THE CHAPLAIN Series
Daughter of Raven
Suffer the Children
“They want her to hold a dead baby! A dead baby. How will she ever forget that?” the husband cried.
“It’s okay,” Chaplain Lydia Jackson said quietly. “I’ll hold the baby. You and your wife sit close to me.”
Lydia sat in a rocking chair, holding the lifeless newborn. She began to rock. The frightened, tearful young man and his wife pulled up chairs next to her, watching the chaplain and their child.
After a time, Lydia looked at the mom, who moved her chair a little closer. She and the chaplain exchanged places and Lydia handed her the infant. The young father rocked the baby next. Little was said, but Lydia sensed that much love was being exchanged within the little family. When the nurse reappeared, the parents were willing to allow her to take the child. Chaplain and couple walked to the lobby, hugged and said goodbye.
Lydia felt a deep sigh of compassion surround her. It was the Spiritual Presence who had been her comforter and companion for many years, and who had been waiting for her when she was called to be with the young couple and their child.
The little one is with me now. Thank you, Lydia.
“Thank you,” she whispered, not so much in response to the Presence’s comment, but rather for the opportunity to hold the child.
Lydia remembered the first time she visited a neonatal intensive care unit as a chaplain-in-training. There had been a great deal of preparation for this first official visit to the preemie unit and, in Lydia’s case, a great deal of conversation with her Presence.
“I’m really going inside the unit tomorrow,” she began. “They wouldn’t let me in before, remember?”
I remember, the Voice responded. That was long ago.
“You’ll be there?”
I always am.
Parents of the tiny patients gave advance permission for the visit by the chaplains-in-training. Nurses were reassured by the instructor that these student chaplains, like others before them, were an honorable bunch bound by the rules of decency and confidentiality. Gowns tied; hands washed – all the way up to the elbows, the would-be chaplains were escorted to the bedside of a tiny being encased in a clear plastic womb. A breathing machine pumped oxygen through a tiny hose which wound its way into the enclosure, into the lungs of what looked to be a miniature human baby.
“Oh, my,” sighed Lydia when it was her turn to peer into the plastic womb, the Presence by her side.
They are beautiful, aren’t they? came the Voice.
Lydia stared at the little creature, eyes clamped shut like a wet, newborn kitten, or a small hairless squirrel. The little being had hands, only big enough to clutch the tip of Lydia’s smallest finger. This child weighed less than two pounds. He had been gestating, if you will, maybe twenty-two weeks before his untimely arrival and quick trip through the window.
“When a baby is born and we know he’s in trouble we pass him through that window,” a nurse explained to the chaplains.
“The delivery room is on the other side. The doctors and nurses stand on both sides of the window and as soon as the child leaves its mother’s womb and the umbilical cord is cut, he is whisked through the opening and hooked up to the equipment.” She pointed to the plastic crib and computers decked with lights, bells, bags and tubes.
“If we are successful, in two to four months, the parents will take home a healthy baby,” added a second nurse, “but sometimes the outcomes for such children are not totally positive.”
“The baby may go home with vision problems, or hearing loss, or learning disabilities,” the first nurse explained. “If his lungs do not develop properly, he may have to lug one of those breathing machines around with him for years.”
“For the most part, parents are ever hopeful and full of love,” the second one added. “They pray for their child to live, problems or no problems. Some children make it home; but others expire.”
Patients, be they big or little, don’t die in hospitals, they expire, observed the Presence. I’ve made a study of human euphemisms, really quite interesting.
“Um,” said Lydia, not really listening.
Lydia had been remembering her first-born child, a daughter, born years before. The child had weighed three pounds, one ounce – a big bruiser in today’s preemie world – but not big enough for another hospital, in another place, in another time, to invest the resources to send her to the big city where they had these mechanical wombs with motors and air hoses and monitors and hovering nurses.
“If the child lives three days, we’ll send it to the city,” the doctor had announced.
Lydia had never been in a hospital before. She had arrived the previous night, four months too soon, yet her baby was determined to appear.
“Nothing more we can do,” the doctor had said. Lydia listened through a fog of pain and useless medication, her young husband at her side.
“We’re going to open you up a bit so it can happen quicker. This won’t hurt, you’ll just feel a little pressure.”
Lydia had moaned.
“How are you doing?” the doctor had inquired.
“You are cutting me,” she’d answered.
“Sorry. Didn’t know you could feel that. Anesthetics don’t work on you very quickly, do they?”
“I guess not,” she’d said, slipping into a dark, semi-conscious trance.
He’s an idiot, the Presence had observed. But we’ll make a doctor of him yet.
“I’m sorry I did that to your wife,” Lydia heard from the other side. “It’s a girl, but you probably won’t want to name it, because it’s going to die. Save whatever you were planning to name the baby for your next one.”
“Her name is Alice Katherine,” she heard her husband respond, loving him more deeply than ever before. Then it was quiet and dark.
Alice Katherine worked like a little bellows that first day to stay alive. But on the second day, Lydia was wheeled to the window between the hallway and the baby unit to view her expired infant. No touching. No holding. Certainly no entering of the room where the baby actually was.
A graveside funeral was held on the third day with a small, white casket – about the size and shape of one of those plastic wombs – lowered into a freshly dug opening in the ground. The chaplain said a few words and dirt was shoveled into the grave – and that was that. Time to get back to whatever Lydia was doing before this unfortunate incident occurred. It would be poor form to bother others with one’s grief, one’s questions, one’s emptiness.
It’s done differently today. You are a part of that difference.
Lydia knew that her calling to hospital chaplaincy was a gift as much as a challenge, especially when it came to the children. Each visit she made to a sick or dying child debrided her own sub-conscience pain allowing just a little more healing.
Lydia facilitated a Compassionate Friends parent grief group on Wednesday nights at the hospital. The group was open to parents who had lost a child for any reason.
Parents told stories of children who died as a result of both long and short term illnesses; who had died in automobile accidents, shooting accidents, camping accidents, or drug-related experiments. Some children had died at birth or at a very young age, while others as teenagers or young adults. There were parents whose children were in their 30s, 40s, even 50s when they died. These parents came to the group, as well.
Suicides were the toughest. It was so difficult, these parents found they couldn’t meet with other grieving parents and formed their own group.
It is okay to cry here. It’s okay to be angry, the Presence would tell the chaplain, and Lydia would repeat the message to the parents. Lydia could not have done the work without her spiritual co-facilitator.
“Here is one place where we all have come to hear about your child. You may talk as much or as little as seems right to you. You don’t have to say anything at all. Here we understand that, too,” she would say.
And the parents would take turns telling stories of their children and what it was like living from day to day now that they were gone.
It was spring and helium-filled balloons floated high over the small lake near the hospital, each bearing the name of a child. Grieving parents and others watched the colorful display ascend into the heavens. The chaplain was pleased.
It was winter when the pediatric nurses noticed that a dense depression had rolled in, engulfing them in a soul-sapping malaise. Staff members were easily irritated and absenteeism began to climb. Finally, one mathematically-inclined nurse decided to count.
Twenty-four children had died in the space of twelve months. The nursing staff was shaken and demoralized. Sadness silently billowing through the halls and accumulating in the corners of every room. Lydia could feel, almost smell and taste, the malaise as it continued to grow.
“Can you do something spiritual?” the unit supervisor asked the chaplain. “My nurses are losing it.”
“Me, too,” thought Lydia, “It’s been a long winter.”
How about a retreat? the Presence offered.
“How about a retreat?” Lydia suggested to the supervisor. “We’ll do a healing circle with candles, sweet grass, and feathers.”
A little wary of the feathers, the supervisor ultimately agreed. A retreat was planned, closing with the healing ceremony. As candles were lit, a feather was passed from nurse to nurse, each relating his or her memories about each child, by name. It was the first time the nurses had shared their sorrow with one another in an uninterrupted manner, and in so doing, they found they were neither alone nor “losing it.” They were grieving. It was important to speak the names of those whom they had cared for and grown to love. These children would not be forgotten.
Proud to be among these healers, Lydia was about to close the circle. As she came forward to light her own candle, she looked over to the Presence and whispered,
“Her name is Alice Katherine.”
She is here.