By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — It’s just not supposed to happen. Babies are not supposed to die. Old people die. Sick people die. Babies don’t die. Yet, every year, thousands of families across the country are faced with just that — the loss of a child.
For the past four years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany has conducted a service of prayer and remembrance for families who have lost a child. The service is primarily attended by those who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or whose children have passed away from SIDS.
Every family has a story, and finds comfort at the service, knowing they are not alone in their grief.
Christopher Sifka Jr. of Guilderland and his girlfriend, Jennifer Kellar, attended the May 18 service at Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery for the third time. They came to honor and remember their son, Christopher, who died of sudden infant death syndrome in 2014, only 72 days after his birth.
“Everyone has lost someone older like a parent or grandparent,” said Sifka. “We struggled when our son first passed. We didn’t know anyone who lost a child or who was at least open about it.”
Christopher Sifka III was born a healthy baby at 7 pounds, 8 ounces, on Aug. 30, 2014. The week before he died, he received a clean bill of health at a routine pediatrician appointment.
The morning of Nov. 10, 2014, was like any other morning. Sifka woke and got ready for work while Kellar got the kids going and put Christopher in the car seat to head to the baby sitter’s.
“Something told me that day to give the baby a kiss,” said Sifka. “I’d never had that impulse before, something just told me to do it.”
He received a phone call at work at 11 a.m. Kellar was on the other end of the line, crying and telling Sifka the baby sitter couldn’t wake Christopher up and had called the ambulance and the baby was headed to Albany Med. Sifka then called the baby sitter who was also hysterical. He headed to Albany Med.
“I walked in the doors and the doctors and staff were waiting for me,” he said. “They directed me to a room, and at that point I knew.”
Christopher had gone down for a nap like usual and at some point while he was sleeping, stopped breathing.
“Everything changed,” said Sifka. “We took a month off of work but basically hunkered down for six months. Then we got a mailing from the cemetery about the service and decided to go.”
At the service, Sifka and Kellar found solace and a sense that they were not alone in their grief.
“Everybody there is living the same experience. They know how you feel,” said Sifka. “It hurts to lose anyone, but losing a child stings that much worse and that much longer. Even three years later, a moment will hit and all of a sudden you’re in tears.”
According to a 2015 CDC study, 3,700 children die every year of SIDS and SIDS-related causes.
Jim Wetra of Delmar attended to honor the life of a brother he never met. That brother was born in 1941, years before Jim. The baby was stillborn or died shortly after birth.
“My mom never got to hold her baby,” Wetra said. “The hospital pressured my dad to donate the body for research and he did.”
His father didn’t speak much about it until he was in his 90s and began to express fear and regret for allowing himself to be pressured into donating the body. Wetra said his dad was worried he would be judged because he never gave his baby a proper funeral.
“That’s what [the medical community] did back then,” said Wetra. “I come to show that my brother existed and was a person.”
Michelle Micheli of Voorheesville and her husband spent most of 2008 anticipating the birth of their first baby — a boy. As her due date came and went, Micheli said she became concerned and asked for labor to be induced. Her practitioners assured her everything was fine.
Everything was not fine and on Dec. 22, 2008, Micheli delivered her stillborn son, Luke Christopher.
“He would be 8 years old,” she said. “The anger and the grief are still there, but we have support.”
The couple now has three daughters, the youngest of whom was at the service, running about and chasing the bubbles her mother blew.
Micheli advises that pregnant women advocate for themselves in the strongest manner and if a woman feels dismissed should immediately change doctors.
Micheli also offered advice to friends and family of those who have lost a baby.
“People mean well but the best thing people can do is listen, [and] ask, ‘How are you doing?’ For us, it’s OK to bring Luke up and talk about it.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 26,000 stillbirths per year.
The service was led by diocese deacon Jim O’Rourke and included Bible readings from Isaiah 25 and Matthew 11.
In lieu of a homily, Deacon O’Rourke invited Lori Biskup, director of family service to speak. Biskup shared that she herself is no stranger to losing a child.
On New Year’s Eve 1999, while the world prepared to ring in the new millennium, Biskup was at Bellevue Woman’s Center having a miscarriage.
“I was emotionally distraught,” she said. “Over the next year, I struggled with anxiety and depression.”
Biskup named the daughter she lost Talitha, a reference to the biblical account of Jesus raising a little girl from the dead.
“When people ask me how many children I have, my mouth says three, but in my heart I say, I have four. One is just waiting for me in heaven.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, between 10 percent and 20 percent of known pregnancies end in a miscarriage.
Since the service was first held in 2013, attendance has grown in size and scope. Organizations from across the Capital Region — both religious and secular — request and are invited to the prayer service.
“We are all-encompassing,” said Biskup. “We have all experienced a profound loss.”
The profound loss is the tie that binds these families together and assures moms, dads, brothers and sisters that their babies are not and will not be forgotten.