by Victoria Shea
(Plain Press, October 2018) “When a child loses his parent, they are called an orphan. When a spouse loses her or his partner, they are called a widow or widower,” said former president Ronald Reagan when he signed Senate Joint Resolution 314. The resolution designated the month of October as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. “When parents lose their child, there isn’t a word to describe them.”
A portion of the staff at the Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home on Denison Avenue know this all too well.
“The death of an infant is probably one of the hardest funeral services to handle,” explains licensed funeral director and owner Walter Martens, Jr. “It often leaves you wondering the biggest question without an answer-Why?”
Martens has an understanding of the pain and emotions that come with the loss of a pregnancy or an infant’s passing. In the 1970s, Martens and his late wife Bernadine experienced two miscarriages. Others on his staff experienced the loss of pregnancies or infants’ deaths as well.
“It’s more common than anyone would like to think.” Martens said.
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Martens explained, his late wife had started a support program called, Our Forever Babies– When Miracles Become Memories, as a way to help the families they were servicing who experienced the loss of a pregnancy or an infant death.
“The program started in the library here at the funeral home,” Martens said. “The group would meet once a month for a couple of hours and share their experiences. Bernadine would also share her experiences with our losses as well.”
In addition to her support group, a white grapevine wreath was dedicated to the infants who had passed away during the year with their name placed on a decorated wooden heart. The wreath, Martens said, was “placed in a prominent place in the funeral home.”
“Just like she did with our holiday program,” stated Martens, “Bernadine created a program that helped others.”
However, after Bernadine’s unexpected passing in 1997, the program was discontinued.
Reflecting back, Martens sadly said that it was disappointing that the funeral home was unable to keep the program going at the time of Bernadine’s passing.
“With my wife’s passing, I was now the only parent left to care for our children, who had just lost their mother. It was a hard time for all of us. It took what energy we did have just to keep her holiday program running. Sadly, that meant letting other programs we offered go.”
It wasn’t until part of his current office staff started, he explained, that there was even talk of bringing the program back.
“Our office manager was going through boxes in the archives when she stumbled across information on Bernadine’s program,” Martens explained. “She came forward and asked about trying to restart it.”
Her driving force, he said, was wanting to help the families she was working with.
“Normally, with a pregnancy loss or infant passing, she is right there alongside myself, or our other funeral director, helping us. She gives them comfort where sometimes we can’t.” Martens said.
Working alongside her cousin, Courtney Burns, in the last few years, they did in-depth research into pregnancy and infant loss. When they approached Martens about bringing back his wife’s program, it was hard for him to say no.
“The research and planning they did was amazing,” he stated. “Between the stuff they could find, and sadly Courtney’s personal experiences with pregnancy losses, they had formed a program that was just as good as Bernadine’s.”
Their first step in bringing back the program, he explained, is a memorial service.
“Since 1988, October has been recognized as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month,” explained Martens. “According to Resolution 314, the month offers families the opportunity to increase understanding of pregnancy and infant loss and explore ways to meet the needs of the bereaved parents and family members.”
“One of the ways suggested by Robyn Bear, one of three women who created a movement to have October 15th declared Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day,” he continued, “was to sponsor a candle lighting ceremony. Our girls have taken it a step further and will include that as part of their memorial service.”
Very similar to the funeral home’s holiday and Memorial Day services, families that Martens have serviced who experienced either a pregnancy or infant loss will be invited to the funeral home for the service, as well as the community at large. The order of service will include a reading of the names of those being remembered, a dedication of the funeral home’s front window where a new grapevine wreath will be displayed, as well as a candlelight ceremony. Martens says that, as with the firm’s holiday service, he expects the emotions at the memorial service to be greater.
“No matter the loss, the grief a person experiences is difficult and unique to each. With the loss of a pregnancy or infant, those emotions become even more difficult. One-minute parents are planning for the future with hopes and dreams. The next minute, those hopes and dreams are taken.”
Martens says the memorial service will be kept to just under an hour in consideration of the families’ emotions, especially with those who have begun the healing process.
“Dealing with the loss of a pregnancy or the death of an infant becomes a balancing act – on one hand, you want to provide the family a chance to grieve, but on the other hand, the funeral director has to sometimes be the one to remind the mother especially, that she needs to take the time to heal physically,” he said. “We’re treating this memorial service the same way, while in addition to not reopening or causing a relapse in the families’ progression of healing emotionally.”
Martens however, is confident that the service will be something special.
“At our Tree of Remembrance last year, the girls changed the program and created a special tree just for the pregnancy losses and infants we had serviced which got some nice feedback, but it was still just a small part of a larger service. By holding a service that is separate of every other service we hold, our hope is that it can bring families together to help create a support system that some may need, but have yet to find.”
Just as with Tree of Remembrance, Martens acknowledges the service will invoke some emotions for him personally, having twice been where these families are.
“It’s hard sometimes. Both, my wife as well as my mother, experienced pregnancy losses, and that provided me with the insight to be able to appreciate what these families are going through.” he reflected. “But, being able to talk about the emotions that come with such a powerful loss, and remember what might have been, with others who have also experienced that kind of loss, helps to remind us all that we aren’t alone in our journey.”
Sleeping Angels: When Miracles Become Memories Memorial Service will be held on Saturday, October 27th at 3PM at Walter Martens & Sons Funeral Home, 9811 Denison Avenue. The service is opened to all who have experienced a pregnancy loss, stillbirth or early infant loss regardless of whether your family was serviced by the funeral home.