Priests who scan their flocks on Mother's Day will see lots of women smiling during the many blessings, hugs and kind words.
But if they look closer, they will also see women who are trying not to cry. Some may be embracing their children, while struggling with memories of loss.
"We have not prepared our priests to handle the complex emotions that come with losing an unborn child," said Kara Palladino, founder of A Mom's Peace, a support network located in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington (Va.). "This is something we need to talk about. Many priests have no idea the magnitude of this loss and the challenges that come with it."
Seminaries prepare pastors to deal with many kinds of grief. Often, clergy can focus on memories of life together, even after an accident or illness that takes a child.
"A miscarriage is something different. We are dealing with the loss of something unknown. … This can lead to a silent pain that many mothers try to keep to themselves. When a woman loses an unborn child she becomes part of what we call 'the sad sisterhood,' " said Palladino.
A Mom's Peace is rooted in Catholic teachings, but its all-volunteer team helps people of all faiths. Palladino and the group's other leaders call this a "lay apostolate" -- as opposed to a church-based ministry -- since so much of their work occurs in the secular world of hospitals, mortuaries, cemeteries and other institutions linked to death and dying.
It's impossible for clergy to avoid this issue. After all, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, according to Mayo Clinic statistics. Deaths that take place 20 weeks or more after conception are less common, but affect about 1 percent of pregnancies.
Palladino walked this path after losing her seventh child, Francis, who died in utero and she has lost three additional unborn children. She was stunned by how complicated, and expensive, it was to seek dignified burials for unborn children.
A Mom's Peace relies heavily on donations to cover burial costs, working with donors that want to help families that were ready to add a crib, not to find a tiny casket. While officials at some mortuaries and cemeteries may offer "a modest cost" option in these cases, many parents find that there is a big difference between $500 and $5,000 or more, said Palladino.
It's crucial for pastors and other church leaders to understand that many parents are reluctant to talk about their feelings and expectations after the loss of an unborn child, she said. For decades, hospital workers simply said, "We will take care of this for you," and that was that. Often, the bodies of unborn children were considered "medical waste."
In the past, many people avoided talking about these kinds of issues, said Palladino. Parents simply went home and buried their feelings of grief and even anger. Was it possible to name the child? Could parents request a liturgy to help mourn, and then bury, the dead?
One Catholic rite used today includes this prayer: "Trusting in Jesus, the loving Savior, who gathered children into his arms and blessed the little ones, we now commend this infant (name) to that same embrace of love. … Lord Jesus, lovingly receive this little child; bless him/her and take him/her to your Father."
A Mom's Peace provides a "virtual" and physical "Book of Life" in which parents can name their deceased children. Each name is added to a prayer list in a local church and, when each volume is full, it is sent to a monastery or convent where the names are included in prayers -- forever.
It's also important for pastors to understand that the pain surrounding the loss of an unborn child can haunt a marriage, leading to higher divorce rates for a decade or more. Clergy can face this issue directly during premarital counseling, and marriage retreats, helping future parents understand that "being open to life also means being open to loss," said Palladino.
"It doesn't matter if it's a baby or an unborn baby -- this is a serious loss," she added. "The impact is real and it needs to be acknowledged. … We should mourn and bury the dead."