Saturday 18 January 2020

Waking hours: Renee Dilworth, the healthcare chaplain at the Coombe

Renee Dilworth (65) is the healthcare chaplain of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital. She lives in Dublin with her husband, Philip. They have four children - Ciaran (39), Niall (36), Orna (33) and Aisling (27)

Renee Dilworth (65) is the healthcare chaplain of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital.
Renee Dilworth (65) is the healthcare chaplain of the Coombe Women & Infants University Hospital.

When I wake, I look in the mirror and say, 'Thank you Lord for another day'. I'm a practising Catholic, but this is not so much a prayer, as an acknowledgement of the day. I'm glad that I got up that morning, and thankful for a good night's sleep.

After a shower, I have a cup of tea, and focus on getting out the door. My husband, Philip, is still in bed. He'll say, 'Have a nice day.' I get into work at 6.30am.

I'm the healthcare chaplain in the Coombe, which is a non-denominational hospital. I go to the oratory and make sure that it's in good order. It's a quiet space. Before I start work, I take five minutes to prepare myself for the day. I just ask for whatever blessings I need to get me through.

Then I go into St Gerard's ward, which is on the fourth floor. This is where we have all our bereaved families. It is for any family who has had a miscarriage, a neo-natal death - which is when the baby has died within the first 28 days of birth; or if somebody was diagnosed with a stillbirth overnight. It might be a tiny miscarriage - 10 weeks - up to a 40-week-plus term. A baby might have only taken two breaths.

We have three bereavement suites on the ward, with en suite rooms where dads can stay, and family would have open visiting. We don't have any babies on those wards, so that bereaved families are not going to get upset hearing other babies crying. They are very secluded and protected.

What can I do for a family who has lost their baby? I support them through this terrible tragedy. It might be just a hand on the shoulder. Just to be present, that's the key. And then in your presence, you build up a trusting relationship with them. They trust you so much with this precious little baby. Not many people know these babies.

The midwives will tell me if somebody came in during the night, and I will know their names. Sometimes the parents will have the baby in the cot, and other times, they will let their baby go to the quiet room, where we can keep baby safe so that the parents can have a sleep.

We encourage the parents to spend as long as they need with their little baby. If it's a miscarriage, mum might have kept the remains with her. Or she might have let it go to the quiet room, if it's so tiny and too upsetting.

People are so vulnerable and sensitive. I offer my condolences. If dad is around, I acknowledge his grief and his loss, too. Then I ask if I can have a look at their little baby. I tell them that their baby is beautiful. And then I'll make sure that the baby is dressed in accordance with the way I think he or she should be dressed. If the baby is very tiny, we have little vests and gowns for them.

Listening would be the key role of the chaplain. There are lots of tears. They are thinking, 'This is not supposed to happen; we were supposed to be taking our baby home, and now we're just taking home a memory box'.

They can tell me to leave or call me when they need me. But at some stage, I need to go back to them. All these babies have to be buried. That's the role of the chaplain here in the hospital as well.

I ask them if they have thought about what burial arrangements they would like for their baby. The hospital covers the cost of the baby in Glasnevin Cemetery, and we provide the coffin for any family. We have a 12-inch coffin and a 24-inch coffin. It's very tastefully done.

Some people have the prayer service in our mortuary chapel. Most people don't know that this building exists. I certainly didn't when I had my four babies here in the hospital. It was a real eye-opener.

Sometimes if the baby is under 24 weeks, parents might say, 'Just take the baby away. I don't want to attend'. They might have three other children at home who don't know that mum was pregnant. But I would encourage them to tell the children that the baby has died. Some day the following week, the parents might be upset, and the children will think that they have done something wrong.

I advise to always tell the truth to siblings, no matter how young. It is important that they learn about death, because it's part of life.

Recently, I was in a crematorium with a family. The two-year-old boy knew about the baby's death, but he was playing with his toy figure, as if he was not minding a thing. But when the curtain started to close, he started to cry. I was very struck by that.

Another time, I saw a child who was about three. The baby was in the coffin, and he put in some Jelly Tots for him. But for the whole hour, he was looking in. Then he asked if he could take the sweets back. He was very aware that his brother wasn't going to eat them.

My working day is from 7am until 3.30pm, but I am on call 24/7.

As a chaplain, you've got to take care of yourself. You can't take your work home with you, and I don't. When I get in the door, I put on my jammies, and switch off by watching Neighbours and Home and Away. I have really good hobbies - gardening and making cards - and they keep me sane.

I enjoy my children and grandchildren, and I'm deeply grateful for my family life. Sometimes, if I'm home late, Philip will meet me at the door. He'll take my bag, tell me that he has put a hot-water bottle in the bed and bring me up a cup of tea.

I'm thankful for the day, thankful that I got through it, and I pray that I'll have a good night's sleep.



In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

The chaplaincy department organises an annual remembrance service, email

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