One of the most difficult days of my life was the day my son called from Texas to say doctors were getting ready to do an emergency C-section on our daughter-in-law. Her preeclampsia was putting her life and the life of our first grandchild at risk. On that day, they were 28.5 weeks into their first pregnancy. And in those moments, my heart raced and slid into my throat and my mind began to spin. I experienced a feeling of helplessness. I knew I couldn’t make things different for them. At the same time, my husband and I lived over 1,200 miles away in Wisconsin. In those first moments of crisis and uncertainty, we couldn’t physically be there with them. Equally important, in my experience as a NICU chaplain, I had an idea of the many difficult issues that can arise with babies born too early.
In addition, with that one phone call, my long-held dream of “how things would be” when my grandchildren were born collided with a much different reality. “Too soon,” my mind said. “Please God; this just can’t be happening,” I cried, “not this way.” I experienced grief over the loss of that long-held dream. I felt sad and scared for our kids and worried about what the future held for my unborn grandchild being delivered too soon.
What I experienced that day is not unlike what many others face on a daily basis when they, too, have a baby born prematurely. In those early hours of crisis and in the days following, my emotions took a rollercoaster ride – and I was never too fond of rollercoasters in the first place. Sometimes I was up and elated; other times I was down and worried. As many people know, the journey of a preemie in the NICU is not always smooth and steady for either for the baby or the family. It can, at times, feel like a stomach-dropping downward dive with unexpected twists, turns, and switchbacks. Moreover, no two babies, even when they are premature twins, experience the very same day-to-day issues in the hospital.
Helplessness. Grief. Fear. Uncertainty of the future. Not uncommon initial responses in a crisis like having a premature baby or the loss of dreams supplanted by a different realty. Yet each response holds within it a potential risk for distress of the human spirit. And any amount of spiritual distress strikes at the heart of functioning and health.
How we get through a crisis, like having a preemie baby, depends on our ability to cope, our support systems, and how well we are able to utilize them. For instance, having trusted people to talk with and process our feelings and concerns is important. I had the good fortune to talk with family members, the NICU staff at my hospital, and my chaplain colleagues. Each group gave me a different level of support to draw from as I processed the immediate crisis and my day-to-day concerns.
Another source of support comes from having a belief system and/or a connection with a religious or spiritual community. For me, I drew strength from in my Lutheran faith and my belief in a God who promises to be with me in good times and in struggle. My chaplain colleagues listened and encouraged me as I shared my emotions and concerns about my grandchild and being so far away. They prayed with me and for our kids which comforted my heart.
Other spiritual practices also strengthen us and support us during difficult times. Listening to music, utilizing relaxation or meditation, reading sacred texts (like the Bible, Koran, or other inspirational material) or journal-writing can help soothe our soul and get us through the rough spots. For myself, a combination of all of these proved invaluable. Besides family and prayer, my greatest source of renewal and calm came as I communed with nature on our deck in our backyard.
Surrounded by woods and blue sky, I sensed God’s presence with me in the trill of birdsong, the breeze brushed my face, and the rustling tree leaves. These moments helped ease my hurting heart and aided my awareness that something greater than myself worked for my grandson’s good in this tough time.
As I reflect back, I remember how scary it seemed and how helpless I felt in those first hours after my son called. And while the journey wasn’t always easy, I can celebrate the joy of my first grandson’s birth and his journey through the NICU.
Chaplains understand the importance of having a good support and faith when the going gets tough. Family and friends surrounded me with their love and prayers. God journeyed with me and blessed us all abundantly. Our first grandson had a relatively smooth course in the NICU and spent approximately two and a half months in the hospital. I, too, coped relatively well considering my perpetual tendency to worry. Today, my first grandson, Miles, is an energetic three year old who excitedly welcomed his new baby brother, Eliot, into the family this summer. My second grandson also spent a few days in NICU. But this time around, we all worried less. Yes, Eliot was nearly full-term and less likely to face as many difficulties as Miles may have, but we had been through this experience before. We knew what questions to ask. We knew what helped us cope. And we knew we could get through it again.
Rev. Debbie Schulze is an ordained pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and serves as a staff chaplain at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, a member of the Seton Healthcare Family. She is a Board Certified Chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Texas at Arlington and a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Counseling from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. She did her Lutheran Component at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Besides family, some of Rev. Schulze’s favorite things are good food, a good book, being outside in nature, and playing with her grandchildren.