Out of her own heartbreak, Nicole Hartman is reaching out to other couples that share the grief of losing a child still in the womb.
“It is this awful cross,” she said.
The 39-year-old is leading the effort to form a ministry in the Atlanta Archdiocese called Embrace to aid other couples with support and compassion. The archdiocese appears to be one of the few to have a ministry for the death of an unborn child.
It’ll be five years this fall since Nicole and Peter married. In their mid-30s and successful, the plan all along was to start a family. “A dozen children” was what she imagined, said Nicole. Yet, she could not conceive.
Four years ago, they moved to Canton, in Cherokee County. Nicole as the youth minister at St. Marguerite d’Youville Church, Lawrenceville, led students this summer to Chicago to serve in poor neighborhoods. She also runs her own event planning business. Peter works in the financial industry.
Through the years, she could not conceive. The couple turned to medical help, and Nicole got pregnant. But at eight weeks, the baby in the womb died. The couple named the child Caine.
Later, she again became pregnant. This time, Nicole carried twins. Around nine weeks of gestation, Lea died in the womb. But the girl they named Cara survived. And then at 16 weeks, the same heartbreak.
The death of an unborn is not uncommon. Public health experts track fetal mortality. In 2004 an estimated 6.4 million pregnancies resulted in 4.11 million live births, 1.22 million induced abortions, and 1.06 million fetal losses, according to a 2009 National Vital Statistics Reports.
During their hardship, the Hartmans found little support from the church. Good-hearted people stumbled over what to say, at times causing more hurt.
“People want you to move on quickly. It’s one of those unspeakables. We just don’t have the tools to know how to handle it,” she said.
Nicole and her husband found shoulders to lean on at great community organizations, but little help from the faith community that the Michigan native joined at the age of 22.
“You can Google Catholic support for miscarriage and you’ll find very little,” she said.
But she knows Catholics wrestle with this issue. She finds blogs where anxious parents ask if their stillborn child is in heaven.
“For a Catholic, that’s something big in your head,” she said. “I just don’t want another couple to go through what Peter and I did without support,” she said.
The idea of Embrace began. Nicole presented the concept to Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and his Pastoral Council. It was immediately endorsed.
Assisting Nicole is Deacon Dennis Dorner, the chancellor of the archdiocese and the director of the permanent diaconate.
Deacon Dorner said deacons, in particular, are being asked to aid couples dealing with the grief.
“Most of our deacons are married, and many have been touched by the loss of a child of our own or a close family member. So there is an empathy there,” he said in an email.
Nicole’s situation shows clergy need to be trained in how to respond to this kind of loss, so the goal is to start with the deacons and their wives to get the word out on this issue, Deacon Dorner said.
The Embrace ministry will offer support, education and a way to memorialize the loss.
For priests and deacons, better education is greatly needed, Nicole said, having heard artless phrases.
Clichés like “God has a plan” or “You can have another child” do not help people grieve and make people angry enough to leave the church, she said.
“I want advice from the church, but in a loving way,” she said.
Deacon Dorner said Archbishop Gregory wanted to be clear this differs from pro-life ministry. Both are needed, but the focus of Embrace is on “the healing that is needed when a wanted life is lost,” said Deacon Dorner.
For support, monthly meetings at the Archdiocese of Atlanta Chancery in Smyrna have been organized. The meeting will be open to men and women. In the works are educational forums so couples can learn more about the medical conditions that can lead to premature deaths.
For the memory of the babies, Nicole would like to see the ministry develop ways to memorialize the deaths. Two events are scheduled: On Oct. 15, there will be a remembrance walk, prayer service and butterfly release at the main administrative offices of the archdiocese. And in May 2012, the ministry is organizing a memorial Mass to be celebrated by the archbishop.
An artist is working with the ministry to design a “Life Certificate” to remember the children. A memorial book would also be created that would be preserved.
“I don’t want my child to ever be forgotten,” she said.
The dream for a family with children isn’t forgotten either. She and her husband put together a photo album they hope will encourage a birth mother to select them to parent her child.
“We’re not ready to give up having a child,” she said as the couple turns to adoption.
Printed with permission from the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Ga.