Couple overcomes loss of infants with aid of faith, community
Inspired to become involved in Behold Your Child ministry
By Dan Russo
AMES — In 2016, Jarrett and Luisa Wendt of St. Cecilia Parish in Ames were excited to find out they were expecting twins. As the weeks progressed, the couple spoke regularly to sons Joseph and Matthew as they grew in utero. All appeared to be going normally until 21 weeks into the pregnancy, when Luisa was rushed to a local hospital.
“We didn’t expect it,” recalled Jarrett. “Everything was going really well, no problems, and then all of a sudden she went into labor.”
After several days in different medical facilities, the Wendts were flown to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital where the young woman gave birth.
“Joseph lived for 15 minutes, and Matthew lived for six days in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit),” said Luisa. “As soon as they were born, Jarrett baptized them. That was really a special moment for us, and then we both walked them to heaven.”
Even though their time with the twins was short, their experience at the NICU confirmed the deep connection they had been building since the start.
“When Joseph and Matthew were born, Matthew was in the NICU, and he was plugged to all the different things to show how his heart rate was, his oxygen and all his vital signs,” said Luisa. “We could tell when we were there that because he was listening to our voice, all his oxygen levels and his heartbeat rate would go higher. This is him telling you that he understands that you are his parents.”
“When we spoke to him or sang to him, his oxygen levels would go up from the 70s to the 80s or something like that, so we had that comfort of knowing that … he could already recognize us at 21 weeks,” added Jarrett.
After a period of grieving, the Wendts investigated the medical reasons for the premature birth. They found out with the help of medical professionals and NaPro technology that the early labor was caused by a polycystic ovarian syndrome related infection. After undergoing a surgery to address the problem, the couple was ready to try again. In 2018, they conceived a girl, whom they named Chiara. Everything was going well, until week 11, when no heartbeat could be detected during an ultrasound. Doctors determined that this loss was caused by a partial molar pregnancy.
“It’s a very uncommon pregnancy where two sperm fertilize one egg,” explained Luisa. “The baby ends up having three complete sets of chromosomes.”
Enduring the loss of three babies in a short span of time was devastating — an ordeal that the Wendts say they got through with God’s help, along with the aid of friends, family and the community.
“The first time with Joseph and Matthew, we had a lot of support because we were in an emergency situation for three days,” remembered Jarrett. “We were broadcasting over Facebook and asking friends and family for prayers, and so then when we lost them, we had hundreds of people already on board with us. The funeral was packed. People were sending us all kinds of messages and prayers and meals. … It was pretty amazing. With the loss of Chiara, it was different. First of all, we decided to not wait until three months to tell people. We’d been asking people for their prayers (from the beginning of the pregnancy) because we had been afraid of losing her. … Also, if we were to lose her, we didn’t want to be the only ones who knew about it.”
Drawing on their own history, the Wendts decided to become part of a relatively new ministry in the Archdiocese of Dubuque called “Behold Your Child” designed to help those who have lost children through miscarriage, stillbirth or after birth. The couple attended a training session in Ames with about a dozen others in February 2019. Many of the volunteers have also lost children recently or in the past. The participants are prepared by staff from the offices of marriage and family life, respect life and social justice, and Catholic Charities to respond to grieving families. So far the Wendts report that the ministry has been called upon in their parish. The group there is hoping to organize events in the future such as a memorial Mass or retreat.
“We would like to tell women and men who have experienced miscarriages or have had infant losses, and who don’t yet have living children on this side of eternity, that they are already mothers and fathers,” reflected Louisa. “That from the moment of conception they became parents of a precious child who is now a part of the great treasure stored for them in the life of heaven. This is a truth that is often hard to embrace since we no longer have them physically with us. However, it is one of the most beautiful gifts we receive on this journey of grief, to know and remember that we are already parents — parents of saints in heaven.”
A Path to Healing
For the Wendts, the path to healing from the loss of their twins included a funeral Mass. When grieving for their daughter, Father Aaron Junge, a friend who they had selected to be the child’s godfather, prayed with them and was among clergy and other friends who attended a naming ceremony at their home. It was also important to be able to interact with other couples who had experienced similar grief.
Two days after losing Chiara was Jarrett’s 30th birthday. At a gathering held for him, three families attended who had also lost children.
“It was really comforting having them around us,” he said.
The Wendts have taken steps to remember their children, including making a scrapbook dedicated to the time they had together that includes photos of Joseph and Matthew and an ultrasound image of Chiara. The couple also has pieces of jewelry with their children’s names on them, which can start conversations. Jarrett and Luisa are very open about what they’ve been through.
“Sometimes when we share about the lives of our children with people who haven’t had any losses, it can be uncomfortable for the other people,” said Luisa. “All they feel is this deep sadness and the sense that it is so unfair, which is true, but in addition to that, there’s so much grace that is just outpoured inside the grief. There’s this longing for us as parents to talk about our children, even if we had them for seven weeks or two minutes. … That space with people who have gone through that is more natural. So it’s easier to remember with them and allow them into that sorrow. It’s definitely not something that goes away. It comes and goes with the seasons. Receiving little reminders that your children are still alive and they’re in heaven waiting for us is really meaningful, and it’s healing too.”
Although the Wendts are willing to share, not everyone in their position does.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to us and told us they lost a child through miscarriage (or other ways) and they’ve never told anybody else and they’re not going to,” said Jarrett.
Faith and the Future
When it comes to maintaining and increasing their faith, one helpful element for the Wendts has been a devotion to the Blessed Mother. The Wendts have a garden dedicated to Mary at their home — a place where they can sit, pray and meditate. Luisa identifies with Mary because she also lost a child and prays that Jesus’ mother will “teach (her) how to grieve well.”
The strong support of the church community has also been essential.
“There were moments on the journey where the veil between heaven and earth was so thin, that it was as if we were walking on holy ground,” said Luisa. “It sounds crazy, but it is so real. We were diving into a grief that we could not have prepared to endure, and here we were receiving such grace that our hearts were also experiencing joy! We couldn’t have journeyed on this valley the way we have without the immense love and support of the body of Christ. We did very little, most of what we did was allow people to enter into our journey and become part of the lives of Joseph, Matthew and Chiara.”
As time passed, the Wendts eventually felt the call to adoption. They are going through the process now and are hoping to welcome a child into their home from Colombia, Luisa’s native country.
“We have to wait a year or however long it takes,” said Jarrett.
The couple is also open to trying to conceive a child again someday. As the many possibilities of the future are laid out before them, they’ve decided to dedicate time in the present to the Behold Your Child ministry so that they can repay some of the love and kindness that was shown to them by giving it to others.
“All these people, known and unknown to us, that have come together to pray, care and love on us, have carried us through and continue to do so to this day,” said Luisa. “We have never been alone, and this has been a tremendous blessing. Such is the blessing that we would like to bestow on others through the Behold Your Child ministry.”
The Behold Your Child ministry is planning to hold training sessions for volunteers again beginning in September (see below). For more information, contact Matt Selby at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 563-556-2580.
Luisa and Jarrett Wendt of St. Cecilia Parish in Ames are pictured with the foot and handprints of their sons, Joseph and Matthew, who died after being born prematurely in 2016. The couple also lost a daughter, Chiara, during the 11th week of pregnancy. They are now looking into adopting a child from Colombia, Luisa’s native country. They participate in the Behold Your Child ministry. (Contributed photo)
Behold Your Child Training Sessions in 2019-2020
DUBUQUE —“Behold Your Child” is a ministry developed in collaboration by the offices of marriage and family life, respect life and social justice, and Catholic Charities to help ministers provide hope and healing for parents and families who have experienced the loss of a child through a miscarriage, stillbirth or infant loss (whether recently or years ago). Volunteers are needed. Training sessions are scheduled on the following dates:
• Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019 – Pastoral Center, Dubuque – 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
• Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019 – St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Hiawatha – 5:30-9 p.m.
• Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019 – St. Anthony, Dubuque – 5:30-9 p.m.
• Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 – St. Patrick, Hampton – 5:30-9 p.m.
• Tuesday, March 24, 2020 – Holy Name, West Union – 5:30-9 p.m.
Those to be trained for the ministry (whether parish staff or volunteer parishioners) must be approved by their pastor. The cost is $30 per person, including dinner and materials. For more information, contact Matt Selby at email@example.com or call him at 563-556-2580. Online registration is forthcoming.