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Always look at the baby

The importance of bearing witness to the tragedy we encounter in daily life, and the gifts that these difficult situations sometimes bring

Burning candle and white calla on dark background with copy space. Sympathy card

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Editor’s note: This article contains content related to infant loss and may be disturbing to some.

When I was a brand-new chaplain interning in my second year of seminary, I spent a few weeks being oriented to different parts of Fairview Southdale Hospital, where I was set to work for four months. Most of these were a basic introduction to chaplaincy: how to get into the room, do an assessment, follow a patient’s lead to a deeper conversation or ask about sacraments and other ritual needs. I was prepared for all of these things, but one thing I wasn’t prepared for was talking about dead babies. I was 25, in my 7th consecutive year of post-high school education, and had a very limited scope with all things related to birth and babies. I had even less experience with death.

Many details of my first foray into chaplaincy are long gone from my brain, but one thing that I find myself going back to more than a decade later is the phrase “always look at the baby.” The birth center Chaplain, Carol Walvatne, explained that babies born prematurely don’t look like pretty, perfect bundles we are used to seeing. The nurses put hats on and swaddle them to obscure details that some people find hard to look upon, but the truth is that most of these precious babies don’t look quite human and Carol wanted to prepare us for that so that we could remain sensitive to the family. But even more importantly, what she hoped to communicate was that for the family, the odd, not quite formed baby was entirely real; not just a “fetal demise,” but a baby with a whole story – aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, culture, religion, a story full of dreams and hopes. For a family grieving a child and the whole future that should have been, one of the simplest, most profound acts of love and kindness is to gaze upon the baby, no matter how painful it is, and bear witness to all that was lost.

This past February, the first responder community suffered the loss of three of our own, killed in the line of duty in Burnsville, Minnesota. This incident hit particularly close to home because fallen Paramedic/Firefighter Adam Finseth had worked at Allina EMS and Savage Fire, where I provide spiritual support to the crews and dispatchers. I also support the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport Police Department, where fallen Officer Paul Elmstrand had been a community support officer prior to joining the Burnsville Police Department. Along with fallen Officer Matthew Ruge, these men were not just names or faces on the news, but ones that many of us knew; who had worked alongside our people, who had been known as amazing fathers, brothers, friends, colleagues, heroes to so many in our own community. How do we respond when a loss so grievous, so overwhelming, threatens to swallow us?

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Accompanying grief

My job as a chaplain is to accompany. I joke that I get paid to chat with people, but it’s the truth. A lot of my work is hanging out with first responders, cracking jokes, sharing kid and pet pictures, laughing at memes. I do this happy, silly, easy work to build relationships so that when the unthinkable happens, the amazing souls out there risking life and limb to help others on their worst days also have a place to bring their sacred stories. After Burnsville, I spent several harrowing weeks hearing stories about these gentlemen, listening intently while those who knew them shared their memories. After one such day, I cried in my car for 20 minutes before driving home, gutted and weeping for these men that I never met; grieving for the children that would never know their father, for the parents laying flowers on a grave. I was grieving not only what was but what now would never be.

Helping providers be seen, heard and cared for

How could I grieve so deeply for those I had never known? It occurred to me later, as I was doing mundane chores around my house, that the stories that I now carried had made Paul, Adam and Matt real for me. It was as if I had been urged again and again to come and gaze at their faces and smiles, to see their families and all the work they had accomplished in their abbreviated lives. This is the sacred vocation of being community; that we hold each other’s stories when we need to know that they were real. As if each grieving person who had a tale to tell came to me had said, “Here, hold this person, let them be real to you as they were to me; let them live on through these stories.” The truth is that we are all made real in the end only by the stories we tell, and that are told about us. One day, we will be a footnote in the archives of history, and all that will remain is the story.

Our culture is absolutely dreadful at grieving. We are so quick to shove away those feelings of sadness and loss, not just for what was but for what could have been. Our grief seems too painful, too tender to share, and so once the funeral has ended and the ashes have been scattered, we close the door quietly and walk away from it. We whisper softly, “how are you doing?” without naming our dead; without looking too closely at their faces and all that they were and could have been. We get scared to ask the blunt question, to bring up painful memories or painful emotions for us and for others. But that fear of causing pain can keep us from experiencing the full depth of our humanity. To quote one of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, we can’t “selectively numb.” When we refuse to experience the painful, and feel it for what it is, we also block out the beautiful, the sacred and the hopeful.

At the funeral, one thing that jumped out to me was the gratitude offered by so many who spoke. The gratitude was, of course, to the deceased for their lifelong dedication to service, but also an acknowledgment for all the things that had grown among their ranks in the department: deeper comradery and vulnerability; tears shed together, hugs and “I love you”s exchanged. What I witnessed was communal storytelling that highlighted the heroism of three men, and also the values that bound so many together. These stories made these men real to me and the thousands that showed up in person and virtually that day.

It takes great courage to entrust a story to another person, and I am so honored and grateful for all the stories gifted to me. My hope is that we can continue to open our hearts to the stories that those we work and live with need to share. I pray that we can look upon their dead, and their hurts and mistakes and struggles, with the soft eyes of a 25-year-old baptizing a baby born sleeping. And that in beholding these sacred stories, we will see that they are real, and we are all made more real for holding them for one another.

About the author
Rev. Gwendolen M. Powell, MS, MDiv, BCC, is a chaplain/well-being liaison with Allina EMS, in Saint Paul, Minnesota.