend to need more support at that time too," Creamer said.
In 2014, Sisters became the first hospital in the United States to offer Cuddle Cots, a special bassinet equipped with a cooling blanket allowing mothers to spend time with and say goodbye to the baby they carried. The popularity of the beds led a group of parents to fundraise to purchase more cots. They're now commonplace in maternity wards.
"We have an open door policy when we have a family that has a loss," Creamer said. "People can come and meet and see this baby before the family has to lay the baby to rest and hand it over to the funeral director. That's the benefit of the Cuddle Cot. It gives families a little bit of extra time with their babies to be able to do those things, and not rush the process for parents because they're in absolute and total shock. They need as much time as possible to come to terms with everything."
Once the parents say goodbye, Catholic hospitals offer a burial program for the remains. As of last fall, Sisters, Mercy and Mount St. Mary's have organized a burial ceremony at nearby cemeteries every six months. Sections in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Kenmore, Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, and Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Lewiston are dedicated to fetuses that perish before 20 weeks of gestation. The staff of Catholic Cemeteries works with Catholic Health to provide this service. Last summer Gate of Heaven opened their section with a release of butterflies.
"We each work with a different funeral home close to us. Then the babies actually get buried. There is a big beautiful stone at each one of our sites, so that families can have a respectful disposition for their babies' remains, they have a place that they can go to and visit in the future. It's part of that healing process for a lot of families," Creamer said. "It's comforting for parents. It's a hard thing to go through, to feel like all that is being thrown away in the garbage. It adds injury to insult for a lot of families."
Several bereavement events held throughout the year include a Candlelight Memorial at Mount Olivet Cemetery, two memorial services at Mount Olivet, April and October. An Annual Walk to Remember, hosted by Western New York Perinatal Bereavement Network, takes place every October. Activities include tree planting, balloon release, songs and readings.
These burial services are unique to Catholic Health hospitals. From a legal standpoint, fetuses who do not make it to 20 weeks of gestation are considered fetal tissue and are disposed of as medical waste.
New legislation drafted by the New York State Catholic Conference has been formally introduced in the legislature. Bills A. 10013 and S. 7863 would require notification to mothers who miscarry that they have the right to a burial permit that would allow them to bury or cremate their child.
"The current law in New York state says that an unborn child who dies at 20 weeks gestation or greater must be buried. But for moms who miscarry at less than 20 weeks gestation, which I think is the majority of miscarriages, the law is silent," explained Kathleen M. Gallagher, director of Pro-Life Activities for the New York State Catholic Conference.
The NYS Catholic Conference requested the bill after being approached by two nurses and a bereavement coordinator who felt the law should state affirmatively that all mothers should be notified that they have the choice to bury their baby.
The bills have received bipartisan support. The NYS Catholic Conference is now collecting more co-sponsors in each house in the Senate and Assembly, and collecting testimonies from women who have miscarried, followed by both good and bad experiences.
It can be a complicated process to deal with the remains. Parents must get a fetal death report, a burial permit, and work with a funeral director. But the rewards can help the healing process. Gallagher tells of one woman from Rochester who miscarried twins at 15 weeks and was allowed to bury both her children.
"She said every Sunday after Mass, they go to the cemetery to pay respect to their babies and pray for them. She said it enormously helped her grieving process and her healing process, she and her husband," Gallagher said.