Notes from the NICU: Ritual Matters

I blessed more than one dead baby this summer.

When you are working as an intern chaplain on a hospital floor that includes the Labor and Delivery Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), these are things that happen.

The crying mothers. The tiny bodies, stillborn and premature and barely enough to cradle in your arms. The infants on palliative care in the NICU, gently extubated from the tubes that thread through their airways. The holy water you wet their foreheads with, their skin so thin and transparent you are afraid you might slough it off with a single touch.

The first time I did this, I was frozen and heartbroken at the tiny, still face, tinged gray as life slipped away. Wrapped in a lace gown, a knit cross tucked into cold hands. My first thought was, What can a chaplain do? What can I, a beginner chaplaincy student in my first weeks of this program, do? Really—what can anyone do for these parents?

Luckily, I had a mentor chaplain who had seen this many times. And she taught me the power of ritual. The power of a little bottle of holy water (hurriedly blessed by one of the priests in the Spiritual Care Office because we’d nearly run out), poured out on a mother’s hands so she can bless her baby’s closed eyes. The power of a song, sung together low and off-key and through tears, to move parents to a more gentle, healing place. The power of calling a whole family around the bedside to collectively say a blessing over the child’s body—grandmothers grieving a lost grandchild, sisters a new brother, fathers a son.

Even for people who do not claim a religion (or say they’ve long left whatever they were raised in), ritual becomes necessary at these liminal, crucial moments. The lapsed Catholic asks for a rosary. The atheist asks for a blessing. The agnostic wants a prayer. And some just want you to sit there, and say some words that mean something, and make it so that this child, who barely or never lived outside the womb, does not disappear without ever having been recognized by the world. Ritual makes it real—that this woman carried this baby inside her, that even if no one else ever meets this child—they existed, and were known, even if only in the small bonding room of this hospital.

I’m not Catholic. But at the hospital I worked at here in Southern California, many of our patients were Latinx Catholics. And so they requested sacraments and rites. Baptism. Anointing of the Sick. Commending of the Soul. As a Unitarian Universalist, I come from a tradition where we do not have sacraments (though we are encouraged to be creative with constructing rituals). Yet as an intern chaplain, I found myself baptizing, blessing, and commending the souls of the dead. I read out of my little green Catholic prayer book and taught patients how to pray the rosary when they requested it, a connection to their childhood. I memorized the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish and learned to keep icons of the Virgen de Guadalupe on hand.

And I saw how these rituals healed. Marked. Anchored. In the midst of trauma and grief, they were something to hold on to. Familiar words that came to the lips. Physical motions that the body would remember in the years to come. A concrete moment to relive and—someday, someday—cherish. Proof that this moment, this person, this loss was important, sacred, meaningful, real.

Now, I’m back in school. My summer unit of chaplaincy training is over (though I hope to do a year-long residency next year after graduating with my Interfaith Chaplaincy Master of Divinity degree this year). And I’m taking a class on “Interfaith Rituals for Chaplaincy” at University of the West, a Buddhist university partnered with my seminary. We’re reading ritual theory and discussing the need for ritual. I’m learning about the rich depth and history of Buddhist rituals, to mark the same kind of life events I saw in the hospital. We’re thinking of how to create new rituals (my group’s final project is creating a Muslim-Theravada Buddhist child blessing).

Sitting in class, I think about the people who say that religion produces only violence and strife and conflict. And I think about those babies and those families and those hospital rooms of my summer. And I think about human beings, who throughout our species’ history have found ways to mark life’s biggest changes in sacralized ways.

As one of my textbooks puts it, we are Homo ritualis. I have seen it to be true.

Image Credit: Public Domain, Pixabay.

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3 thoughts on “Notes from the NICU: Ritual Matters

  1. This is a beautiful contribution and exemplifies something I hold dear — that endings are as important as beginnings. As a parent of a child who spend most of his first three years of life in the NICU (and nearly didn’t make it out more than once) I know both the struggle of the family and the struggle of those in service to them. I also know from first hand experience how significant ritual can be in getting one through these difficult times. Abigail exemplifies a new generation of interfaith service that is sorely needed. I know she will carry each child and family with her, and through them she will gain strength, faith, and become a better Interfaith Chaplain.

  2. This is an extraordinary piece describing how beauty exists even in the ashes. As people who enter sacred spaces expected to navigate the difficult waters of tragedy and heartache, it can feel paralyzing at the intensity present in the moment. Sometimes I find the theoretical rhetoric around ritual to be dull and quite distant from the power of ritual. I work at an inpatient psychiatric hospital unit with people who are disconnected from their bodies, their families and friends, and their environment. Your experience in the NICU has reminded me to implement ritual, albeit covertly, into my client relationships. They crave relationship and connection and a general right-ing of their world. Ritual may be just the thing that prepares them and aids in their transition back into the community.

  3. Thank you for a powerful and moving witness. You have given a beautiful picture for the structure and comfort that ritual can provide, and how that can center us in times of sorrow and pain. It seems to me that your tradition is uniquely suited to chaplaincy settings in which can’t expect to whom you will be ministering to, in that it can adapt and work with the needs of the hurt. I appreciate that you take the UU’s lack of sacraments as a strength to then minister to all, as opposed to a limitation by answering, “Rosary? Sorry, that’s a Catholic thing.” Much of my work, writing, and research is centered on interfaith work that affirms and appreciates difference and the particular–you have offered a wonderful example!

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