Ten years ago, while serving as a pediatric chaplain at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., I answered a phone call from our nursing supervisor.
At first, it seemed she was calling with a typical request. “We have some parents asking for you to bless their newborn daughter,” she said.
“No problem,” I answered.
“Actually,” she said, “It could be a problem. Can you bless a baby who’s died?”
I was quiet for a moment while the supervisor pushed more information. The baby had been born on Christmas Eve. Now, instead of wrapping the babe in swaddling clothes, the parents were shopping for burial clothes.
“I can,” I promised.
“Good,” she said, “But you’ll be alone.”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
The nurse unwrapped a bit more of the story. The parents had left the hospital immediately after the death, too devastated to remain. Nevertheless, they wanted the baby blessed in their absence.
“No problem,” I said.
A few minutes later, I met the supervisor in the basement morgue. The busy nurse pointed to the refrigerator that sheltered the baby and then returned to our short-staffed ICU.
Alone, I opened the refrigerated space to see a bundle wrapped in blankets with a nametag attached. I checked the tag. Yes, I had the right baby.
I picked up the little girl and began removing the safety pins that kept her so tightly wrapped. I wanted to see her face.
I peeled away three layers of blankets until finally I saw her ashen face peeking through the covers. Something about the experience felt like uncovering a lost treasure embedded in a sandy surface.
That’s the moment I realized that maybe I did have a problem: How could I pronounce a blessing if no one was present to hear it? It felt much like the old adage — if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
According to most religious practices and beliefs, the baby was already in heaven. There was nothing I could do to speed her journey or even obtain better accommodations. Knowing all these things in my theological brain was very different from knowing these things with the heart of a parent.
Then against all the classroom theology I’d ever been taught, I decided to speak from my heart.
“Hello, sweetheart,” I said. “You were someone’s promise — someone’s anticipation and expectation. Your mama and daddy love you very much. I know because they asked me to come and tell you that one more time.”
After “talking” to the baby, I pronounced a blessing and prayer for the parents:
“God, I entrust to your care this life conceived in love. May your blessing come upon these parents. Remove all anxiety from their minds and strengthen this love so that they may have peace in their hearts and home.”
I rewrapped the baby and gently placed her back onto the refrigerated shelf.
Had this been a real blessing? I wondered. Would the parents be able to know, to feel, to hear the blessing?
Within my heart, I knew something had happened, but what? Then I realized that blessings aren’t always about what someone does for another. Sometimes they can be what happens to the one doing the ministry.
On that day, it felt like both.