One way to approach services for a stillborn or infant.
“What do we do?”
The dad was holding the baby. About 30 weeks in the womb, the first 28 of those growing, moving. The last two motionless. Now, this couple was thinking about the services that would honor their child who had no list of accomplishment to eulogize. I was in the room because I’m a hospital chaplain. And we’re the ones who attend to death.
I told them that I couldn’t tell them what to do. I told them that no service could fill the hole. I told them that I could tell them what one couple did.
“They had a viewing at a funeral home, just for family and friends,” I said. It provides a chance for people who care about the family, who have never met the baby, to acknowledge what has happened. With an official time and an actual location, this cluster of relationships can welcome, briefly but intentionally, this person. And all of these people can connect with the grieving parents and grandparents and extended family. There will be other, longer, conversations later. But we often need a context for the first connection, the first time to say, “I’m sorry” and “This is hard.”
“Just an hour or two,” I suggested. And as always, I reminded the parents that people would say awkward things. And I told them what a mother once said back to me: “But they mean well.”
“Be aware that it’s a tiny casket,” I said. That’s often the shock for those of us who have seen big caskets for adults. That first view of a tiny casket, pink or blue or white, is a physical confirmation that something isn’t right about this.
“And they had a small, simple graveside service,” I said. That’s a very small group, immediate family, perhaps a close family friend. And you want someone to lead the service that you can trust to be honest and gentle and brief. Just some words from Scripture, some prayer, some clear words for what to expect in next days and in eternity. Nothing about God taking this angel, nothing about God taking the best. And maybe a symbol, like placing flowers on the casket.
“And then they ate together,” I said. Because we are made to eat and tell stories and at hard moments like this, we need to eat and to tell stories.
The parents had a couple questions and then the conversation moved on. A couple days later, I found that they had been listening. And I was humbled as I stood at the graveside with the family, able to be with them at that moment.