Our first baby was stillborn but he's still our firstborn
Two brave young parents defy the cultural norms of their day and openly acknowledge their stillborn son.
I'm going to call them Graeme and Bev. I'm not using their real names, because....well, I hope you'll understand if you read on. They were older friends of our own older friends, and nearly two decades senior to us. We knew them fifty-plus years ago. Note that distant time; I reckon it's important.
Graeme and Bev had already been married a fair while. They'd found it hard to start a family, so when their GP confirmed that Bev was pregnant, they were 98 per cent delight, and the usual two percent nervousness.
Things went swimmingly for eight months. They painted the spare bedroom, bought the cot, tried to choose between fluffy bear and fluffy duck and ended up buying both.
Then came the morning when Bev realised the baby had stopped moving, felt heavy inside her. The midwife came rushing; couldn't find a heartbeat. An ambulance swept Bev to hospital, where skilful, caring people did everything they could. But Graeme and Bev's son was stillborn.
The hospital gave him to his parents to hold – the perfect, unmoving little form, wrapped in one of the baby blankets that friends had gifted. They left the couple to themselves for a while; offered compassionate, practical advice on what to do next.
They did a whole lot better than Graeme's church, who wouldn't give the little guy a “proper” burial because he hadn't been baptised. Over half a century on, I hope those responsible feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
The grieving, numb parents went home to that newly-painted bedroom. (I've always wondered if they could bear to go into it.) Slowly, painfully slowly, they started trying to put their lives back together.
In the hospital, Graeme had taken a photo of their son. I never saw it, but our mutual friends said you'd have thought the boy was just sleeping. Bev would hold it against her a lot; told our friends it made her feel their son was still there, somehow. Five decades later, I can't write those words without my eyes filling.
They didn't get over it. I don't believe you ever get over such a wound. If you're lucky and brave and committed, you find ways to get partly around it, but it's always there in the current of your life. I'll stick my neck out, and suggest that it should be.
But then the photograph began to cause problems.
I want you to picture that photo, if you can. We're talking the 1960s, remember? A chunky little black camera using a roll of film that you took in to a chemist or camera shop to be developed and printed. A colour image in this case, slightly pastel and out-of-focus at the edges, I suspect.
Anyway, people began suggesting to Bev and Graeme that it was a bit morbid, a bit unhealthy, even, to keep the photo of their dead little boy on display. It was all right to show photos of dead parents or grandparents, apparently, but not of a stillborn.
Someone from their church told them they should be more positive in their outlook, our mutual friends reported. They should move on, count their blessings. I can't write those words without wanting to shout at the person who spoke them, no matter how well-intentioned s/he may have been.
But Graeme and Bev were resolute. Their son was part of their family. Having his photo was part of their healing process – though I'm not sure if we had those words to help us then. So the photo was staying put.
Then came happiness. The best, most deserved sort of happiness. Within a year, Bev was pregnant again. Their daughter arrived safely and easily. A son – another son – followed 30 months later.
They moved away from our part of the country soon after. We heard of them occasionally through our mutual friends. We heard how their daughter and second son grew up knowing they'd had a brother, knowing also where he was buried, going along on his birthday to take flowers with their parents. Twenty or twenty-five years later, when their daughter had her own first baby, she named him after her elder brother, which I think is just brilliant.
Doing such things all seems so natural, so normal now. Why should you conceal images or memories of your child because s/he didn't live on? We know now that it's denial which is “morbid” or “unhealthy”, not acknowledgement and acceptance.
We're by no means perfect yet in our handling of death, especially a baby's death, though we've come a long way, some cultures more than others. But what Bev and Graeme did back then was brave, defiant, daring.
I'm telling you this ancient history for a particular reason. Bev died six months back, a couple of years after Graeme. As I said, they were a fair bit older than us.
They're buried beside their elder son. Photos of both of them are set into the headstone, right next to a copy of that little, half-century-old photo of their firstborn that helped keep them going after his death. Can you imagine a more perfect ending?
- David Hill