The Care and Compassion of a Chaplain
By: Ann-Marie Ferry
I am not sure where the thought originated from, but it popped out of my mouth and found its way into the hospital air, “Should we baptize him?” I asked. Jon and I did not entertain the thought for long. After all, neither of us believed in Infant Baptism. Why would we bother a Chaplain?
Fast forward seven years. I am working at a hospital during the Covid-19 epidemic. To keep myself safe during lunch, I eat outside on the third-floor balcony, just past the Chapel and the Chaplain’s offices. Not baptizing my baby is one of my few regrets regarding my son’s stillbirth. Watching the Chaplains come in and out of the office I think back to that grieving twenty-six-year-old mother. What did she need to know about Chaplains? What would have helped her to ask for what she needed in those precious and brief moments with her baby?
Asking for help or comfort from a stranger on something as complex and intimate as spirituality is a hard thing to do. It is my hope that this conversation with two Chaplains might answer questions about who Chaplains really are and how they can help grieving parents.
Meet our Chaplains:
Reverend Doctor James Donahue, is a Chaplain and assists with Share at Anderson Hospital. In this article I will refer to him as Chaplain Donahue.
Emily Rosencrans, M. Div., MFT, BCC is the Director of Network Pastoral Care Services at St. Luke’s Hospital. In this article I will refer to her as Chaplain Rosencrans.
What is the heart behind your work in pastoral care?
Chaplain Donahue: “Seeing that I could be a benefit to people in their time of hurt drew me to Pastoral Care. My guiding principle of ministry and particularly as a Chaplain has been compassion for others as described in II Corinthians 1:3-4, ‘All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.’”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “Since I was a little girl, I have been drawn to God, scripture, and all things priestly. I enjoy leading worship, teaching, and especially caring for souls. I am called to serve in healing ministries. It is my passion and my heart’s deep desire.”
Do you find that parents are apprehensive about asking for a visit or meeting with someone from spiritual care?
Chaplain Donahue: “Yes. Parents are often apprehensive to have a visit. After a death it is common to have a sense of anger at God. Parents often ask, ‘If God is loving and compassionate then how could God let my baby die?’ As a minister I am often seen as that earthly representation of God. I try to help families understand that God is not going to hate them because they have anger towards him. I try to explain it this way: I love my kids even when they are upset with me, how much more does God love us.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “All patients are asked if they would like spiritual care when hospitalized. Some say yes, some say no. When a crisis arises, the nurse will often recommend a consult to us as well. It is hard for me to evaluate if there is apprehension on the part of patients, when we come to their room they are usually receptive and open to receiving prayer and having a conversation about how we can support their spiritual needs.”
Do you speak with families solely about matters of faith or does your work extend past that?
Chaplain Rosencrans: “Chaplains are trained to show up and be present and attentive to whatever dynamics are going on. We do not visit people with an agenda, but rather make ourselves available for the patient or family. Spirituality encompasses all of who we are: our bodies, our minds, and our emotions. We provide a ministry of presence, we listen deeply, we help people discern what to do when facing complex medical decisions, and we support people whether they are joyous, sad, grieving, concerned, upset…whatever they are feeling and experiencing, we are there for them.”
Do you help parents think through things like burial arrangements and funeral services?
Chaplain Donahue: “We are not only there for the spiritual matters but for the practical ones as well. Even if a family does not desire to speak with a Chaplain, I am often still helping with funeral arrangements.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “We offer whatever support is desired. If a family asks us for help finding a funeral home, we simply print a list of places in their area. If they want help with a funeral or Memorial Service, we can certainly help in any way. I have officiated at funerals, weddings, and baptisms for patients, family members and staff. We do, however, participate in an infant loss program locally. Baue Funeral Home in St. Charles works with area hospitals to provide burials for infants who die. We work with them to host quarterly Memorial Services through the SHARE program.”
Do you care for patients of other faiths? Do you help patients find clergy from their own faith background?
Chaplain Donahue: “As a Chaplain you often ‘transform’. I have ‘become’ a Catholic Priest. I have done Jewish end of life recitation. I help people from all different backgrounds. I am not going to do anything to convert you from your faith. If your faith is nothing at all, then I will honor that. I will ask permission to pray with you. Anything I do will have to be at your approval.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “Absolutely! We are trained to practice spiritual and cultural humility and most chaplains have some understanding of many religious beliefs. We come alongside people and ask what would be helpful.
I ask people about their particular beliefs and practices. Even within various religious traditions, people vary in what they believe and what they want. Some people want prayer regardless of my particular faith or their particular faith, they are open to any connection with God. Some want to contact their Imam, Rabbi, or Roman Catholic priest (for example) and we support them and help them make those important connections.
We are fortunate to have a diverse group of chaplains here, representing many faith traditions, so we can usually accommodate whatever preference people have.”
Do you ever work with first trimester loss patients in the Same Day Surgery or ER settings?
Chaplain Donahue: “I have been called down to both the OR and ER before. It is often a time of incredible stress. I usually ask to pray with the parents. It is important to acknowledge that the mother is in physical and emotional pain. We often talk about where the baby is and ways to honor that baby.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “Yes. When there is a pregnancy loss at any point, we offer support when called. Early pregnancy losses may be treated in the ED or Same Day Surgery. Once the pregnancy reaches 20 weeks, the patient is usually seen in Maternity.
A loss is a loss and grief is grief, regardless of the length of the pregnancy, and we minister to those who are grieving.
Teikoku Matsunaga has said,
‘The morning glory blooms but for an hour
and yet it differs not at heart
from the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.’
Typically, we are called by a nurse, and go to see the grieving mother and father—whoever is there.
People experience all sorts of emotions, from shock, to sadness, to profound disappointment, and sometimes guilt. Sometimes there if relief, because the parents know there are issues with the health of the baby and now the emotional roller coaster ride has ended. There is questioning. Why? There is sometimes anger toward God. It is the loss of hope, the loss of the dream, and the loss of the future for many. Often people have had multiple pregnancy losses. Sometimes they know there will not be another opportunity.”
Have you preformed baptisms on stillborn babies or deceased neonates/infants? What kind of meaning or comfort do parents find in this practice?
Chaplain Donahue: “I did my first infant baptism shortly after becoming a Chaplain. I am from a Baptist background. In that faith tradition babies are not baptized, only converted adults. I was called in to see a family whose baby was stillborn. When I entered the room, the dad asked me to baptize their baby. Thankfully, the nurse assigned to the patient was a seasoned OB nurse and a Baptist. She saw the look on my face and took me out into the hall. She asked me what was going on. When I told her my theological dilemma she said, ‘So? Who is the baptism helping?’ ‘The parents’ I replied. That is when it clicked for me. I went back in and baptized that baby. The dad who had been very uneasy, just melted. The dad had a look of peace, all because his baby was baptized. I often ask families, What is going to help you find peace in this crisis?’”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “I am a Presbyterian Pastor, and I believe we are baptized into a life of faith, a life of discipleship. So, when possible, I ask parents what Baptism means to them, and whether that is the way to bless their child. I always bless and pray for each child that dies, if that is what the parents want, and for the parent’s healing, but I only baptize if the parents believe that is the appropriate thing to do theologically.
I do not believe that Baptism is required for a baby to return to God and be forever in God’s care. Blessing the baby is sufficient for that.
If, however, the parents believe Baptism is a means of salvation, then I would baptize their infant. If they are Roman Catholic, they usually want a priest to baptize or bless their baby.”
What are the top spiritual questions that you are asked by parents? How do you generally answer these questions?
Chaplain Donahue: “Two big ones are: Where is my baby? Is my baby okay? A really hard question that I get asked goes something like: “I did A. B. C. wrong. Is God punishing me because of what I did?” I tell parents, “I do not believe God is punishing your baby for something you did. I do not believe that God punishes babies for things their parents did.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “The hardest question I have been asked is when there is an accident that results in an infant or child’s death. I have been called when a baby strangles on a bed cord, or suffocates while sleeping with a parent, or in a blanket.
I believe we come from God and we return to God. I believe we are reunited with those we have loved in heaven. Parents may have spiritual or theological questions but most of the time they are just grieving profoundly and they need comfort and to know that their Redeemer lives and cares for them.
Many times, people I know who have had near death experiences, or as people know they are dying, they will have a vision of the child they lost or hope they will be reunited with the child they lost. Losing a pregnancy, or infant, or child, stays with people.”
What are your go to books, pamphlets, prayers, or other resources that you recommend to bereaved parents?
Chaplain Donahue: “I honestly do not have a go to. Instead, I ask: What is the need? What is the situation? One example that comes to mind is a mom who was on bedrest. We got her adult coloring books. It helped to keep her mind focused.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “I have so many! I have specialized training in ministering to those who are grieving. I have entire catalogs of resources. Books on miscarriage, Help, Comfort and Hope, by Hannah Lothrop, Still to be Born, Strong and Tender: A Guide for the Father Whose Baby has died. Empty Arms, by Sherokee Isles, When a Baby Dies, which includes practical advice about contacting clergy, funeral homes, etc. Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, Ended Beginnings, Making Loving Memories, and Unspeakable Losses, by Kim Kluger-Bell.
I have ministered to those who have been faced with making difficult decisions about a pregnancy based on a number of factors, usually the health of the baby. Difficult Decisions, Precious Lives, Painful Choices, are helpful…because such decisions are accompanied by profound sadness.”
What do you wish the public knew about Chaplains and their work?
Chaplain Donahue: “That we are compassionate. We will take the time to listen and care about what is happening in your life. We will consider your particular journey and be compassionate about where you are in that journey and in this crisis.”
Chaplain Rosencrans: “Chaplains are usually ordained ministers/priests/rabbis or other clergy with years of life experience and ministry who bring a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, respect, and compassion to those who are suffering.”
Chaplain Rosencrans wanted to leave this last quote with our readers, a quote that she has prayed over many families.
“It was for you that Jesus Christ came down into the world,
struggled and suffered,
for you he endured the agony of Gethsemane and the darkness of Calvary,
for you he cried, ‘It is accomplished’
for you he died
and for you he conquered death;
Yes, for you little one,
you who know nothing of it as yet.
Thus, the Apostle’s words are confirmed:
‘We love because God first loved us.’”
The United Church of Scotland”
About Ann-Marie Ferry
Ann-Marie is a nurse based in the Midwest. Her and her husband have been married for close to a decade. She has three spunky girls and one sweet little boy in heaven. After nine months of hyperemesis, hemorrhage, and pre-term labor, her first pregnancy resulted in a full-term baby girl. Kuyper, her second child, was stillborn during his second trimester in 2013. Her third pregnancy concluded six weeks early resulting in a NICU stay. Although, still complicated and high risk, she would describe her fourth and final pregnancy as a redeeming experience.
Ann-Marie can be found blogging at ann-marieferry.com and on Instagram @ann_marieferry.
Great article. Thank you Chaplains for your compassionate service. Thank you Ann-Marie for highlighting this precious and needed service. I am sure many more people will readily ask for and use Chaplains when in a difficult time because of this article.
Thank you so much for your encouraging words.