I had an incredible job once. For almost two years I worked at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital, one of the best children’s hospitals in the country. (Think Baby Faye.) I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the Neo-natal Intensive Care and Labor & Delivery units as a resident chaplain. It’s one of the largest NICU’s in the country, with some of the sickest babies in North America. It’s the premiere pediatric heart transplant hospital, and a Level-I trauma center. It is an amazing place.
Life — and death — is around every corner at any given moment. As one of the NICU’s chaplains, I pretty much saw it all; the most severe birth deformities; the most serious diseases and illnesses; the most tragic circumstances; the most gut-wrenching grief. I was a young, single woman with no children of my own, so I could not even imagine what the parents around me were going through. I did my best every day to simply offer them support, prayers, hope, company, and when the darkest hours came, I learned how to witness their sorrow and not run from it.
I learned how to “sit with the pain” as one of the senior chaplains used to say. Death is a part of life, and as life should be treated with reverence, so can death be handled reverently and humbly. It’s not at all easy to stand beside people whose child is dying before your eyes, yet it truly felt like an honor every time I was there for a baby’s last breath; even as every heart in the room was breaking open, including mine.
On one such occasion, I was the only person there to cry. A baby boy had been born too soon, and he had multiple serious birth defects, and his shell-shocked parents could not bring themselves to hold him as he died. They asked me if I would. They named him Thomas. I sat in a rocking chair, alone in a surgical room, and cradled this baby as he slowly died in my arms. Thomas had almost no ribcage so I could see his heart clearly beneath his transparent, paper-thin skin. I watched it beat slower and slower, and he never opened his eyes.
For 45 minutes I rocked little Thomas, sang to him, and told him he was loved. I was sad for his parents, not just for losing their son, but for giving up the chance to spend those minutes with him, loving him. Theirs was a double-loss; I so wish I had done more to persuade them not to give in to their fear. I will never forget Thomas, and I will always cherish those 45 minutes. They were holy and a gift to me.
One of the things I did regularly was take pictures for the grieving parents. Many times I would dress the baby in a sweater that volunteers had knitted just for this purpose. A little hat, some booties, a soft blanket, and a beautiful picture was captured. I would also take some soft clay and make footprints or handprints. What a powerful and humbling task it was to press delicate, tiny feet into the clay to make a mold for parents who would never again hold their child.
I held in my own hands perfectly-formed babies who’d died at 16 or 18 weeks of pregnancy and marveled at their beauty. I learned how vital it was for their parents to see them, hold them, name them, and grieve their death the way they would any other member of their family. Indeed, that child was no less a member of the family!
For those who find something morbid or creepy about all the things I’ve just described, believe me, nothing could be further from the truth. Reverence for the human body, both in life and in death, is healing and elevating, and is one of our better instincts unless it is systematically choked off by an inhumane psychology.
We witnessed the latest evidence of this inhumanity in all the fretting and gasping aimed at Rick and Karen Santorum regarding the death of their infant son, Gabriel.
Isn’t it ironic that our culture of death, those who champion abortion and euthanasia, those who see nothing at all questionable about cutting to pieces a tiny child in the womb are so squeamish about actually confronting a natural death? These people are so troubled by a mother and father who choose to embrace their deceased child’s body with tenderness, awe, and kisses.
Their lack of reverence for life carries over into a lack of reverence for death.
They find it disturbing that parents would allow his siblings to see, hold, and spend time with their baby brother after his death because their narrative says the child is less than a person; less than fully human; less than you and I. They can’t allow the idea to creep into the “mainstream” that a prematurely-born baby is actually a human being with a soul and a body that belongs to him! Gads! What might happen if people thought that perhaps those little ones in the womb weren’t just parasites or insentient masses of tissue?
The Santorum family’s treatment of little Gabriel is “weird” to them because Gabriel had no value in their view. Alan Colmes made that quite clear when he launched into his despicable mockery of the hours after Gabriel’s death and the Santorum’s grief. Colmes taunted them on television for the sake of political points, referring to Gabriel as “it.” Gabriel was not an “it.” He was a baby boy, a son, who was beloved and precious in the eyes of God and his parents.
The abortion zealots are annoyed that Rick and Karen did not treat their son like an “it” or as merely a “fetus” and send him quickly to the morgue. Lest more and more people get the idea that there’s nothing wrong with holding and mourning their lost babies, they go into overdrive calling Rick “weird” and “outside the mainstream” and a man of questionable judgment.
Well, really, what else can we expect? Life that has no value while inside the womb will not suddenly take on value outside the womb. If they would destroy the body before birth, why show kindness after birth? Why hold lovingly that which you claim is a threat to your freedom and rights? Why risk gazing into the face of one whom you deem less human than yourself, less worthy of life?
Their reaction is only logical, but that is why I hope it alarms people. Those who have cruelly criticized Rick and Karen Santorum for revering the life and death of their son have unwittingly given us a clear view of what’s behind their curtain, so to speak. It’s a heartless continuum. Humanity denied to one can easily be denied to any or all. All that matters is the will of those who have the power to “choose.”
No one who has sneered their objection to what the Santorums did is actually afraid that they are weird or of unsound judgment. They’re afraid that respect for the life of a “fetus” might catch on. They’re afraid that a tiny baby’s body might be seen as sacred and dignified, and then heaven forbid, the baby himself might be seen as human. They’re afraid that if too many people realize that mourning the loss of a very small baby is appropriate and good and necessary, then folks may begin to question the narrative that killing a baby is a legitimate “right.”
And from there, the entire facade of “choice” comes crashing down.
Gabriel Santorum’s life was too brief a moment, but his impact will be felt for eternity. He continues to testify to the immutable truth that human life is sacred and the child in the womb is all of us.