They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, Edited by Janel Atlas

2010. Rowman & Littlefield. Hardcover. 253 pages.

I will start out this post with full disclosure: Janel Atlas, the editor of this book, is a friend of mine. She did not ask me to talk about it on my blog. And I’d probably hesitate to blog about a friend’s book in most cases, but the book’s subject overrides any hesitation here.

As the title indicates, They Were Still Born is a collection of personal stories about stillbirth. In the chapter, “What We Know about Stillbirth,” Dr. Ruth Fretts acknowledges  that “what is called a stillbirth has been subject to much national and international debate” but it is currently defined, in clinical terms, as fetal death after 20 weeks of gestation.

They Were Still Born starts with a foreword by Elizabeth McCracken and an introduction by Janel Atlas. What follows are twenty-one stories of loss. Most stories are written by the mothers of stillborn children, but there are also stories by fathers, and one by a grandmother. These stories are understandably similar due to the nature of the loss: hopeful pregnancies ending with devastating, unexpected stillbirth. But the details and the ways that the writers capture the loss are varied.

The second part of the book includes the chapters: “Honoring and Remembering Your Baby”; “Creative Expressions of Grief”; “What We Know about Stillbirth” by Dr. Ruth Fretts, an obstetrician-gynecologist and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School; and “Emerging Research”. The book concludes with a list of resources and organizations.

I am not quite the reader for whom this book is intended, so I looked for insights on how one can support a family who suffers such a loss. Something I already knew: don’t offer platitudes, even if they are well-intentioned. Saying things like “You’re young and can have more” and “It must not have been meant to be” cause pain rather than comfort.

From the stories shared in this book, one of the main desires of parents is for their baby to be remembered. So, one can support by remembering their baby, by remembering their grief.

While reading this book, I was struck by how much grief is another country. The world is completely different for these grieving parents: triggers for pain are everywhere. There’s a story in the collection by Monica Murphy LeMoine that comes to mind called “A Plan Gone Awry”. Some months after losing their baby Zachary, Monica and her husband go on a weekend getaway to a hotel. On the elevator ride up to their hotel room, Monica runs into a group of women from the Expecting Parents Meet-up Group that she had founded two years before. A new, unaware member asks about Monica’s child, and Monica replies “Oh, it didn’t work out” and shortly thereafter the couple exit the elevator.  Monica tries to keep to the original romantic plans, but it’s been thrown off now.

Janel Atlas’ story about the loss of her daughter, Beatrice, is very frank about the path of her grief. I think I’ll conclude my post with a quote from near the end of that story:

My desire to define my loss as completely unique has been sated, and in its place yawns the need to be supported, surrounded, and understood by a community of families who have endured the loss of a child, whatever the details surrounding that baby’s death.

p. 140

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “They Were Still Born: Personal Stories about Stillbirth, Edited by Janel Atlas

  1. It’s a subject that is too often glossed over; I’m pleased to see you’re covering it here. I read Elizabeth McCracken’s book An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination and thought it was absolutely beautiful; the way she deals with the subject in that slim volume is simply remarkable, and can be appreciated by every reader, regardless of whether they have personal experience of babyloss or not.

  2. Yes, Elizabeth McCracken’s book is beautiful. I read it mostly through tears.

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