The mechanics of dressing a dead newborn are basic. The little girl’s face is white, lacking the flushed cheeks normally present in a newborn. She has a full head of hair and a button-type nose that makes you want to give her Eskimo kisses. Someone, probably a nurse, has put her in a onesie with yellow tulips embroidered along its Peter Pan collar. Livor mortis, but not rigor mortis had set in; the baby’s fingers are pliant and cold when I hook my finger into hers.
Morticians and morgue assistants, not chaplains-in-training like me, typically clothe the recently deceased, but I’m dressing the child because her mother has asked me to. As part of a practical course necessary to becoming an accredited Christian chaplain, I’m the on-call student chaplain in the maternity ward of a large hospital, one of those people who pop into the room whenever you’re staying overnight in a hospital and ask if you’d like to pray or need any type of spiritual accompaniment.
Beyond leading patients and their families and loved ones in prayer and religious discussion, the core of what I do is listen to people talk about their worries without judging them. Recently, I’ve listened to a mother discuss the worry and regret she feels about having a hyper child who just broke her leg (again), a crabby husband who had landed in the hospital because of a heart attack and was trying to prevent his mistress from meeting his wife when they each visited him, and the angry matriarch of a dysfunctional family who was brought to the emergency room after being found unconscious in her bedroom, I suspect, from the stress of her youngest son’s recent marriage to his former nanny.
I’m 35, and though my life has none of the drama I hear about each day, I can sympathize—and perhaps even empathize—with the central emotion present in each of these peoples’ stories: a basic need to love a complicated person within a complicated relationship. But the family I’m presently ministering, who have lost their newborn daughter, are different because they’re not grappling with the difficulties of how to love one another. They are grieving the love of someone they lost a few moments after meeting her. I don’t feel equipped for this task.
The mother’s pregnancy had shown no signs of trouble. The labor lasted 12 hours, and had progressed at a steady pace. There was no indication that anything was wrong. The child had been born, breathed, and then had gone into distress and died while the mother was in afterbirth. I could hear the regret in the nurse’s voice as she said the cliché: all efforts to resuscitate the patient had failed.
The regret and sadness I heard in the nurse’s voice as she explained this to me reminds me of the line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Bird on a Wire”: “I have torn everyone who reached out to me.” I don’t know if the nurse realizes the newborn didn’t mean to tear into her, and I’m becoming increasingly aware that I may be next.
The hospital I am studying at has a standard protocol for all pregnancies that follow a set course: a mother and child’s health is carefully tracked and supported until labor; the child is delivered; the mother and child are monitored for a set amount of time (usually 24 to 72 hours) and then discharged. Minor variations to the plan, such as high-risk pregnancies, have an elevated degree of care and visits, but still follow a similar trajectory. For those families with serious complications—tests with results that indicate the baby will be born ill or is unlikely to live long—the path is altered slightly by incorporating several meetings that include the family, the nursing staff expected to care for the mother and child, and the doctors attending the labor. During this meeting, the hospital staff discusses possible treatment for whatever ails the mother and child with the family present and incorporates the family’s opinion, desires and directives into the care plan. Most importantly, all parties are aware of the spectrum of best-to worst-case scenarios. Since this pregnancy was a healthy one that did not indicate that the baby would die, the staff, including the nurse and me, was not prepared for this outcome.
I received the call to visit the family in the late evening after having spent most of the day in the halls of a bustling emergency room. The contrasting hush of the room, a place in which I’ve been in before to bless the birth of a healthy baby boy, is both soothing and unsettling. The baby is in a standing bassinet at the foot of the bed. The father is seated to the left of the mother. Both are exhausted, but not crying. They speak in whispers, as if to not wake their child. They do not need me to pray for them or administer the last rites. Their family priest is coming soon, and the reason they’ve called me is simply because they thought it was appropriate. I can feel the tension in my back crawling down into my stomach in relief. I am an aunt several times over and have an endless vocabulary of joy that streams out of me at the sight of babies. Yet with all my ministerial training and pastoral experience, I’ve never known what to say when babies die. At the core of my aphasia are the words, “I’m sorry. This is the most horrible thing ever and it grieves me that it has happened to you and no, I don’t know why it has happened nor do I fully understand it” in a polite, appropriate way. I cannot express the amount of gratitude when I hear they don’t want me to pray for them.
The roots of my aphasia partially stem from the difference between what I believe—that the baby is now with God, that God grieves their pain, and that this is God’s will—and what I am being asked to do—comfort a family that has just lost their newborn. I would be a theologically correct jackass if I were to tell the parents that their child’s death is God’s will. Moreover, though God without a doubt does grieve their loss, to say this would be to say, “Hey, you are so sad about your baby. Well, so am I and so is He.” True, but not helpful.
Like other members of the staff, my focus isn’t so much about the immediate situation, but about the long-term health of this family. I’ve come to understand grief through the Old Testament’s description of David at the death of his son, the image of a person crossing the river Styx in Greek mythology, as our present-day theories on the stages of grief. And so, when I look at this family, I see on one side of a river, a couple standing on its banks burdened by a static, isolating and miasmic grief. On the other side of the water is their continued love for each other, the possibility of having another child, and a life rebuilt without their deceased. In whatever shape or form the parents express it, my job here is to channel their grief so that they can wade through their emotions and arrive at the other side of this river wet, but not drowned, by their loss. My aphasia is a choice. The little girl in the bassinet doesn’t require my prayers, but the surviving parents must have somebody to walk alongside them.
I don’t need to prompt either one to pray. The couple, in the way that people who live in happy, healthy relationships sometimes do, speak in turns and are able to expand on and articulate the other’s thoughts. They tell me what the pregnancy was like and what each had hoped for their child. The mother and father both praise one other for the small and large acts each has done in preparation of what was to come. I hear about being nicer to their mother-in-law, choosing to follow the instruction when building a crib, and taking extra shifts in preparation of what was to come. In so many ways, they were so well-equipped.
Neither one indulges in imaginary thinking. It’s the mom who describes what went wrong after she gave birth and the dad who reassures her that everyone, including her, did everything right and that what happened was both inevitable and in God’s hands. Quickly, the conversation shifts and I’m now listening to the hopes they had for their baby and what they thought their life together would be like. We were once a group of people forming a superficially calm and quiet oasis of reflection, but at this point the room is one soggy lake of tears.
There is a pause and the father and I get up and move towards the bassinet. With his thumb, he rubs the baby’s ear, back and forth, the way you’re supposed to when you’re trying to calm a fussy baby. The mom breaks the silence by asking me to bless her child. I begin by thanking the child for the time she spent on earth, and speak of the love her parents have for her. I ask for the Creator to take her into his arms the way her parents would. And then each parent talks of the love they have for her, and how they wish her all the best. Each parent speaks of what they will do once they meet again. The three of us cry again as I say “Amen.”
I’m about to leave when the mother grabs my hand and tells me, “I asked the nurse to bring the baby to me so I could dress her. But I don’t think I can.” She looks at me and I look at the baby instead. It would be cruel and vicious to make her ask, and though there are several parts of me that want to ignore the unvoiced question, I volunteer. “Would you like me to dress your baby?” She nods.
The baby has a full head of thick, light brown hair, and someone has affixed a tiny yellow bow to one of her locks. She is beautiful and as integral as any other child I’ve met in this ward. While holding the baby, I move toward the back of the room, away from the mother and the father, towards a large plastic bag full of new clothes which people have donated to the maternity ward. There are many white chemises, each with an arkful of animals embroidered onto clean white cotton. I see a few sets of cute blouses with matching pants, but what I focus on are the beautiful dresses. There is a pink linen sundress and a puffy blue princess dress in a glitzy fabric with a matching bolero. I grab a plain chemise and choose a yellow gown, also unadorned except for the pointelle bodice and the ruffled lace at the cuff and hem of the dress.
I open the snaps that line the pants legs of the onesie the baby is wearing and then quickly move my hand up towards the shoulder so that I can take care of those snaps also. Out of habit, I try to keep the head steady as she lies in the crook of my elbow and carefully pull the onesie up above the child’s head. Someone before me has placed her in a cloth diaper. I leave this on, partly because I don’t have a diaper on hand, but mostly because I’ve never been good at putting a diaper on properly. The dress slides easily over her head. I have a bit more trouble sliding the sleeves over her hands and arms, which have grown slightly stiffer as I’m holding her, but manage the task after two fumbled attempts. Soon, the tiny clasps in the back have been snapped shut and the matching booties are on her feet.
I look towards the parents, tilt the baby slightly so they can see my handiwork, and ask them if they’d like to hold her? They shake their head. Reflex kicks in and before I place the baby down, I kiss her forehead. Neither parent reacts. I hope my gesture wasn’t too inappropriate. I say goodbye before I walk out the door. Once the door is closed, I lean back against the wall and breathe once in relief.
Alejandra Diaz Mattoni happily lives, writes and works in LA. Her last book, The Wet Woman, was published in August 2014. You can find her at www.alejandradiazmattoni.com or on Twitter at @alediazmattoni.
Illustration by Jim Cooke