When birth meets death

Usually there is not a lot of overlap in the two halves of my professional life. 

Well, in a sense there always is: the skills I use as a chaplain are nearly identical to those I use as a doula. I support not just the person, but the whole family as they adjust to a major life transition. I help people navigate the complicated and overwhelming experience of being in a hospital. I listen, sometimes I cry, often I laugh. I carve out space in a hectic time and place for people to identify and express their feelings. I once described to a chaplain colleague what it looks like for me to support a family in birth, and she said, with comprehension and amazement dawning on her face, "Oh! So, it's like a 13 hour patient visit!" Yes. It is exactly like that.

The skills I use are the same whether it is a birth, or a death. Usually there is a clear line dividing the two events. But not always.

Last year I went to the funeral of a mom whom I had supported in giving birth. This woman had been a delightful combination of fierce warrior mama and tender-hearted girl. She brought her beloved teddy bear to the hospital to cuddle in labor, and then pushed her baby out without an epidural in front of a gaggle of nursing students who had never seen anything so beautiful and raw. Several months later, she died suddenly and unexpectedly. I sat in the pew and looked at her baby sitting in her uncle's lap and cried my heart out.

Last week one of our doula clients let us know that there was nothing more that could be done to save her baby's life, and they sang their baby to sleep later that day. Her baby had lived for just a month. The mother told me that day by day, week by week, she had held out hope that her baby could somehow thrive. She also said that her own physical recovery from birth has been very easy, with her body quickly returning to its pre-pregnancy state, and now she finds herself wondering, "Did I really have a baby?" Sometimes she goes into her baby's nursery to remind herself that her baby existed, that it all really happened.

I offered, and she gladly accepted, to facilitate the celebration of life they will host in their home for close family and friends on Sunday. That is how I have come to be here, pondering, wondering how to strike the balance between the deep joy the parents feel over having been gifted with their baby's life, however brief, and the deep sadness they feel, knowing that their baby is now gone from their arms. Because there was so little time and the parents wanted to soak in every precious moment of their baby's life, their extended family never met the baby. For them, this will be both hello and goodbye.

I am so honored to be able to cross over from supporting this family in birth to supporting them in death. But this is some of the heaviest work I have ever done.

For thus says the Lord:
As a mother comforts her child,
   so I will comfort you;
   you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.

You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
   your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants.

-Isaiah 66:12a, 13-14a

Rest in peace, Lisa and Chloe. You are loved and remembered. <3

Pregnant in Worship: Thoughts on Liturgy and Birth

I was SO going to post this week on the Curse of Eve (doesn’t that sound like a B-list horror film? spoiler: It’s not.), but then another idea came crashing in. Maybe next week I’ll take us back to the Garden of Eden, but today I want to go inside Christian worship and look for birtheology there.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

It seems to me that the church doesn’t offer much in the way of ritual or spiritual support for families in the childbearing year. It seems that most churches do a really good job of helping with the practical considerations of having a baby–chiefly, organizing a baby shower before birth and a care calendar afterward.  And when my church did these things for me, I felt loved and knew that this was a way for people to show that they care about me and my family. But, I wanted more. I wanted ritual–words and symbol used as a way for my church to acknowledge and support the spiritual journey my growing little family was on.

Of course, there is baptism (or baby dedication, depending on one’s tradition), but this happens well after the birth (and if you are like me, you don’t get around to doing this until your baby is a toddler (note the photos of my own family’s experiences) and MUCH less open to the idea of a semi-stranger coming at them with wet fingers). Plus, the baptism or baby dedication ritual is much more about starting the baby off on a solid theological grounding in life than about acknowledging what the parents and older siblings have just experienced.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White,&nbsp;the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White, the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Credit to  Barb Nunn , a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

Credit to Barb Nunn, a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

This kind of ritual acknowledgement of the incredibly transformative spiritual experience of pregnancy and birth was something I actively searched for when I was pregnant. There are two moments when I felt my pregnancy acknowledged in church that stand out in my memory. One was at my friend and colleague Chantel’s ordination. During the celebration of Communion, I walked up the aisle to her beaming face, and as she offered the bread to me she gestured to my belly and said, “May this nourish both you and your baby.”  I returned to my pew with tears in my eyes.

My other moment came a bit later in my first pregnancy, at Holy Trinity, the Anglican church I attended in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  They hold a healing service every few months in which people are invited to come forward to the altar rail and receive a blessing. I went forward as I approached the end of my pregnancy in order to have the minister pray over me and my baby for a healthy birth. That moment of having hands laid on my shoulders, oil anointing my forehead, and words of blessing spoken over me as I kneeled in church did much to allay some of my anxiety and to remind me that God would be with me in the physical act of delivering my child.

While I treasure both these memories, I did sort of happen upon them by accident. Neither communion nor a healing service are particularly designed to support pregnancy. So where are the rituals for pregnancy and birth? Why does the church, and its vast store of language and symbol regarding advent, and hope, and fear, and creation, and journey, and, well–LOTS of themes which easily relate to pregnancy and birth, remain silent?

I can’t answer that one. I have lots of thoughts, but of course no real answers.

But if the church, or even a church, (hey, what about your church?) wanted to start acknowledging and supporting the spiritual journey expecting families are on, here are some ideas:

  • A blessing for a pregnant woman, as well as for her partner and other children. What I’m suggesting is something that would happen within the context of worship, with the whole congregation present and participating. (As opposed to what is known as a “blessing way“, or “mother blessing”: a home-based ritual meant to provide emotional and spiritual support for a woman in her pregnancy. This is fodder for a whole other post entirely. Stay tuned.) This blessing could be short and simple, but the pledge of spiritual support from her congregation would be quite meaningful to a woman and her family journeying through pregnancy.
I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone.&nbsp;Where is her community?

I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone. Where is her community?

  • A blessing for the mother and her family after the birth. There used to be such a ritual, and it still survives in some Christian traditions. It is known as the “Churching of Women“, and for many people it carries negative connotations about the impurity of women following childbirth. However, I am proposing that we move beyond any such connotation, reformulating and reclaiming this ritual as needed in order to focus on welcoming a new mother back into worship, acknowledging the enormity of what she has just done, and lending support to her and her family as they move into a new way of being.
  • Always in the back of my mind when I am working with this concept of birtheology is the knowledge that pregnancy and birth are not always simple or even accessible to all. Of course, considerable discretion would need to be used, but I believe that offering a means of acknowledging the loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth and praying for and with the parents who have experienced this within the context of their community of faith could be a powerful means of supporting their grief.
  • Along these same lines, there are those in the pews who silently struggle with infertility.  I have no idea what this might look like, but perhaps there is a way to break the silence and shame on this subject as well. What is the church for, anyway, but to support one another in faith through life’s journey, whatever that journey might hold?

These are just preliminary ideas, and I could write a whole post on any of the points above. What I would really love is to hear your thoughts and experience. Is there a way in which you found spiritual support in the childbearing year within the context of worship, or do you have suggestions for how that could happen? Or have you felt excluded within worship as one who has struggled with fertility issues? How would you suggest the church address people in this situation?