See You in the Eucharist (Saying Good-bye to my littlest Love)
Today we said good-bye to Gabriel.
I suppose we already said good-bye to him, but today was his burial and funeral Mass. And today my heart broke in a way that I hoped it never would.
Before going to the cemetery, we stopped and bought flowers to lay at Gabriel's grave. The girls both wanted roses, since roses are special to their patron saints. (Therese said, "I want to give him a rose so he'll know his big sister's name is Therese." Maria said, "Mary have roses!!!")
I didn't think about it too closely, but Andrew and I ended up picking out violets. And now I'm glad I did, because violets are everywhere around here this time of year, and they will always remind me of my Gabriel-love.
We arrived early at the cemetery (with a little comic relief along the way as Maria tried to figure out how to make herself say "cemetery" instead of "seminary", and when she finally figured it out, she yelled from the backseat, "Got it!!!"). Soon some of our dear friends and "seminary family" arrived, followed by our pastor. And we drove to Gabriel's grave.
I know that I won't ever regret doing this all the way we did it. I know that this was the way we needed to grieve Gabriel as a family, but I was not at all prepared for the sight of those chairs lined up alongside his grave site. I cried as we approached it. And then I cried even more when I saw his casket. The funeral home we went through buries miscarried and stillborn babies free of charge, which means that they just have a standard-sized casket. Our little sweetheart was only a few millimeters in size, so the casket was ridiculously large for him, but knowing that somewhere in there were his little remains broke my heart. It broke my heart even more to see Andrew carrying that little casket up the hill to the grave site. I wanted to see that child, living, laughing, fussing, in his arms. Not like this.
A sweet, sweet friend of mine, who also suffers from hyperemesis gravidarum in her pregnancies and lost her third child just a couple years ago gave me this beautiful cloth for us to drape on Gabriel's casket. It's made from a piece of her wedding dress. She said she had a friend do the same thing for her. It's all I have to hold that touched Gabriel in some small way, and I'll treasure it forever.
The burial was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. The words of the prayers were an incredible balm for my soul. So beautiful, to hear our child prayed for by name, and acknowledged as a child of God. So soothing it was for me to hear those prayers being said, commending him to God, to see the holy water liberally doused on his casket. I know that many people who miscarry aren't able to have a burial, let alone a graveside service done by a priest, and I do feel so blessed that we had that.
But I sobbed straight through the service none the less. That little body should still be inside of me. I should be 10 weeks pregnant today, getting ready to feel his first kicks (I felt Maria move at 11 weeks). I shouldn't have been sitting in a cemetery, staring at that little casket.
She asked me to take this picture, and it completely breaks my heart.
As much as I'd looked forward to being reunited with his little body, I'd been dreading this moment. Dreading having to actually say good-bye to his tiny remains. The girls each kissed his casket. Andrew stroked it. I wrapped my arms around it, kissed it so many times, and sobbed. I didn't want to leave him there.
It was Andrew who gave me the strength to leave. He was so incredibly tender, wrapping his strong arms around me throughout the whole service.
"I can't leave him, Andrew," I sobbed.
"Oh, sweetheart," he said. "You just need to give him to God."
After the burial was over, we had the funeral Mass. (The order is a bit different for an unbaptized baby, and one of the suggestions we had read was to do the funeral Mass after.) As we drove away from the cemetery, poor little Therese was so sad, but I told her, "The sad part is over. We had to say good-bye to Gabriel's body. But now, we get to be with him at Mass, because all the saints and angels are there! And Gabriel is now a saint."
There were two different priests at the burial, and then there were these three dear men at the funeral Mass. The middle priest is one of our very dear friends and one of our favorite Confessors, and the other two are also incredible spiritual fathers of ours. I was so touched by their insistence on con-celebrating! I was hoping we would be able to find at least one priest to offer the funeral Mass. Our pastor wasn't able to make it, but he arranged everything so the Mass could still be at our parish. And our sweet Gabriel got to experience one of the benefits of being the child of a seminary professor - priests in abundance!
And as awful as the burial was, the funeral Mass was more comforting than I could possibly say. Therese's best seminarian friend (who was recently instituted as a member of the order of "lector") read the readings at Mass, one of the priests read the Gospel, and our dear priest friend gave a beautiful homily, reminding us of how loved Gabriel is, by all of us at the Mass, by friends and family who couldn't be there, but especially by God. "Gabriel is loved." He read Mother Angelica's beautiful prayer for miscarriage at the end of the homily.
Then, the Eucharistic prayer was prayed and I received the greatest consolation possible. One of my biggest worries has been not knowing for sure where Gabriel is, since we couldn't possibly baptize him (other than the conditional baptism my ob/gyn did over his remains). But the Scriptures and prayers in the Funeral Mass for Unbaptized Babies were beautiful and emphasized the incredible hope of heaven and the fact that God is caring for this child. They spoke of heaven, and of God revealing things "to the little ones".
So, during the Eucharistic prayer, I focused on the very real possibility of Gabriel being in heaven. And I realized that that meant he was there with us, right then and there, because whenever Mass is offered, all the saints and angels are present, too (as participants in the never-ending heavenly liturgy that our own liturgy taps into). As the priest elevated the host, I realized - at Mass, our family could be reunited. It's the only time that we'll ever be together, living, on this earth. It's the only way that we can be together this side of heaven. But nevertheless, because of the gift of the Eucharist, we haven't lost our Gabriel entirely. We will always see him in the Eucharist. When I received Jesus in the Eucharist, I was aware of the other half of that reality. Normally, I focus on my union with Jesus in the Eucharist, but the other half of that reality is that we are, in that moment, united to all the saints and to everyone in the whole entire Church.
Although my heart was broken, although I've had moments where I've questioned why Gabriel had to go so soon, I was deeply consoled in the moments after receiving Jesus. I thanked Him, so, so much for the gift of my Gabriel. And I asked Him to tell Gabriel that I loved him. But I also knew, in that moment, in the Eucharist, that I was as close to Gabriel as I could possibly get on this earth. We were forever joined in the Eucharist. Whenever I go to Mass, or adoration, I will be praying with Gabriel. We will never be totally lost from one another's side, because we are united forever in Christ's Eucharistic presence. I've long known that theology, but I never knew it as fully as I did today.
Thank you to all of you who have reached out to our family. Thank you for your kind words, your flowers and cards. Thank you for your prayers and messages. They have been more of a comfort to us than I could ever possibly say.
I am also incredibly grateful, though, for where our family has ended up. My dear Andrew will be teaching at the seminary (as a full time professor of patristic theology and ancient languages) for the foreseeable future. And both of our hearts have been overflowing with gratitude over that. But this whole experience - my rough pregnancy with Gabriel and then losing him - confirmed for us how truly blessed we are by the seminary community. The comfort and love that they all have shown us has meant, so, so, much. Knowing that that is where my husband goes to work every day, knowing that everyone there loves our whole family deeply, it is the greatest consolation in all of this. We are so blessed to have them, and to have been able to grieve with them at our sides.
After Mass, one of the priests who concelebrated embraced me, and then gently took me by the hand and said, "Gabriel knows that you love him. He knows how much you love him. And he is beholding the beauty of the face of God."
Those words...they were exactly what I needed. They were the words of consolation that I was longing for.
One of my very best friends (whose children are my children's best friends) embraced me and told me, "You are such a good mama."
I needed those words, too, today. I desperately needed them. Because, my Gabriel will never celebrate a Baptism, a First Communion, a Confirmation or Marriage or Ordination. These liturgical services today, the conditional Baptism he was given at the hands of my dear ob/gyn, they are the only sacramentals that I will ever be able to offer my child. That breaks my heart, but as hard as today was, I knew that if I had the opportunity to give this to him (something many mothers who miscarry their little ones don't have) I had to give it to him. I had to send him on his way with every grace possible.
No funeral luncheon for our little love. We had to grieve him in our own way, the way that only the Chronisters could. So we went home, changed out of our church things, and headed out to the nature reserve for a Culver's picnic. It was such a little thing, but having dinner that way felt like we were incorporating the memory of our son into the fabric of our own family life. There was something vaguely liturgical about that ritual, in a "domestic monastery" sort of way. Maybe we'll do something similar for his birthday each year.
Because here's the incredible thing. I have this sense that Gabriel's story is far from over. I have this sense that he is paving the way for the rest of the family. I have this sense that all five of us are still connected, connected in a way that no one else (save future, hopefully living children) can ever be a part of. Gabriel is a part of us. He always will be a member of our family. Nothing can ever change that. But he is now a part of something bigger, something we don't understand yet.
I feel like I'm in labor right now. Labor is so excruciating, and when you're in the midst of it, the pain is so intense that it feels like it will never end. You vaguely know it will, but it feels like it won't. Then, in an instant, the pain ends and there is a child in your arms, and the joy is so intense that they pain you endured seems like nothing in comparison.
This life, this life is labor. Heaven is birth. And I'm trying to trust that, when my little one dances with me at the gates of heaven, this valley of tears will seem like such small suffering in light of such great joy.
A few days ago, I remembered something else, something else that has caused me some peace. Earlier on in my pregnancy with Gabriel, I was at a night of adoration at the seminary. The seminary chapel is dedicated to St. Joseph, and as I prayed I gazed at the words painted above the altar, "Ite Ad Joseph," which translates, "Go to Joseph." I was feeling a great deal of anxiety that night, but then I saw those words and it filled me with peace. I went home that night and told Andrew, "I don't know why, but I feel very strongly like Joseph wants to be the patron saint of this pregnancy." It didn't make any sense to me at the time. Was it because we might move? Because Andrew was in the job application process? Should we name the baby Joseph? What did it mean? Joseph wasn't a traditional choice for patronage of a pregnancy.
But the other day it hit me. St. Joseph is the patron saint of a happy death.
From the beginning, he was probably praying for Gabriel, and in his final moments (unknown to us) he was probably praying for Gabriel to be given the grace of a happy death.
The Sunday after we saw Gabriel, alive but too small, on the ultrasound was the Sunday that I received Anointing of the Sick. After I was anointed, our pastor prayed a very beautiful, very moving prayer over Gabriel. I don't remember the exact words, but he basically prayed that we would be blessed to have this baby serve the Church. He meant, of course, to have Gabriel raised in our parish, serving the Church with his gifts. But God knew at that point, what prayers Gabriel actually needed. He needed that blessing because he was about to serve the Church in a much bigger way than we could understand. We don't know the exact moment that Gabriel died, but timing-wise, it is entirely possible that he died right then - minutes after I received the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick, and as he was being blessed. Incidentally, my nausea began improving not long after that. I thought at the time that it was because we adjusted my medicine, but maybe it was because our little love was already gone.
And yet, I find comfort in that. That was Gabriel's second blessing in the womb. He'd had countless prayers offered for him at that point, and countless hours of suffering offered for him. He'd spent much time with Jesus in the Eucharist. He got to live through the Triduum! We had such a short time to prepare him for heaven, but I think that God allowed us to give him as much preparation as we possibly could have in such a short time. He was - and is - so loved. He always will be.
Something that Gabriel has made me realize is what a gift our children are, and how much they truly are seperate entities from ourselves. I think that I would have come to that realization when the girls were grown up, and I had to let them go to college, get married, join the convent, or whatever. I would have seen how God's plan for them extended far beyond little old me. But Gabriel taught me that far sooner. My love will always, always go with him. I will never stop loving him. But his life - his life continues on far beyond me. God's plan for him was very different than mine was. And he knows true joy. Whenever I start to get mad at God, I stop and realize - He is giving to Gabriel so much more than I ever could. I am grateful that this child lived, that he was entrusted to us for so brief a time, and selfishly, I wish we could have had him for far longer. But as a mother, wanting what is best for him - I am also happy for him. If he truly is living out the beautific vision, how could I begrudge him so great a joy? It is what I ultimately wanted for him, and God's timetable was just very different than my own.
So now, a word on children. I was raised in a generation of women that were (and are) terribly, terribly afraid of having children. Even when we were going through marriage prep, I (pro-life as I was) didn't really want a big family. (Andrew won me over, and God opened my heart.) But I was raised to believe, by the culture, by the media, that children were something to be feared. Children were something to be spaced and controlled.
As scared as I am to undergo another HG pregnancy, now living with the possibility of miscarriage, I wouldn't trade my pregnancy with Gabriel for all the riches in the world. I wouldn't trade my girls or my pregnancies with them either. Because their stories, their significance goes far beyond myself. God has allowed us to be a part of bringing new souls into being. Through all the suffering and difficulty and sacrifice, this remains - openness to their lives is what is making me a saint. They are my vocation, the fruits of our marriage - Therese, Maria, and now Gabriel. They are gifts beyond compare, and I hope with all my heart that God will allow us to hold and raise more children.
So that would be my words of wisdom to you - don't be afraid of motherhood. Don't be afraid of children. And don't take your ability to have them for granted. Conception doesn't come easily for us, and I know more people who struggle with infertility and miscarriage than you would think. If you are able to welcome a new soul into your family, do not be afraid. The gift of a new soul is worth it, a thousand times over.
Gabriel was worth it. He was worth and is worth every moment of suffering. I love him, and he is making me into a saint no less than my living children are. And I am so, so overwhelmed with gratitude for him. Thank you, my dear Jesus, for my Gabriel. Thank you so much for him.