Spoiler warning: This blog post discusses crucial elements of the plot of In the Bedroom (2001).
Other information: October is Pregancy and Infant Loss Month. This is a part of a series of articles I will be writing this month on the topic of losing a child to death.
One of my favorite books of all time is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s work of nonfiction, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. Reading this book in my second year as an undergrad, I made up my mind that I wanted to go do my Ph.D. in American Studies. (The professor whose course included A Midwife’s Tale actually ended up becoming my dissertation director.) During grad school, I read Ulrich’s 1991 Bancroft Prize acceptance speech entitled, “Martha’s Diary and Mine.” In it, she describes, “At some point in all this a 250-year old lady took up residence in the loft above my bedroom, alternately cheering me on and chastizing me for my lax habits and flagging spirits.” I’ve loved that image because I found it to be very true in my own research and writing. Your subject becomes an integral part of your life.
When my daughter Rebecca died in June of 1999, I was midway through writing my dissertation on 19th century Irish-American Catholic women. These women had become a part of my life, just as Martha Ballard had become part of Ulrich’s. Ironically, it was also among these women where I found some of the greatest comfort when my daughter died. In the modern American world, we’ve reduced our infant death rate to less than 1%. Few women know the pain of having a baby or child die. This contrasts greatly with an estimated 10-40% mortality rate for children under the age of one and up to a 50% childhood death rate for the earlier 19th century. (Exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint because of poor record keeping.) When women were having an average of seven or more children, having at least one child die was a default expectation, and many women experienced the death of several of their offspring before the children reached adulthood.
Thus, as I immersed myself in the world of 19th century women while I wrote my dissertation, I found a comfort that I never would have expected. At that time, none of my living friends had experienced the death of a child, so in the modern world, I felt very alone. Yet as I read the poetry and letters which many of these bereaved 19th century women wrote, I found myself surrounded by peers even though we were separated by over a century in time. They understood my pain. They understood my loss. Many of them had lost far more than I had, and yet somehow, they managed to carry on.
Louise McVey lost a child a few years back…She told me about a vision she had when she found out her daughter had died. She saw herself at a great distance from the Earth and encircling it, an endless line. As she got closer, she saw that it was made up of mothers traveling forward. She fell into line and began walking with them. When they reached a certain point, the line divided, and she said she knew that all the millions of women on her side were the mothers who had lost children. She seemed to find great comfort in that.
I am grateful to those women of the nineteenth century whose words reached out from the paper and microfilm to comfort me in my time of bereavement. They helped less my pain and helped me to feel like others understood all too well what I was going through. The internet now provides a multitude of venues for bereaved mothers (and fathers) to connect with others like themselves so that they can find others who have endured the same horrible losses. Compassionate solidarity in suffering can make a huge difference in reducing the pain of life’s greatest burdens.
© 2015 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., Green Heart Guidance, LLC