How to Hold a Ceremony for an Unborn Child

Posted on July 20, 2012


Here is a short story and then a ‘how-to’ about holding ceremonies for children lost prior to birth.

Ceremonies can commemorate, honour and heal. Too often when an unborn child is lost, the grieving of parents or would-have-been parents is invisible to the rest of community; there is no funeral or other occasion to acknowledge the pain. And yet a ceremony can bring tremendous healing and a sense of closure that the heart can hold and manage.

The more widely accepted this notion of ceremonies to mark miscarriage, the more parents will seek the support they need to hold a ceremony that will hold meaning and healing for them. Ceremonies to acknowledge abortion are equally needed, if not more. The loss of a child is devastating, no matter their age, and no matter the choice.

In her award-winning sermon “The Spiritual Imperative of Choice,” Unitarian Minister Rev. Krista Taves wrote about a beautiful experience she shared with a family during a shift as hospital chaplain:

“It is 2 a.m. I am sleeping in the chaplain’s on-call room at an inner city hospital. My room hovers over the Emergency Entrance and the darkness is punctuated with sirens and lights. It is my night to be available for those unexpected things that happen in the night. But, unlike most of my calls, the call that pierces my sleep at 2 a.m. is expected.

It all began that afternoon when I was called to the obstetrics ward. A couple had come in concerned because the baby, due shortly, had stopped moving. An ultra sound revealed that the baby had died. They were preparing to induce labor. I was called to offer pastoral care to the couple, and to offer them the option of a naming ceremony once the baby was born. More and more we are realizing that miscarriages and stillbirths require grieving, often through ritual, for these babies are often full beings in the eyes of those who lose them.

I arrived at the obstetrics floor and was told that the couple wanted to quickly deliver the stillborn and go home. They wanted no support, no family, no friends. They wanted this to stay private. So you might wonder why the staff called me? Well, things change very quickly when one is dealing with life and death. We are often called in before the woman is induced so that we have a chance to build a small amount of trust. That way, if she changes her mind, she will be more likely to seek us out.

And so I approached their room, softly knocked, and made my way in. They were in a dimly lit room at the far end of the wing. Usually women who miscarry are put as far away from the other women as possible so they don’t have to hear babies crying. He held her hand. She had her other arm wrapped around her large belly.

“Hello, I’m the chaplain.”

“We don’t want a chaplain.”

“I know. I’m not here to force that on you. I am here to make sure you know your choices.”

“What choices.”

“Choices about what you want for yourselves and your baby. You may want a funeral or memorial. You may want a naming ceremony tonight. After all, you’ve been waiting for your baby, and now she’s coming, just not as you expected.”

“We really want to be left alone.”

“I will be here all night if you want me. I can be paged.”

Shortly thereafter they induced her. Three hours later she changed her mind. She wanted a full naming ceremony. Could I come visit her right away? She held my hand tightly and said she was so glad I had dared to visit. Would I be there as soon as her baby was born? Before I left her husband shook my hand so hard I thought it would break.

At 2 a.m. my pager went off. It was a beautiful ceremony. They claimed this baby as their own, honoring her short life and what she had given them. They named her and prepared to let her go. The moment was tender, raw and love-filled.

We were gripped in the power, wonder, and mystery of
life, and none of us would ever be the same again.”

If you feel the longing for a ceremony to honour and help to heal your own experiences with the loss of a child, here are some thoughts you may find helpful:

How to Hold a Ceremony for an Unborn Child

  • Let your heart lead
  • Acknowledge but set aside thoughts that may dismiss your need for some sort of ceremony or ritual (e.g.: “it only a fetus,” or “that was a long time ago”) – your heart, not your brain, knows what you need, put another way:
  • Don’t let logic or the opinions of others get in the way of what your heart tells you that you need for healing

Choose your company:

  • Consider asking a chaplain, pastor or other spiritual guide to facilitate or officiate your ceremony
  • Including both parents is ideal, as well close family who may also be grieving the loss
  • Keep it intimate (and non-political)

Choose your place:

  • Must be private
  • Must feel safe (emotionally and physically)
  • Must be able to hold a sense of sacredness (e.g.: a place of worship, a place in nature, a place that holds special memories)

Set a sacred space:

  • Choose items or rituals that make the space feel different and will mark the beginning of a ceremony
  • Use items and rituals that carry personal meaning for you
  • Call on Spirit as per your belief and tradition
  • Pick (or write) poems or readings that touch your heart
  • Even a single candle with a few well-chosen words goes a long way

Choose an offering for your child:

  • Could be a poem or song
  • Could be items you expected to give the child
  • If you don’t have anything, consider buying a gift
  • Could be planting a flower or tree in remembrance

Choose a blessing for the child:

  • Something you can write yourself, about your feelings and feelings for the child
  • Seek prayers, poems, music  and blessings already written
  • Offer these words/music with the physical gift

Release the offering:

  • Bury/plant it
  • Burn it
  • Release it into a river
  • Donate it to charity
  • Put it in a special memory box or book

Allow time and space:

  • Don’t rush the ritual
  • Allow time for tears, laughter, and any other emotions that come up

Bless each other:

  • If a facilitator is present, they will bless you
  • If there are only two of you present, bless each other
  • If you are conducting a ceremony on your own – bless yourself!

Bless others who are grieving:

  • Use words or rituals to acknowledge all parents who are grieving the loss of their children
  • You may wish to bless specific people who have also lost children
  • Remember that you are not alone in your suffering

Choose your closing ritual:

  • Pick (or write) words that emphasize the greater context of pain and death in life
  • Pick (or write) words that speak of hope, healing, and life after tragedy
  • And ABOVE ALL call each other to love and open more deeply to this complexity of life
  • (Extinguish candles, or otherwise use symbols or rituals to mark the end of the ceremony)

An elegant reminder from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet:

“When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

Please do what you need to do to laugh and weep to the fullest in this time. Give yourself the space for healing, for the sacred, and for ceremony around your loss.

It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.


The sermon quoted above (again, from Rev. Krista Taves) comes around to the topic of choice, and I would like to include this paragraph for those of you considering a ceremony around an abortion:

“Now you may be wondering why I’m sharing this story at a service commemorating Roe V. Wade, which legislated freedom of choice. This story is not just about a couple losing their baby. It is about the experience of giving life, growing life, and making decisions about life. It is about how quickly things can change. It is about what you do with those unexpected, tragic things that can happen when one is gripped in the cycle of life. It is about having choices when faced with difficult decisions where no choice leaves you unchanged. There is a connection between the woman who lost her child, and the woman who decides to terminate a pregnancy. The life giving power of women’s bodies is a deeply personal thing, undefinable by anyone except the woman herself. And yet we can so easily have our power taken at exactly the time when we need that power to make decisions about what is best for us
and those we love. What it takes for us to keep our power is a society that deeply values us as women, that reveres life in all its complexity.”

Complex indeed! But the heart can hold it.

Please help give the heart the space it needs to do what it does best:

break, mend, and love again.

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