An Empty Cradle, a Full Heart: Reflections for Mothers and Fathers after Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death

An Empty Cradle, a Full Heart: Reflections for Mothers and Fathers after Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death

Paperback(First Edition)

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“Bereavement after the loss of a baby is often quiet and lonely,” writes Christine O’Keeffe Lafser, who has twice lost a child to death. “There is no wake or funeral, no grave site, no memorial to our baby’s life or death. . . . Since there are no real memories of our little one’s life, people have a hard time comprehending the depth of our love and grief.” In these reflections, Lafser offers grieving parents the empathy and courage that can come only from one who has walked the same difficult path.

“Chris expressed so many of my thoughts and feelings and made me feel so normal. . . . The greatest gift is learning that God does not desert us in our time of need.”
Linda Davis, Compassionate Friends, after miscarriage and stillbirth

“The juxtaposition of a Scripture text with each reflection is inspired. Some of the texts are breathtaking in their beauty and appropriateness. This book is a ‘must’ for anyone who is ever touched by the loss of an infant.”
Joseph Awad, poet and grieving grandfather

“This book will be very helpful for parents who are mourning the loss of their child. It will also prove very beneficial to anyone who is ministering to a bereaved parent.”
Robert N. Craig, O.F.M. Cap., hospital chaplain

“These reflections allowed me to ‘be’ how I was feeling—not feel like I should be going through the stages of grief that other books described. With this book I was no longer a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.”
Jeanette Siebels, after infant death

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780829411737
Publisher: Loyola Press
Publication date: 10/01/1998
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 881,487
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.75(d)

About the Author

Christine O’Keeffe Lafser is the author of two Loyola Press books, Longing for My Child: Reflections for Parents and Siblings after a Child’s Death and An Empty Cradle, A Full Heart: Reflections for Mothers and Fathers after Miscarriage, Stillbirth, or Infant Death. She has survived the death of four children and is blessed by the love and support of her husband and three living children. She and her family live in Virginia.

Read an Excerpt


We Americans have never quite reached consensus about when — at what exact moment in time — a baby becomes a baby. Perhaps our country will never be comforted by any commonality — legal or political — of agreement. But psychologically and emotionally the matter is fairly clear for most of us; experientially it is terribly, terribly clear for those of us who have lost our children to pre-, peri-, or neonatal death.

It seems to me, as one in that sad group of many, that a child “becomes” as soon as it begins to leave some impress upon the being of another person. For some people, that can mean that a child is as soon as his or her parents begin to yearn toward his or her beginning. For most of us who have walked the long miles of love that lead to parenthood, however, a child is when the first suspicion of pregnancy appears — the first missed period, the first queasiness, the first tenderness in one’s breasts. From that moment of recognition on, the thing-in-process is no longer “thing” but “baby” — our baby, my baby, the baby — but by whatever name, still a baby, a human being for those blessed few who are privy to the secret.

The secret is a baby, in other words, because he or she has just begun to make a difference in other human beings’ lives; because he or she is now a stimulus to other people, a stimulus that demands reaction and will receive it whether or no; because for most parents-to-be, their very identity to themselves and to each other has been redefined forever by that thing-turned- baby.

But sometimes for some of us — far too often for a few of us — parenting is like a bowl of mixed winter bulbs set on a windowsill to bloom after Christmas. Life stirs within the warming humus. The narcissus spears emerge and spike in their thrusting, defiant praise to spring, and those who see their paean in green and white are sustained and cheered. But the narcissus and the gardener know that waiting below in the moist nest of their beginning are the bulbs of the far shorter and more deeply colorful grape hyacinth, and they too have begun to stir.

The narcissus know because they themselves are rooted where the hyacinths’ tentative, fingering rootlets are reaching out for more sustenance. The narcissus know because their own roots, even their very bulbs, are being gently pushed into different positions. The narcissus know because the gardener seems more attentive, more watchful, more present, turning the bowl a bit, adding water here and light there. If it were not too romantic a stretch, we might even say that the narcissus are happy.

In fact, we probably must say the narcissus are happy in their windowsill bowl, because we are also going to have to account for what they are when the hyacinth bulbs sigh a little sigh beneath their humus blanket, give one small shake, and then cease to be.

Within days their small hyacinth rootlets have retreated, and their tiny little bulbous hyacinth bodies have begun returning to the humus which had been their nurture. The homeowners may say, “How sad that the hyacinths don’t seem to be coming up after all,” but it is nothing to them that the hyacinths have failed this late winter. There is always next year after Christmas, and besides, since the hyacinths never came, it is hard to regret their absence.

The hyacinths weren’t ever there, you see, except for the narcissus who feel now, continuously, the emptying of their space and the cooling of the humus. Oh, they will go on blooming, of course; they will continue to spike and even to give off their sweet fragrance to the surrounding air. But they will know. The narcissus will know that they are paler than the gardener had intended, and all for lack of the rich royal blues that were to be their contrast. When their thrusting spikes finally overreach themselves and begin to tumble, the narcissus know that there will be no border of young life to shield their going or to give purpose to the indoor garden. And in a room that lacks the rich odors of birthing soil and ongoing life, the narcissus will even come in time to find their own fragrance strangely cloying. The narcissus will know all these things for the rest of their time in the window bowl garden, because for them the hyacinths were real. But it is not so for those who simply pass the windowsill. For them there are not and never were any hyacinths.

If those who stop to have a sandwich in front of the winter bowl or to glance out into the yard beyond the window, or who merely go by on their busy way toward some household chore — if those passersby feel no grief for the hyacinths, they are to be understood perhaps; but for me and for Christine O’Keeffe Lafser and for millions like us, they are no longer to be so easily excused.

The problem with pre-, peri-, and neonatal death is that, like the passing of the hyacinths, it occurs below the surface and sight lines of life. The life it takes occurs in too small and confined a space to stimulate beyond its own intimate environs. The death is never there because the life was never recognized . . . never, that is, except to the narcissus, never except to the few who shared the bowl on the windowsill. An Empty Cradle, A Full Heart is the mourning song of the narcissus.

Gentle at times, assertive and faithfully angry at others, but always informed by frankness of emotion and the candor of a deeply wounded heart, this small volume ranges quietly and beautifully over the whole of what Lafser calls “the nebulous death.” Intended to comfort, counsel, and affirm both mothers and fathers, the book is also a clarion call to the church: It is time, liturgically and pastorally, to celebrate the reality of life agonizingly lost before or during birth with a fervor equal to that with which we acknowledge the reality of life willfully ended during the same period.

And Lafser’s words are for the passersby as well, for those not-unkind familiars of the house who presently can glance at the incomplete bowl of bulbs and still move carelessly on. As its title suggests, An Empty Cradle is a textbook of the heart. It is, for the willing, an instruction in how to feel with the understanding and in how to exercise informed compassion with one’s actions and words. Pray God that few will need such comfort and/or instruction, but those who do will most surely find both of them here.
— phyllis tickle
i n t r o d u c t i o n

When my babies died, I didn’t think I would ever be happy again. Bereavement after the loss of a baby is often quiet and lonely, because we have no vehicle for its expression. There is no wake or funeral, no grave site, no memorial to our baby’s life or death. There are often no photographs or favorite toys, no little clothes to remind us of just how tiny he or she was. For many of us, even the sex of our baby is unknown.

Often the people around us can’t seem to understand how it could hurt so badly to lose a baby they think we didn’t really know. Since there are no real memories of our little one’s life, they have a hard time comprehending the depth of our love and grief. Though they don’t mean to hurt us with their attitudes and comments, sometimes their words of comfort sound cruel.

I offer these short reflections to assure you that what you are feeling is common to parents who have lost a child through miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death, and to give you hope, encouragement, and support as you grieve. Many are based on my own experiences after the deaths of my children; others reflect the experiences of family members and friends whose children have died. Though written primarily for mothers and fathers, they are also appropriate for siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, and all who mourn the loss of a little baby. Doctors, nurses, pastors, and counselors may also find in these pages the insight needed to better understand, minister to, and help those who grieve.

The grief process does not proceed in a straight line from despair to hope. Some days will be unbearable; some will be much better. This is the nature of grief. I can’t encourage you enough to allow yourself to grieve in your own way, at your own pace — and to use this book in whatever way helps you most.

You may find that on some days, especially right after your baby’s death, you may not be able to read it at all. If it hurts too much, put it down for a few days and try again another time. Later you may find that picking it up and thumbing through it, reading reflections here and there, may be most helpful.

Some people stop on a page that expresses just how they feel that day, finding comfort in knowing that other grieving parents have shared their feelings. Others use the book to help them move on by reading until they find a passage that offers hope for tomorrow. Still others have told me that, when they were ready, they read the book from front to back, blinking back their tears. And some reread sections as they needed them, either to help them get through the rough days or to rejoice and thank God on good days.

Different reflections will be helpful on different days and at different times. Some days you may find a passage that expresses exactly how you feel; other days a completely different sentiment will speak to your heart. Sharing these passages with the people you love is a good way to help them understand what you are going through. Being able to share our grief with each other, and to talk about the many feelings that accompanied that grief, united me and my husband in a whole new way after our babies died.
Above all, I urge you to pay particular attention to the Scripture verses, for it is in them that I think you will find real consolation.

For, finally, the healing comes. A friend once told me this book reminded him of a collection of psalms of lament and praise, with the psalm of lament always bringing one back to faith. As time passed, I found I had been strengthened by pain, like gold tried in the fire. That is what I desire for you: that this book will help bring you to God in a new way, strengthening and renewing your faith, even in the face of such deep sorrow.

I hope it will console you to remember that God loves each of us the way we love our own children. It helps some parents to think of God holding their baby tenderly for them. I think he wants to hold us, too, as we grieve. We need only to turn to his embrace.
— christine o’keeffe lafser
~ r e f l e c t i o n s f o r m o t h e r s
t h e r o c k e r

Isit in the rocking chair, pretending to rock the baby whose heart beat for too short a time. Last week I rocked him while he was still inside me. I thought of how he would feel in my arms and looked forward to stroking his face and kissing his neck. I talked to him and made plans for him. I read to him and sang to him.
But now he is gone. I have to trust that the Lord is holding him, and that angels are singing to him now. Yet I still can’t quite give him up, so I sit and pretend to rock him. I have tried to sing to him, but I can’t. I know God can read my heart. He knows my sadness and he understands.
Can a woman forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
i s a i a h 4 9 : 1 5 (NA B )
u l t r a s o u n d

When he didn’t hear a heartbeat, the obstetrician ordered an ultrasound. There was a long wait while I drank what seemed to be gallons of water. The ultrasound technologist didn’t speak except for curt instructions, and the monitor was turned away from me so that I couldn’t see the image of my baby. When I asked a question, she made it clear that I shouldn’t interrupt her work.
The radiologist came in a little while later, conferred briefly with the technologist, and studied the monitor. She told me that she could not detect a heartbeat and that my baby was probably dead. Then she was gone, leaving me scared, shocked, and all alone.
Why didn’t they talk to me? Why didn’t they let me see my baby on the screen? Why were they so anxious to get me out of there?
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O LORD — how long?
psalm 6:2–3
t h e r e c ov e r y r o o m
There was a lot of blood and a lot of pain. A miscarriage. There had been no heartbeat on the ultrasound.
“We need to do a D&C now,” the doctor said.
I remember waking up in the recovery room. The nurse said my name.
“Is it over?” I asked.
She nodded. Only then did I lose hope. Only then did I know that my baby was really dead.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
matthew 11:28
h ug s

My son doesn’t understand my silence or my tears. He doesn’t know why I want to hold him and rock him for so long. He is too little to understand that his baby brother has died and won’t be coming home.
I need to hold this little child to convince myself of the reality of his sweet flesh; yes, he really is here and he is mine. I still have one precious child.
He tolerates my hugs for as long as a toddler can, then scampers away to play. He is a delight and makes me smile in spite of my grief. He comforts me with his exuberance. He brings me out of myself because he needs a whole and happy mother too. I am trying. Please help me, Lord, to put aside my grief and rejoice in the life of my dear son.

Great are the works of the LORD,
to be treasured for all their delights.
p s a l m 1 1 1 : 2 (NA B )
f o o l e d

My breasts are still full and heavy. I still feel tired. It’s as if my body doesn’t know that I’m no longer pregnant. What a cruel joke — even my body was fooled. When will the truth catch up with me, and what will I do when all of me knows that my baby is dead?
I cry to you and you do not answer me;
I stand, and you merely look at me.
You have turned cruel to me;
with the might of your hand you persecute me.
j o b 3 0 : 2 0 – 2 1
 n o t h i n g t o s ay

Yesterday I ran into an old neighbor in the grocery store. She asked when the baby was due. I told her that the baby had died, and that the contractions should begin in the next few days. Her face reflected her horror and compassion. She didn’t know what to say. Neither did I. She patted my hand as she left and said she would pray for me. I didn’t cry. Part of me still feels numb.
These days of waiting for the contractions to begin are very bad. Anticipation of delivery should be joyous, not sad.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
lamentations 5 : 1 5
i t m a k e s m e c r y
Everything makes me cry. Today, three television commercials made me cry. When the mail came, the discount-store catalog made me cry. In the grocery store, I had to avoid the baby-care aisle altogether. Anything will do it: a song, a phrase, a Scripture passage, a reference to the past or the future. Even the calendar brings tears to my eyes.
I feel so silly, but I can’t help it. I try not to cry, but the tears come unbidden, and at the oddest times. I’m getting a little better at blinking them back, but the lump in my throat gets bigger and bigger.
My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite.
lamentations 3 : 4 9
s h at t e r e d

Iam afraid I am going to die. I have never feared death before, but now it is a very real fear. I think of how my family would cope without me. My husband needs me. My other children need me. I have more living to do.
Why do I feel like an egg with tiny cracks in the shell — so fragile, so shattered, so weak? What if my husband dies instead? I have this terrible feeling that something horrible is going to happen to us again.
They cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
matthew 14:26–27
t h e l o n g na p

Ithought he was taking a long nap. We’d had a busy day, and it didn’t seem strange for him to be sleeping a little longer than usual. After a while, I went upstairs to check on him. He was lying peacefully in his crib, but he was dead. I can’t forget the horror of that moment. I keep remembering the way he looked when I found him. Could I have saved him if I had checked on him sooner?

And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.
1 p e t e r 5 : 1 0
f r i e n d s

Afriend came over today and insisted I go out with her. She didn’t try to make me forget — how could I? — but we still had fun. We even laughed a couple of times. We cried too. I didn’t think I would be able to talk so freely, but her willingness to listen made it easy, and I felt better.
Faithful friends are beyond price;

no amount can balance their worth.
Faithful friends are life-saving medicine.
s i r ach 6:15–16

Table of Contents


foreword . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .ix
introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .xv
reflections for mothers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2
reflections for fathers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .82
reflections for mothers and fathers . . . .132
resources . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .246

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