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‘We baptized him with our tears’: A family is forced to say goodbye


Yesterday my 2-year-old daughter, Betsy, became passionately attached to a purple balloon filled with helium and tied to a ribbon. She, her big sister and I walked outside together, balloon clutched tightly in little fist, when the inevitable tragedy occurred -- the balloon was “freed” and floated east into the flawless afternoon sky.

Inconsolable, my baby wailed. She demanded through her tears, “Mama, can’t you get it? Why did it go away? I want it back.” Here was true grief. She had that beautiful balloon for a few precious moments. It was released from her custody too soon, and the loss was devastating.

Last year our family received the great news that we would be welcoming my sister-in-law’s child into our world, our children’s very first cousin. The day we found out about the pregnancy, the children laughed and jumped around the house. We talked of gifts for the baby, made cards, anticipated babysitting and sleepovers. As the due date came and went, I got excited every time the phone rang, sure it would be the news we were practically holding our breath for: “We had a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”

The phone finally rang the following week, but our joy turned to shock and grief as Mary called, following what should have been a routine checkup, with the terrible news: “There is no heartbeat.”

They had a day to prepare for the labor that would be induced through an intravenous drip of pitocin, a synthetic hormone that stimulates uterine contractions. Mary, who had planned on drug-free childbirth, took advantage of a numbing spinal injection to take away the physical pain, some small comfort amid the nearly unbearable agony of giving birth to a stillborn child.

Mary and her husband are faith-filled people, blessed with many friends and loving families. They have so many friends because they love so well. They make time for what is important: remembering birthdays (especially their nieces’ and nephews’), holidays with family, her annual women’s weekends with her tight-knit group of high school friends, his ski races and coaching events, their small faith community. They have chosen to face the challenge of losing their child with courage, and in the context of their faith. It is so tempting to ask, “Why me? Why us?” and I am sure they have privately wondered this. It is tempting to assign blame.

Born still. Still, born.

Instead, their energy went immediately into spending as much time as possible with their son, for though he was not born alive, they were allowed to keep him during their hospital stay, to bathe and cradle him -- to be, for a few fleeting hours, a family of three. Their strapping baby boy, Leo, weighed 8 pounds, 7 ounces, and was 23 inches long. All the uncles, aunts and grandparents who could arrange to be there gathered at the hospital that evening. We took turns holding our nephew and grandson. “We baptized him with our tears,” said their friend Fr. Bill Murtaugh, who came to pray with us.

Like Betsy and the balloon, we don’t know why Leo went away or why we can’t have him back. Nobody should bury their child. Nobody should witness parents carrying, instead of a newly baptized baby, a small casket out of the church.

One of my daughter’s teachers asked about our children’s response to the death. My 6-year-old’s first reaction to the loss of this much-anticipated baby was anger. “But I wanted a cousin!” she protested. Minutes later the tears flowed from her rage. My 7-year-old’s eyes welled up, and he fell silent for a long time and took turns on my lap and his father’s. But they do not dwell on their loss. They seemed comforted by the explanation offered by a family friend, that they indeed still have a cousin, though he will not grow up with them.

The teacher said, “They are still close to where they came from.” They still have an inside connection to the Mystery of what lies beyond human consciousness.

As my daughters and I watched the balloon fade into the blue beyond, I ventured silliness to distract my tearful child. “Maybe we can ask that birdie to fly up and get it for you,” I tried, pointing to a nearby sparrow. The wails got louder. Her sister had a better idea. “I know! We’ll ask Leo to get it.”

Leo’s funeral was held on another impeccable summer day. Among other songs, prayers and scripture, an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet was read:

If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one. ... Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. ... And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

And retrieve all the stray balloons, so there will be no more weeping.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998