still…

Today, October 15, is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day in the U.S. For some concrete ways to take action, please read this, and for more information, check this out. And wherever you are at 7pm, you can light a candle to remember our lost children. 

On this day, I want to share some gems from a book written by a woman about the stillbirth of her firstborn son. Released in September, Elizabeth McCracken’s poignant memoir, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, resonated deeply and stayed with me for days. Her writing is candid and lovely (“Grief is like a waterfall, and just like that I’m over it, no barrel needed…”). If you plan to read it, you might want to skip this post, as I’ve excerpted (liberally) some of my favorite passages below. (Warning: LONG post ahead.)

Spoiler alert: there’s a dead baby in this book, but there’s a live baby too. Our stories differ in this regard, hers and mine, but the author’s eloquent words and insight on grief and loss seem universally applicable. While she writes from a perspective I can’t share —  i.e., mother to a living child — I still found myself repeating, “yes, it’s just like that.” 

McCracken begins with the purpose behind telling her story. “I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on, but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story. You move on from it, but the death will never disappear from view. … The frivolous parts of your personality, stubborner than you’d imagined, will grow up though the cracks in your soul.”

With this, she captures the simplest notion that while life may go on, so does death. It is always a part of you, even as you re-join the living.

I so identify with the author’s difficulty telling her story in real life. “I don’t want to wear my heart on my sleeve or put it away in cold storage. … I want his death to be what it is: a fact. Something that people know without me having to explain it.” […] “I do not want him elevated to angel. I do not want him demoted to neverness. He was a person, that’s all.”  Even though no one ever knew him. “A stillborn child is really only ever his death. He didn’t live. That’s how he’s defined.”  And yet, what babylost mama could begrudge her this: “I am not ready for my first child to fade into history.”

She suggests that when tragedy strikes, “you should be given a stack of cards that explain it for you,” like the cards explaining “I am deaf.” You shouldn’t have to explain it to everyone. “My first child was stillborn, it would say.” She struggles with what to tell others. I wanted to say something to my friends and family that wasn’t Our child died and our life is over.” 

McCracken admits her good fortune with kind, supportive friends who sent lovely, moving notes and emails. “As I was going mad from grief, the worst of it was that sometimes I believed I was making it all up. Here was some proof that I wasn’t.” A series of emails from one compassionate friend brought me to tears. Yet inevitably, others are unable to provide the extent of comfort we need. “Grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving,” she writes.

She remembers the inevitable awkwardness as the babylost mama resurfaces. How quick people are to avoid the unforgettable tragedy. “People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. … They didn’t mention it. … I felt in those first few weeks…like the most terrifying object on earth. … I could feel how uncomfortable my mere presence made people feel, and I couldn’t bear it.”  When forcing herself to be sociable, “[a]ll the while, all I could think was: Dead baby dead baby dead baby dead baby.” Like the author, “I have never gotten over my discomfort at other people’s discomfort.”

The Medusas cause others to recoil from the ugly truth. “I am that thing worse than a cautionary tale: I am a horror story, an example of something terrible going wrong, when you least expect it, and for no good reason, a story to be kept from pregnant women, a story so grim and lessonless it’s better not to think about it at all.”

“Ghosts are terrifying but no so bad as a woman ruined by the death of her child,” she writes. I didn’t weep in company. I mostly didn’t mention the fact that I had been pregnant, that everything in my life was supposed to be different.” It is hard to know what is appropriate to share with others, even when you long to tell your story. “When your child dies, you cannot talk about how much you loved being pregnant. … You will lose nine months of your history along with all the other things you’ve lost.”

Then there is the limbo, the shattered self image and lingering doubt. “Was I a mother, I asked myself,” in that time between her baby’s death and birth. “It was the uncertainty that seemed unbearable to me.” She wonders if she was still considered “pregnant” during that time. “There should be a different word for it, for someone who hasn’t yet delivered a dead child.” But who could ask for such a word. 

McCracken writes about how, looking back, there was a suspended moment in time, divided by an unknowable line of danger. On one side, she is in the past with her baby safe inside, and in the next, she is not. “[S]omething is supposed to intervene,” but who? (Superman, she wonders), and to do what? That moment changes your life forever — frozen in time — yet there is nothing to be done. Later, she realizes there was never any single moment, no one explanation, nothing to have done differently. Even so. “You cannot change time. You can’t even know that it would have made any difference.”

Then, the aftermath. “After most deaths, I Imagine, the awfulness lies in how everything’s changed: you no longer recognize the form of your days. There’s a hole. It’s person-shaped and it follows you everywhere,” she explains. “For us what was killing was how nothing had changed. We’d been waiting to be transformed, and now here we were, back in our old life.”  I felt that same tragic sameness, the torture of being back at work instead of home caring for my newborn son. The silent home, the empty arms. We too were waiting to be transformed, to evolve into the next phase of our lives.

McCracken discusses people’s impatience with your inability to “get over it,” and the comfort of being surrounded by great sadness, as when she visited New Orleans the year after the flood. I too find inexplicable kinship in the vast emotional expanse that is loss and disaster. It’s as if a well of compassion has somehow opened, deeper than I felt before.

Like me, the author took comfort in knowing she would try again. “[T]hat sentence — we’ll have another child… — was like throwing out a towline. It was like believing in the future instead of in the place we were at the moment.” But with me, with infertility, this lifeline is a mere thread of hope, more doubt and unknown than certainty. The belief is really just a hope for another child. And this becomes its own longing. “It was bad enough grieving for this child…without lamenting other only theoretical children,” she writes. “I missed the child we lost and I wanted another and these seemed like two absolutely separate aches.” Indeed.

For anyone who has experienced pregnancy or birth after baby loss, the author handles the emotions and fears with delicate truth. She recalls seeing pregnant women in a waiting room and feeling sadness, even while pregnant again. “[T]here they sat in the present, dreaming of the future,” when she could not. After stillbirth, the present moment is all there is. There are no guarantees, no assurances. “Once you’ve been on the losing side of great odds, you never find statistics comforting again.”

She expresses deep gratitude for the ability to conceive again and for carrying and delivering a healthy child. In fact the book is written through the lens of a grateful mother holding her happy living child in her arms, while carrying her lost child in her heart. Of her (living) son, she says, “Of course he does not erase his older brother’s death.” No child ever could or should. “He has cured me, mostly, of blame and what might have been, all that fairy-tale bargaining: what would you do differently and what if.”  She realizes her good fortune in having a healthy child at age 39. “I’m not sure what sort of person I would be if that hadn’t happened.”  Well, sadly, I have a sense of that.

“I thought stillbirth was a thing of history, and then it happened to me,” she writes. “I want to hear about every dead baby, everywhere in the world. I want to know their names … I want their mothers to know Pudding.”  

Today is for remembering all of our lost children. 

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~ by luna on October 14, 2008.

23 Responses to “still…”

  1. Thanks for this post. I was PUPO a few times and that experience and the expectations associated with it was more real to me than I ever imagined. You capture beautifully the nearly-impossible-to-describe and ever-lasting loss.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this book, as well as your story about your son.

  3. I’ve finished this book and am waiting to review it (and hopefully an author interview too!) on GITW. Thanks for your thoughts here.

  4. incoming link:

    […] of reality a few thoughts on lost children October 15, 2008 I’ve just read in Luna’s post that today is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day and I wanted to add a few of my […]

  5. This sounds like a great book and the author’s writing is wonderful. Just reading the excerpts left me in tears. Thanks for the share.

  6. Hi, Luna–thank you so much for this post, which means the world to me (particularly on this day–I walked past Harvard Yard and saw that it is also “Love Your Body Day” and thought, Well, I can do one or the other, and I think I already have plans for today). I’m glad the book means something to you.

    & I am so sorry about your son.

    best,

    Elizabeth

  7. hey, how cool is that? the author stopped by and thanked ME. and made me laugh too.

    I already replied thanking her for the kind note, and told her that I actually read the book twice back to back.

  8. incoming link:

    http://questforalifetime.blogspot.com/2008/10/stillbirth-awareness-and-research-act.html

  9. I also just finished reading this book. It was moving, to say the least. The last line you refer to from the book transformed me into a sobbing puddle of grief. So many times, I was struck by such overwhelming emotion at her insight. I believe it is one of the best books on stillbirth I’ve read and a must read whether you’ve been touched by stillbirth or not. Absolutely.

  10. can’t believe with how LONG this post is that I forgot what may be my favorite line of all: “Closure is bullshit.”

  11. Elizabeth McCracken has always been one of my favorite writers. Now that she’s stopped in here and said what she did she’s now one of my favorite people.

    Thanks for sharing all of this, especially on today.

  12. This is an amazing tribute to your son and others’ children, too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings especially on the day we’re all remembering and grieving what could have/should have/would have been.

  13. Thank you so much for drawing my attention to Elizabeth McCracken’s book, Luna. It sounds like an astonishingly powerful read (and how lovely of her to stop by and comment!).

    When I lit my candle yesterday evening, I found myself thinking not only of my own loss, but of all the others that haunt our community. You and your son were in my thoughts.

  14. I’m going to have to read that, all of the passages you posted here were so moving.

    Thank you for sharing that, especially in light of October 15th.
    Remembering with you…

  15. Thanks for sharing the experts and your thoughts. I haven’t read books on the subject. Perhaps I am trying not to relive the pain, but then I read people’s blogs like yours so I am not exactly avoiding it either.

    I just read the previous post too. Much of these two posts resonate with me.

    Perhaps it is because I had a feeling Ernest wasn’t healthy from the beginning or perhaps because I never felt much movement or perhaps it was because I could see after he was born that he would have never made a real, live baby; but I now believe the nearly four years from his birth to LB’s birth took a greater toll on my life than his actual death. That was the worst single experience and certainly had an impact on the next 3.5 years, but I think if I could have conceived easily I wouldn’t have gone a little crazy like I did.

    Do you think this is true for you?

    The strange thing about feeling this way, is that I often lead with his death, because people seem to care about that. Six years of trying with 37 dead embryos and it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

  16. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to have lost a child. I can’t even imagine. I could relate to her about the grief – so flowing, so every present.

  17. I cannot wait to read this book. : ) I read all her words, & yours, silently saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”

  18. I’m so sorry Luna, I’m so sorry that her piercing, haunting words resonate with you so much. My heart hurts for you and for her and for any one who lives with this pain. I have a question for you – you don’t need to answer if it’s insensitive. A very close friend lost her baby last month. We’re far apart in distance, but I write to her often. Should I mention this book? Would you have wanted someone to do that?

  19. Luna, I got this book from the library and started reading at lunch. Only a few chapters along and I was tearing up over my table at the Chinese buffet. Thanks for the recommendation.

  20. […] reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir, by Elizabeth McCracken. I wrote extensively about this book a few months ago, as it truly lingered upon reading. Then Tash posted […]

  21. […] year I remembered by sharing the words of another dead baby mama. This year I’m just thinking about all that could have been. […]

  22. I still haven’t read this book, though it sits in my office. I think I”m afraid it will be too good, and I will be a sobbing mess during and after. (Like I never was before?)

    I’m so glad it’s out there. I would like to believe it’s being read by those of us who have not already been through it, too.

  23. […] again, it’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance (or Awareness) Day. Of course I don’t need a […]

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