The Viewing

8:49:00 AM

I am the type of person who hates to look at dead pets. If I see a goldfish floating upside down, I immediately avert my gaze and yell. “Callum! The fish is dead. Quick! Scoop it out and bury it.” I don’t know what I am going to do when the guinea pigs decide they’ve had enough of life. I hope it is not me who discovers their lifeless forms on the floor of their cage. So you see, it was a real concern of mine when I had to face the fact that I might have to hold, not an expired pet, but the body of our dead son.

At the time of my pregnancy with Thomas, I had never seen a dead body. Could I hold a dead baby in my arms? What would he look like? How would he feel? Would I be too frightened to pick him up? These were all concerns which caused me immense suffering in the months preceding Thomas’ birth.

During Thomas’ last minutes of life, he was disconnected from all equipment except the ventilator, and given to us to hold. The whole of our family was present. We took turns cradling him in our arms as his life slipped away. This was the first time Thomas would have felt the touch of his family, and this touch was his last sensation as he left this world. We weren’t aware of the exact moment of Thomas’ death until the doctor pointed out that, although the ventilator was still mechanically pumping away, the heart monitor no longer showed a beat. Thomas had gone.

Once disconnected from all the medical equipment, Thomas was taken away by one of the nurses. We were invited to sit in the private lounge area where we were to await the return of our baby. It was strange. I didn’t even consider not holding Thomas. Even though he was dead, I wanted to see our child. We hadn’t been allowed to touch him all those hours he was in intensive care. He hadn’t really seemed like our child but more like the hospital’s as the doctors constantly worked by his side. Now we would be able to see him properly for the first time.

When Thomas returned, he was dressed in a nightie, nappy, booties and bonnet and was wrapped in a handmade quilt. Again, we took turns holding him.

I thought he looked like Charlotte but now that his nose is clear of the tube, he is more like Imogen. Look at his profile.”

What colour hair do you think he would have had? It looks reddish.”

His hands look so sad with the marks from the needles.”

The nurse told us that we could spend as long as we liked with Thomas. “Just place him in that cradle when you want to leave or ring for a nurse.”

I know he is dead, but I can’t just put him in a cradle and leave him by himself. Can I call you?”

With our baby no longer alive, we felt the need to return home as soon as possible. I no longer felt I had a legitimate excuse to occupy a hospital bed and we knew our other children needed us at home. As we said our goodbyes to Thomas, the nurse invited us to return to see him again the next day if we wished. But we didn’t return. The hospital was far from home and we got tied up organising the funeral, looking after the children, coping with our own needs.

Several days before we buried Thomas, we arranged to see him at a ‘viewing’. A couple of our friends asked if they could come along too and they arrived with their young children in tow.

I was eagerly anticipating seeing Thomas again. Never having gone to a viewing before, I didn’t really know what to expect. If I’d thought about it logically, I would have worked out that Thomas would be in his coffin. However, the sight of his little body lying in the white casket shocked me. I went up to him and then cried, “He doesn’t look like Thomas.” It was almost unbearable. The funeral director then asked if I wanted him to take Thomas out of the coffin so that I could hold him. Soon I had his little body tucked under my arms. It was difficult to keep hold of him. His legs kept slipping from my grasp like a rag doll’s. He was dressed in the exquisite baptismal gown I’d chosen for him and, although he looked beautiful and peaceful, he didn’t look like he had in the hospital. Thomas was passed around to those who wanted to hold him. Then we took some family photographs very aware that this was our last opportunity to capture pictures of our complete family:  parents and six children.

Although we saw Thomas on two occasions after his death, I still have some regrets. I realised later, that we’d never seen either his ears or his feet. We’d held him all bundled up and not really examined him like we would have done had he been alive. The doctors and nurses of the NIC unit were fantastic and, as I knew they were always looking for ways to improve their help to bereaved parents, I wrote to them with some suggestions.

Perhaps newly bereaved parents could dress their own babies after death? Perhaps the parents could even bathe their children? It would have been so lovely to have seen Thomas’ hair in its true colour.

I don’t think my fear of seeing and touching a dead person is an isolated fear. I think other people have these concerns too. A friend once confided the story of going to see her father before his burial.

I was so afraid of seeing him. Then I realised that the body in the funeral home wasn’t my dad. He was gone. The body was just a shell.  Nothing to be afraid of.”

I listened quietly but I couldn’t agree. Thomas’ body was him. Yes, his soul had departed but his body was still a very special part of him. And because his little dead body was still Thomas, there was nothing to be frightened of. How can you be frightened of your own baby son?

One of the families, who came with us to see Thomas, had older children who weren’t present at the viewing. When the family returned home, these children asked their younger siblings, ”What did Thomas look like?”

The answer: “Well… like a baby… of course!”

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  1. Thank you Colleen. Thomas was beautiful. Unfortunately the coloured lights in the funeral home spoilt our photos a bit - they cast strange colours over Thomas's features but in real life he was perfect.

    Thank you for sharing my story.



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