Emergency Naming and Farewell

April 3rd, 2014


On the way home from a pretty much standard funeral recently – lady of 79, solid family, friends and neighbours, appreciative chats on the terrace, straightforward in every way – I had a phone message to ring a ward sister in the neo-natal unit of a large London hospital, about a baby that was not expected to survive the next 24 hours.

I made the call and got a few more details. The baby, Henry, had been transferred from another hospital with a severe brain injury sustained during birth. He was on a ventilator but stood very little chance of surviving independently, and even less of any quality of life if he did. The parents, John and Liz, were more or less resigned to consenting to withdrawal of care.

They had seen one of the hospital chaplains, but found his message of an afterlife and eventual resurrection deeply unhelpful: hence their request to see a humanist.

Having spoken to the registrar, I agreed to go up and see them the following day. However, he rang me back a little while later to ask if I could possibly get there that afternoon or evening, since John and Liz had a small group of family and friends with them, and wanted very much to have some kind of formal acknowledgment of Henry’s arrival in the world, even though his stay in it was likely to be brief.

It being half-term, I had my six-year old at home. However, he is a highly adaptable child, and so we took the train to London equipped with snacks, a drink, a book and an iPad. I brought my copy of Out of the Ordinary and skimmed pp 59-89 on the journey while he concentrated on Minecraft. At the hospital a nurse took him over and got him settled in the reception area while I went to meet John and Liz.

They were desolate but had a clear idea of what kind of ceremony they wanted, and after a few minutes’ chat I found a quiet room, made some notes and marked a couple of passages in the book.

Then it was time to meet Henry. He looked much like any other newborn, but for the cooling cap on his head and the ventilator tube. The ceremony, such as it was, took place round his cot. I started by thanking John and Liz and commending their rejection of the chaplain’s well-meaning but false comfort.

I talked a little about every new human being as a cause for celebration, plagiarised a little of Herbert Read’s Tree of Life, read Khalil Gibran on joy and sorrow, then let John and Liz talk a little about Henry. I finished with one of the SANDS poems from Out of the Ordinary: rather than talk overtly about what the future might bring them, I let the poem’s last section carry that sense: there is love, there is healing, there is hope.

It was gruelling for me, but it seemed to hit the spot for John, Liz and the small group that included the registrar, the ward sister and the lead nurse. All the way through, I couldn’t help recalling my own experience of watching every stage of my own child’s development from his first pee (all over the nurse who was weighing him) to the bright, cheerful and loving little boy waiting for me in reception, and feeling a powerful sympathy for these two people who had been denied that joy – for now, at least.

We went down in the lift with a family taking their four day old baby home. That cheered me up a bit: there are happy endings too.