RECLAIMING THE GRIEF

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

The tiny brass plaque displaying Ryan Joseph Olsen's name has fingerprints smudged all over it. But that's OK with Ryan's mother, Shanna Olsen. It means a certain someone -- Ryan's older brother, Matthew -- visited to remember Ryan, who died almost a year ago when he was just three-and-a-half months old.

Ryan's name is among more than 200 displayed on the new children's memorial at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in south St. Louis. The memorial, which Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice blessed and dedicated Sept. 28 at a Mass, honors children who have died from miscarriage, stillbirth or abortion, or at a later age from accident, illness or injury.

"There's such a connection there to touch his name," said Ryan's grandmother, Fran Voss. "I tell people, until you've walked in these shoes, you don't know what it's like" to lose a child. The memorial provides "such a healing for many," she said.

For those who have experienced the pain and sorrow that comes with losing a child, "you more than anyone ... understand the cross," upon which Christ suffered and died, Bishop Rice said in his homily. "People say time heals all wounds -- that's a lie. Love heals all wounds. And the greatest sign of that love is Christ on the cross."

Bishop Rice told them not to keep the loss to themselves. "We are challenged to bring those losses to the foot of the cross," he said. "From the cross, Jesus fills your loss with His presence."

Open to anyone from any church inside or outside the archdiocese, the memorial at St. Mary Magdalen, which features a wall-mounted statue of the Holy Family surrounded by children, was the work of several groups, including the Knights of Columbus Council 453 and Ladies' Auxiliary and St. Mary Magdalen's pro-life committee.

The memorial is a tangible example of how families can work through grief after the loss of a child, said Debbie Cochran, executive director of Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Inc. Based in St. Charles, the national nonprofit organization provides support to those who lost a child. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

"Our society is so instantaneous; we expect people to move on and not to display any of those feelings of grief," Cochran said. "But they will carry that memory of that person ... the rest of their life. We help them with healthy ways to work through the grief and to be able to integrate that grief in their life." In addition to giving free resource packets, Share works with hospitals to offer training and support group programs.

Several studies have shown that 10 to 25 percent of all clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. According to a 2009 National Vital Statistics Report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 900,000 pregnancies end in early loss. The CDC noted in 2009, the number of live births in the U.S. was 4,130,665; of those births, 25,894 ended in stillbirth and 18,782 resulted in neonatal deaths.

Cochran noted that our society has shifted from a view of childbirth as "institutionalized" to one that is gradually reclaiming the natural process of bringing a child into the world and honoring the lives of those who were lost too soon.

Sister Jane Marie Lamb, OSF, a chaplain at St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Ill., envisioned this when she founded Share in 1977. Cochran often shares the story of an experience Sister Jane had with a woman who lost a baby and went into a coma. "The husband had to bury the baby, and then the woman woke up and asked, 'Where's my baby?'" That's when Sister Jane realized something better needed to be done. She put together a focus group of families and began asking them, "What would have been helpful to you?"

When a family learns they are expecting a child, they have certain hopes and dreams for what the child's life is going to be like. When a child dies, those hopes, dreams and experiences are lost.

"Awareness (of this) is a big deal," Cochran said. "It's the first step in access to receiving care and support."

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