In photo above, Steve Patton, left, of Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services, meets with Jonathan, Sonya and Ella Bray near the crypt of their daughter, Jenessa.
Jonathan and Sonya Bray imagined that Feb. 12, 2023, would surely be memorable. A baby shower for their second child marked an unofficial countdown to the mid-March due date and brought friends and family together in love, support and anticipation of the coming, blessed day. After eight months of pregnancy and already bursting with joy for their growing family, the couple and their 5-year-old daughter, Ella, longed to welcome the baby.
“I felt pain, but I didn’t think anything of it,” Sonya recalls of her discomfort at the shower that day. The party continued without mention of it to anyone, but on the way home Sonya experienced worsening pain. She assumed early contractions. That meant the hospital would be the next stop for the Holy Spirit Parish parishioners as they navigated through the South Land Park area of Sacramento.
But in another turn of events, the mom and dad-to-be were turned away by their familiar provider hospital. There was no room. Staff directed them downtown as their concerns mounted.
“As soon as we arrived, we went into the emergency room,” Sonya shares, praising the doctors and nurses who took her in immediately and proceeded with an ultrasound. But when the doctor returned, “he told me that the baby’s gone,” she explains, holding back tears, dismayed and still grieving, recollecting the memories of that day and how everything changed in a matter of hours.
There had been no problems — no indication that anything was wrong. Yet, the Brays experienced a pregnancy loss at 37 weeks, which is considered full-term by medical professionals. Loss after 20 weeks is described as “stillbirth,” while loss occurring before 20 weeks is known as miscarriage.
Comfort, care and prayer
Following an emergency C-section, the Brays tried to process everything that had happened.
“It was so hard,” Jonathan concedes, returning his mind to their room that day. “We had to lean on each other a lot,” he adds, his voice heavy and expressive, reflective of their tired, weary state.
A hospital chaplain joined them. The fact that it was a Sunday limited the availability of Catholic clergy, but the chaplain offered comfort at a time that Jonathan describes “as the hardest.”
A hospital staff member brought in baby Jenessa and, together with the chaplain, they prayed over the baby, a gift to the angels carried heavenward.
“That gave us comfort,” Sonya assures, as they admired their precious baby Jenessa, noting the resemblances and memorizing her features. “She had my nose,” Jonathan delights, contented with an indelible memory and the enduring connection he will always have with his sweet daughter.
Their four-day hospital stay prompted relatives to prepare their home for their return. “Our family came over and cleaned up our house,” Jonathan recalls, sharing how they moved shower gifts to Jonathan’s mom’s attic to ease their hearts.
Jonathan and Sonya also reached out to fellow kindergarten parents at Holy Spirit School in a group chat to alert them to the news and to let them know Ella would not be at school in the days ahead.
“Ella was so excited” for the birth, Jonathan says, careful to protect her feelings and help her mourn her little sister.
“We wanted other parents to know so they could talk to their kids,” Sonya adds, sensitive to the range of feelings their daughter was experiencing and what other children may be sensing.
The Brays welcomed support from these same school families who organized a “meal train,” signing up to provide meals and food to the Brays on certain days so they didn’t have to worry about shopping or cooking — only healing. A family member also set up an online “Go Fund Me” page to help with unexpected funeral expenses.
“The Knights of Columbus donated, and they were at the funeral,” Jonathan shares, grateful for his brother Knights and their reassurances that they would be there for the family. “They reached out to me and called me to make sure I was OK,” he says, stressing how “it felt good knowing that people were praying for us.”
What God has planned
The weeks following challenged the Brays in ways untold as they acknowledged how it was hard to even leave the house in their mourning. They began by contacting their pastor, Father Loreto “Bong” Rojas.
Conversations and prayers led to some peace as he counseled, “We don’t know what God has planned,” Jonathan shares, recalling Father Bong’s pastoral advice and savoring his words, which brought some closure to their ordeal.
Several weeks before the mid-March funeral, they also met Steve Patton, family service advisor with Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of the Diocese of Sacramento. Steve helped with funeral and burial arrangements, but also walked with the Brays in a compassionate Catholic way.
“My uncle gifted us,” Jonathan begins describing a family crypt in the main mausoleum at St. Mary’s Cemetery. Little Jenessa has a space above Jonathan’s grandmother. “It took away a lot of stress,” Jonathan adds, relieved that choosing a location was not required — only a refocusing of their minds on life everlasting.
“Steve shared a lot with us,” Jonathan notes, particularly remembering his consoling words, “You will meet again in heaven.”
At home, Ella had a lot of questions about heaven and her baby sister. The Brays consulted Father Bong, turned to several good books and even consulted YouTube resources.
Father Bong delivered a heartfelt homily at the funeral Mass, moving guests to consider the brevity of existence — born into this life, born to pass through and from this life towards a divine outcome that surpasses all grief.
The couple expresses that in many ways they have come to terms with the loss of baby Jenessa, although admitting they once had many “questions for God.”
“I’m not even questioning it anymore,” Jonathan notes, acquiescing to the silent strength of God, trying “to learn from this and see how it makes us all stronger as a family, and closer to God.” Even in suffering this loss, Sonya and Jonathan reveal humility, vowing to never take for granted the gifts of God.
“It’s easier to talk about,” Sonya says, these many months later, but she acknowledges, “I still have my moments.” Jonathan admits, “I’m an emotional guy,” and emphasizes their need to “be there for each other to help one another through grieving.” He talks about “being real with yourself” and his time after the Eucharist … to pray and think about Jenessa and the precious gift of life.
“I never will forget,” Sonya breathes, exhaling the blessing of Jenessa, knowing she was there — real, a baby, a life that forever changed theirs.
‘You will meet again in heaven’
Steve of CFCS offers comfort to Bray family at a time of loss
When the Brays made contact with Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services (CFCS), they met Steve Patton, a longtime diocesan employee and more specifically, a four-year professional with CFCS as a family service advisor. Having served for 10 years as director of the diocese’s family and respect life ministries, he speaks of his internal move within the diocesan family as moving from “pro-life work to pro-eternal life work.”
“I always try to connect in a human and loving way,” Steve says, sensitive to the reality of death and loss. “My practical work provides a context for talking about what we believe … our hope for everlasting life” and that people will meet their loved ones again.
Steve describes a typical “rotation” process among advisers that assigns client families as needs arise to the next available adviser. Yet Steve is the first to say, “So very often, it is the Holy Spirit at work in determining who gets assigned to whom.”
When Steve met the Brays and learned of their story, he knew immediately he “needed to meet” this family. Steve and his wife’s own personal story of miscarriage years ago created an instant bond. Also, the fact that Steve had previously coordinated business with the uncle and aunt who had gifted the vault space created yet another special link with Jonathan and Sonya.
Steve explains, “I carry my wife’s and my prenatal loss with me,” and, more importantly, “the hope of one day meeting our child.” Steve’s shared faith and experiences palliate conversations and open the way for further comforting dialogue before handling funeral or burial details.
The Brays welcomed Steve’s invitation to hear his story and another inspiring story about one father’s near-death experience, as narrated in a published book on neuro-scientific studies. Upon the man’s recovery from a severe heart attack, he recounts his encounter with his two babies, miscarried decades before. He shared how his son and daughter gave him peace and expressed they had both prayed for their parents over the years.
“She is there, and she is waiting now for them,” Steve says with certainty, assuring Sonya and Jonathan that Jenessa awaits them in God’s heavenly kingdom.
Steve cites the works of mercy as central to the faith and paramount to accompanying families from death to life. He points to the corporal work of mercy in “burying the dead” and the spiritual work of mercy to “console the sorrowful” as guidance in his work.
Reflecting on the reception following the burial, Steve described a beautiful scene and spirit in the room of a loving family gathered to honor Jenessa. “That’s what I felt in that room,” he says, having witnessed the family lay Jenessa to rest, and then a phenomenal energy that recognized the gift of her being.
He joined the Brays as they visited the crypt sometime later, seeing the crypt plate marking Jenessa’s vault for the very first time.
“The two of them and their young daughter, Ella, gazed at the marker,” Steve recalls, noting their love and wonder as they looked upward to her memory, upward to heaven.
The life of the world to come
In the context of what Catholics believe, Steve gives families a simple prayer card when they meet. One side offers a prayer for a happy and peaceful death written by St. Vincent Ferrer and the other side shares the final words of the Nicene Creed.
“I look forward to the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come.”
There, in its eschatological splendor, the creed of the faith states the perfect hope Catholics hold dear — the gifts of God in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Steve’s work and the mission of the CFCS rest on these tenets of faith. “Part of the charitable works of our ministry is the Holy Angels Lawn,” he says, describing a dedicated area at St. Mary’s Cemetery for infant and child deaths up to the age of 12. Since these deaths often are unexpected, CFCS helps accommodate families, upholding dignity and respect for life.
“We encourage people to plan ahead,” Steve urges, indicating that gravesites are not only obvious venues of remembrance of those we have lost, but also powerful reminders of “where we ourselves will one day be.”
“Go and visit your gravesite, maybe once a year,” Steve recommends, suggesting Ash Wednesday or some other meaningful date. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he adds, suggesting that to stand on one’s own grave — to pray and ponder — is to “know that this life is passing,” a short journey, indeed, to the life of the world to come.
About Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services of the Diocese of Sacramento at www.cfcssacramento.org.