In the midst of things we cannot understand…

[1] Her eyes were red and puffy and dried out from all the tears she had shed. Her head was swimming from all the information and terminology she had heard these last few days. She asked the nurse in the clinic, “Do you have somebody who can come and help me understand what I’m supposed to do?” The nurse replied, “I don’t think anybody can do that for you, but I think the chaplains are good at listening.”

[2] Maria* had been told a week ago that something was wrong with the baby she was carrying. She had dreamed and prayed and longed for a child for years while her sisters effortlessly had baby after baby. Now, after all these years her joy at finally living out her dream had been turned into a nightmare.

[3] Trisomy 13 occurs about once per 5000 births. It is associated with multiple abnormalities, many incompatible with life. Eighty percent of children with Trisomy 13 die within the first month.

[4] Following this news, Maria had sought numerous second opinions all of which corroborated the diagnosis. Specialist after specialist had told her what this meant for her baby, how he would not be expected to survive for more than a short while. She was offered many options for what to do now, including termination.

[5] As a chaplain with experience counseling parents following diagnosis of fetal anomalies, I was asked to meet Maria and her mother. The nurse who paged said that Maria had asked to talk to a chaplain “to help her understand what was happening.”

[6] As I arrived at the clinic office, Maria’s mother was crying outside the room. I introduced myself to her, thinking she was the client for whom I had been called. Maria’s mother brought me into the room where Maria sat, looking so lost.

[7] I listened to Maria tell her story of all the ups and downs of the last few months; how her husband had left her for another woman, how she had learned she was pregnant, and the thrill she felt at becoming a mother. She then began to explain the swirl of confusion that had surrounded her in the last week.

[8] “How are you supposed to understand something like this when no one can even tell me what’s going to happen?” she began. “There’s just so much uncertainty with this. No one will really commit to anything about this. The doctors are all certain that this thing is bad, but no one can tell me with certainty what is going to happen, how bad it would be, how long my baby could live. They all say words like ‘may’ or ‘could.’ Then they expect me to make a definitive decision. I’m not making any decisions until somebody can tell me a sentence that has words like ‘will’ or ‘is.’ In fact, I want the next sentence that comes out of your mouth to have the word ‘will’ in it!”

[9] “Maria, I will be here to listen as long as you want,” I said. “I’m sorry that I can’t take away the uncertainty and confusion that you feel, but I will be here with you as you feel it.”

[10] Maria laughed and said, “Well at least you used ‘will’! And it does feel good just to tell the story of everything that’s happened. Do you think I’m crazy for just wanting to understand what’s happening?”

[11] “Not at all,” I replied. “It’s natural to want to understand everything, especially when we’re trying to figure out what to do about something. And we’d like to always have a clear good choice versus a bad choice when confronted by something hard.”

[12] “Can I tell you something strange?” Maria whispered. “I have one feeling of certainty within me, and it is this: I want to have my baby. The doctor mentioned that I could consider termination and that delivery may expose me to complications. I don’t care about any complications, I want to have my baby, even if only for a very short time. I want to be a mother, even if only for a moment.”

[13] Maria’s mother spoke for the first time, “Baby, you’re a mother now, and you’ll always be, no matter what. I just want you to be ok and healthy and safe.”

[14] “I know that I can’t make a decision right now,” Maria said. “And if not making a decision is in fact making one, then so be it.”


[15] Fate had me on-call overnight some months later. At 2 a.m. I was paged to Labor and Delivery for a fetal demise. Arriving at the room, Maria’s mother was waiting outside. She was surprised to see me and asked me, “Pastor, do you actually live at the hospital?” Sometimes it felt that way.

[16] She brought me into the room where Maria’s baby was cradled in her arms. Her baby was taking the last few shallow breaths of his too-short life. Maria’s tears bathed her baby as he grew silent.

[17] “Look how beautiful he is!” Maria said. “I will always be his mother, and he will always be my baby.” She sighed and said, “I was so afraid of what would happen, but I’m not afraid any more.”

[18] Maria sang to her baby. She dressed him and told him how proud she was of him. She asked me to baptize him. She gave him a name, and I baptized him and gave Maria the seashell that I used for the ritual.

[19] Maria then asked, “I want to thank God for making me a mother, and I want to give my boy now to God. Can you pray a prayer that says that?”

[20] In closing, I prayed this prayer: “Gracious God, in the midst of things we cannot understand, we thank you for signs of your love for us. Thank you for giving this boy to Maria. May you bless this mother everyday with your presence and love. We place him now in the arms of your safekeeping, trusting in your unfailing love. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”

*Not client’s real name

Kevin Massey

Rev. Kevin Massey is a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) and Director of Lutheran Disaster Response.