They Felt The Exact Same Misery Anybody Would Feel Now

I came across a conversation on Twitter over the weekend and I can’t stop thinking about it. A woman named Nicole was talking with a friend about historically high child mortality rates. The friend has a PhD in a relevant subject.

Nicole asked, “So people just emotionally withdrew from their babies and small kids, knowing the rate of lethal childhood illness?”

Her friend answered, “No. They changed their naming conventions [they might delay naming the baby], but they felt the exact same misery anybody would feel now.”

When I read the thread, I had a sudden flashback to learning about early Americans. I was taught they had lots of children because they knew many if not most of the children wouldn’t make it to adulthood. And I remember thinking that losing children is too unbearable, so they must have come up with some sort of mental/emotional defense mechanism to somehow make it easier?

I remember telling myself the same thing when I learned about Mormon pioneers burying their babies and young children along the trail as they crossed the country. My brain couldn’t comprehend it, and self-soothed by thinking that those pioneers must have somehow thought of their children differently in order to endure something like that.

And then I remember reading about a similar topic, this time in medieval China. Only now I had babies of my own. And instead of thinking those medieval parents must have somehow gotten used to babies dying, it was clear to me: No. It’s horrible every time, during every part of history. They were no different than we are as far as loving their children. I’m just lucky.

The comments on the thread are thoughtful and interesting. One person shared a gorgeous, heart-rending essay her mother, Heidi Hemming, wrote about this topic. Another shared a sweet and sad account from an early 17th century Chinese father at the loss of his daughter to smallpox.

Several people recommended the book Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, about a specific favela in Northern Brazil with a very high infant mortality rate. (I should note: in the reviews, someone mentioned the book is 30 years old and that the author wrote an article with an update on the area in 2013 — and that things have gotten better in that area.)

The comments on the thread also include dozens and dozens of stories of grandmothers and great-grandmothers with lost babies that they never got over, and tons of other historical references with examples of how fondly babies and children have always been loved — including myths about children from the middle ages.

It reminds me of the story of Job from the Bible. The story is typically positioned like: See? If you are as faithful and patient as Job, you’ll be blessed. Everything Job lost was restored and then some. But even as a kid I remember thinking: Really? He didn’t get his original ten kids back. He got new kids. I certainly hope he loved his new kids, but that wouldn’t make the loss of the original kids hurt any less.

Is this a topic you’ve ever thought about? And has your brain ever tried to convince that parents who live in high-child-mortality areas must somehow get used to the idea of children dying? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

39 thoughts on “They Felt The Exact Same Misery Anybody Would Feel Now”

  1. Shortly after our daughter was born, I told my husband we needed to have another child, because if she died, I would have no desire to live anymore. I didn’t think another child would replace her, but I thought it might help me want to live. I can’t imagine how people survive the loss of a child. My brother-in-law died at age 28, and my MIL aged years overnight. I definitely have thought about how people with high infant and child mortality rates deal with the losses. I suspect they suffer terribly, but have no choice but to go on. Of course that is a gross generalization, as every person is different. I would guess that there are also some who just can’t or don’t go on. This is one of those topics that sends my mind circling, making assumptions, revising, and realizing that I really just have no idea!!

    1. Years before I had children (and before all that came afterward in their story, with John’s affair and Elizabeth’s death), I remember reading an article about John and Elizabeth Edwards losing their 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car accident. They were deeply depressed and lay in bed for months, unable to go on, and finally decided to have more children. That told me something about parenting, that the hole left by losing a child exerted enough gravity that they were moved to start over, even though Elizabeth was 49 and 51 when she had their last children.

      Now, looking at my own kids, I think about the Edwards’ eldest daughter, Cate, who was two years younger than Wade, and how it must have changed her life so much to go from having a sibling to being an only child, and then to have siblings again.

      1. Heather, I have a colleague that lost a young child to cancer awhile back. I couldn’t imagine her grief, and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t made me double think having children. I know that everyone says, “You don’t know how you do it until you have to do it,” but my goodness….I wouldn’t wish that “strength” on anyone, you know.

        Anyway, she did have another child left behind, and I always wondered if – deep down – she wished maybe she’d just stopped at the oldest, still-healthy child so that she never had to go through that pain.

        Well, at age 45, she’s decided to go through IVF and have a set of twins. I guess I got my answer!

  2. I’m a medieval historian, and I think about this a lot. In 15th century Tuscan tax records, you sometimes see a family who has lost an older child using that same name again for a younger child. And in the tax records, they will list that new child in the same birth order as the child that died. So if they are listing all of them by age, a baby might be listed as the oldest, and when asked by the officials, the father would say something like “Giovanni died, and I remade him.”

    Now we would say that that was an unhealthy thing to do, and likely to traumatize the surviving child, etc. But I always hope it was a comfort to them, to think that they might have that child back in some way.

      1. My Husband’s Grandmother and her Brother were both named after their sister and brother who were born and died before them. They first two siblings died during the early 1900 flu. I always thought that was so strange, especially while looking at the gravestone of the first Gert with the second Gert, almost 90 standing and looking at it. It was always so odd to me, but I’m not going to judge parents who lost two children within days of one another.

        1. My Grandma was also named after her two of her sisters who died before she was born (one from illness and one after she fell out of a pram). She was a little bitter about not having her ‘own names’ unfortunately, but created her own nickname in her early 20s which she felt was just hers.

  3. Kimberly Nielson

    I have had 2 still births due to incompetent cervix. As I sat in the car with my paternal grandmother, at the funeral of my firstborn, she tearfully told me about losing her mother to “dropped babies”, losing her own babies, and then losing her daughter and grandchildren to the same condition. This women wasn’t necessarily a super warm person, but you knew she loved you.
    I recall having similar thought on how could they survive, cause I thought I would not. I think as medical advancements are happening and mortality rates are decreasing across the board, we as humans have come to worship long life and fear death more. Death has always hurt, but I think it was regarded more as “this is what happens.” Now we try to avoid aging and death as much as possible.
    I remember laying in the hospital waiting for my first son to finally be born. Being told he may be born alive, and praying that he would not. Cause it would be harder to watch him struggle for life and have Drs do nothing to help him. And when I lost my daughter begging the Dr’s to try to save her, despite them telling me she would be severely handicap. Then i remember my Grandmother, crying, like she probably hadn’t done in decades. The pain is always there, you just learn a new reality.

    1. I’m so sorry for your losses, Kimberly. How amazing that you can recognize through all that the moment of connection with your grandmother.

  4. I read somewhere that many many years ago, communities, towns, and parents used to be closer-knit because pretty much everyone had experienced the same unbelievable, heart-wrenching tragedy – losing a baby. This grief united parents and communities because it was both devastating and common.

    This type of unification has largely disappeared because of modern medicine. Although we can all agree that it’s a phenomenal tradeoff, I think it’s interesting to that interpersonal community relationships may have fundamentally changed due to lowered infant mortality rates.

  5. I can’t help but think of the pain of parents separated from their children at our borders. They, too, feel the same misery we would feel.

    This also reminds me of a line in Elizabeth Gaskell’s *Cranford*, a novel published in 1853 – a time when infant mortality rates were still quite high. A woman is recounting how she lost all six of her children while her husband was stationed in India in the British army. As she speaks, she is “looking up at me with those strange eyes, that I have never noticed but in mothers of dead children – with a kind of wild look in them, as if seeking for what they never more might find.”

  6. After a stillbirth at 39 weeks I cam across a fabulous book “On Loss and Living Onward” by Melissa Bradford-Dalton. After the death of her own son, she met her grief by researching poems, speeches, historic letters, songs, etc that touched on the subject of death and child loss and compiled them into one book, organizing them by subject. She has chapters on crying, holidays, comfort, drowning, etc. It is a compelling read and connected me with generations of historic figures and parents before me who have lost a child. Ultimately, I had the same realization mentioned above, they felt the same heartache and pain and waves of emotion and walked the complicated walk of living afterwards.

    Thinking of the stories of the pioneers is sometimes gut-wrenching to me because it is so idealized in the culture of our church. We mention it in regards to the “strength” of pioneer women. But the reality is that they did what every bereaved parent does, you just keep living onward, carrying your grief with you.

  7. giselle taminez

    This is a topic close to my heart because I always wondered how my grandmother coped having lost 2 of her children when they were very young. It something I always thought about even before I was too young to be a mom.

    Then 17 years ago, a close friend and I had baby girls only a few days apart and her baby died at 9 months from strep. It was heartbreaking and devastating, and my daughter has always been a reminder of how old her daughter would be now.

    One of my cousins was a physician for Doctors Without Borders in Africa for 6 months and shared with me, how families there expect the majority of their babies to die. She was heartbroken with every child but was impressed with their resilience and strength. They were sad but processed death very differently than we do.

    Lastly, my best friend is a neonatologist. This woman has the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met and I am always in awe at her strength and ability to deal with extremely sick premies and babies dying on a daily basis. Working with families through this difficult time. So painful.

    1. I pray I’m reading this wrong, but it sounds like your cousin feels like the people she worked with in Africa didn’t actually feel devastated at the loss of their children.

      This is a very common myth that foreigners like to attribute to those they are serving in developing countries with high childhood mortality rates, that they are “sad but….” in any capacity. While maybe yes, the grief displayed outsiders might look different to them, parents are just as devastated as any of us would be. Many from those countries have spoken on this topic to show us otherwise.

      The myth can be dangerous because it’s also led to the horrible practice of taking children from loving homes (or lying to parents that the child will be just be going to school temporarily) but are then offered up to be adopted overseas, thinking that families weren’t as attached to their children as anyone else.

  8. I just wanted to say, a few days ago, my daughter, very unexpectedly, went into labor a month or more early and was delivered of her son by super emergency c section. He had some unknown infection and I had no idea if she and he would live or die. I spent a lot of that night on my knees praying to God to save them both. It looks like all will be well, I continue to hope and pray. I felt such sharp pain at knowing how she suffered and knowing the pain of the baby (even from the tests the hospital had to run)…I just don’t know how I would have stood it if my prayers had not been answered in the way I so wanted them to be. I feel so blessed that they have made it!

  9. Many years ago I cared for an older woman who was my neighbor. She was a part of the Dust Bowl Migration. She had experienced poverty in the extreme. She had out lived all of her 18 siblings and her five children. After her 50 year old son’s death she and I discussed her losses. I expressed my imagined feelings about losing her children under the ages for four. She interrupted me and stated with her wonderful Old English Alabama accent “Oh honey, the longer your kep um, the more your luv em.”

  10. Yes I have thought about this. I researched my family history and found that my great great grandmother only had 2 of her 11 children live to adulthood. When I found a death record ledger showing 3 had passed in the same month in 1881 in Michigan it was unbelievable. I think of it often especially when my little ones get the flu or stomach bug and how lucky we are that these common illnesses aren’t life and death like what our ancestors so often dealt with.

  11. The only consolation I get about Job losing his children is this: everything else he regains is doubled, his sheep, his oxen, his camels, except his children. And I think the reason for this is because, unlike his livestock, Job didn’t lose his children forever. They are still his, even though they have died.

    It’s small consolation in this life to know we have to wait until death to be reunited with our loved ones, but at the same time, it’s also the most essential comfort for many parents.

  12. My grandmother had a stillborn baby and I know she carried the sadness with her the rest of her life, despite having four children grow to adulthood. As I walk through cemeteries and see the headstones of families with lost children I always wonder how they carried on. The idea of losing my child is insurmountable, let alone losing several. Humans, mothers especially, are incredible and must find resilience even in the darkest times. I have often wondered if harder times in the past (or in developing areas of today) somehow made losing children less painful, though my heart knows that is not possible.

  13. What an insightful post and comments. Thank you all so much. Whenever I see or hear people making quick assumptions about history or other cultures (‘oh well, those were harsher times, people had to get over things like this quicker), I always think exactly what is said here: no, loss and grief have always been the same, across cultures, across history. We’ve always been humans, all of us, everywhere. It makes me very grateful to see this acknowledged here.

  14. I lost a child at 34 weeks, the same week I was going to buy a particular stroller. When I see that stroller, I think, when am I gonna get to have that stroller, finally—I live with the sense that my life was interrupted, and somehow I just have to find the pause button to resume where it left off. But that button seems broken. That was three years ago. And I wonder why I have to get through this, like Job. I’m not particularly strong, like Job. Or was Job a normal person? Our son at almost 7 years of age was supposed to have a brother, and the death was an enormous blow to his foundation. Why does he have to undergo trials? We have climbed out of the hole of this loss, which for me is revisited whenever I see a child of a similar age (my building has several), see that damn stroller around town, or the high holidays come around, because I ran from the synagogue so angry at God that year and to be honest every year since. But one thing that helped me, for anyone who went through this, was to refrain from seeing or holding the body of my baby or keep the hospital’s rememberence photos of the baby–which the hospital kindly keeps indefinitely as a kindness to mothers. I knew I couldn’t un-remember that feeling of holding the baby or seeing his face, and it would haunt me and my arms forever. It was absolutely critical to me not falling apart, even if it did cause enormous guilt many times afterward. It also consoled me that in history, many women have also had this feeling, and I am not such a freak (in the context of thousands of years of human existence), which is how modern society has made me feel feel given the plunging mortality rates, which means there are no “norms’ for how to behave around a person with my kind of loss. But don’t think we haven’t been thriving since then. We have traveled, attended and given parties and moved on with moving on. I have also become incredibly spiritual, because the only way I could process this loss was to consider that souls live forever, even if bodies do not.

  15. I’m Suisse and my
    grandmother comes from a super catholic mountain valley where poverty was extreme. The average number of children were between 8-10 per family. The women were told to have this many children from the church every Sunday… so I was reading, that in the past, it was more of a drama, when a cow died (having a cow was already a big thing, mostly they had only a goat or two) than a child. Because loosing a cow meant starving the whole family. – It was very important for them that the child was baptized before dying. But they strongly believed, that when they lost a baptized child, the child would become an angel that would help to protect the family. Of course they were grieving, but not only. It was a duty to have so many children, although they often didn’t know how to feed them. When a child died, it was a mouth less to feed and an angel that protects the family. I know it sounds hard. But life was too though there even in the first half of the last century, before the tourists arrived… Now he region has quite a few rich and famous ski resorts. So today they have only 2-3 children and became more or less wealthy. And of course their attitude and feelings about loosing a child completely changed.

  16. In old China, they didn’t give a formal name to the baby until they were a year old. Although they don’t do this anymore, the naming celebration still exists. My grandmother lost 3 (of 10) children due to smallpox and cholera. When my mother was born, my grandfather believed she was the reincarnation of his dead, eldest daughter and he doted on her.

    I think they all felt the same amount of pain and grief. How could one not?Times were much more private then and I believed they kept their feelings on the inside.

    As a side note, I don’t think I could raise 10 children well. Right now, I’m giving thanks to Margaret Sanger who promoted female birth control. And Planned Parenthood who underwrote the research for safe, effective birth control in 1952 and fought to make it legal. Did you know that in 1965, birth control was still outlawed among married couples?

  17. First, I want to say that I truly believe all the things I have been taught about life after death, the being whole and well and pain free, the better place, all of it, I believe it to my core. It doesn’t remove the pain it only gives me hope.

    I lost a baby very early in my pregnancy, but far enough along that I could hold a perfectly formed little body in the palm of my hand… and 30 some years later, I still feel the sting of tears.

    Just five years ago we lost our youngest daughter when she was only 27. I can tell you, from my perspective, nothing in this world can replace either of those children. I must admit though, as Sarah Henry commented about her friend above, “Oh honey, the longer your kep um, the more your luv em.” I feel the loss of my adult daughter with a depth that can never be adequately described. The pain is as sharp now, if not sharper, than it was the we heard the news. It feels as deep and sorrowful as if it happened yesterday. 27 years of her influence on our lives, all that joy, all her successes, all of *her* is missed every day, and there is not a day that goes by that she is not thought of multiple times. After 27 years, we *know* exactly what we are missing and will not have again in this world.

  18. In Japan, there is a Shinto celebration called “Sichi-go-san” which means “Seven-five-three”. “Sichi-go-san” is a celebration of life. If your child has lived long enough to be seven/five/three that year, you celebrate. Currently the tradition is to dress them in fancy kimonos and have formal pictures taken.

    When we were in Japan, my children were “Sichi-go-san”, which made me introspective about their lives as I imagined a time when making it to seven/five/three wasn’t a given. I am grateful for learning about this custom because it has helped me appreciate my children more.

  19. When my husband was 3, a childless couple in his parents’ church asked to adopt him. They reasoned my in-laws would not miss him as he was the third child and my mother-in-law was then pregnant with her fifth. When telling this story, my MIL just shakes her head and say, “They just don’t understand.”

    When my husband was 11, his newborn baby brother died of SIDS. He was child number nine. At the funeral and after, people tried to console her with words like “with eight other kids he would not be missed too much.” When telling this story, my MIL just shakes her head and say, “They just don’t understand.”

    A year later, my MIL had twins, babies 10 & 11, (she would have 13 in all). After the twins’ birth, people told her that God was replacing the baby she lost. When telling this story, my MIL just shakes her head and say, “They just don’t understand.” 29 years later, she still mourns the loss of her son; 12 other children does not replace him nor negate his loss. People have not changed so much since the middle ages that our emotional response to the loss of a child would be drastically different. We just have other ways and customs of expressing it.

  20. Dear Gabrielle,
    I thought about this often and I also believe the grieve was always the same whatever the survival rates. Recently I watched a documentary about the Artist Albrecht Dürer. Apparently his parents lost 8 of their children. Which made me think about the kids. Imagine loosing so many siblings and being the only child. I wonder how children coped with their grieve and possibly responsibility of surviving.

  21. Another historian chiming in here! I just published a book with a chapter on Memento Mori and how images of deceased children have and have not changed between the 1850s and today on facebook. It was a brutal chapter to write because we interviewed a number of families who had lost their babies at birth or in the first few years. We also spent a lot of time in the Clemson family papers (of Clemson University) and studied their letters before and after the death of their last daughter, who they called “Nina.” The grief they expressed and the gaps in their letters, as well as the trinkets of hers they distributed to the family, and even the letters written about the mother’s grief– they all show how devastated these families were, how heartbroken, how bereft, etc. I still hear from people that “historians say” that people were just “used to” babies dying all the time. Certainly it was more common, but for at least the last 25 years historians have talked a lot about grief and loss. There is also an online database of digitized letters now, and you can read plenty of these stories there as well. So yes–they were just as devastated. Absolutely.

  22. After reading these stories I feel lucky to have been spared such a grief in my own family or among friends. I can’t imagine that we can really understand what it would be like to have this experience if we haven’t had it. A book called ‘Year one : a record’ by John Tittensor gave me some sense of it. The author lost his three children in a fire and the book is a searing record of the devastation he felt. I think getting some idea of this may help us avoid mistakes like saying glibly reassuring things.

  23. I wonder how mothers who have lost children interpret some comments of “I don’t feel like I could survive losing mine”? Loose connection here, but I encounter people who are scared of needles and I, as a type 1 diabetic, don’t know what to think when they say, “I could never do what you do. I would just die!” No, you wouldn’t–you’d keep moving forward like I do, and like mothers with losses do. So while I, too, fear losing my only child, I am aware that women throughout all time have suffered intensely great losses and, somehow, in some way, they have continued to live despite it all.

  24. Hmmmm, so many thoughts. My mother and my mother-in-law both lost children. One, violently and in childhood at the hands of a stranger and one at age thirty after a six year battle with cancer. I think that although both of them most definitely did go on living and breathing part of them did die and not go on with the loss of their child. Both of them had other children but when you’re a mother each child is like (loosely) a limb or an organ that is removed. Neither woman “got over it” but have learned to move through their grief that they carry with them. Sometimes it still stops them cold. With the violent loss there is an assault on one’s ability to live a carefree life. Every week is shark week because you’ve been attacked by a shark. When you’ve watched your child fight and suffer for years with cancer you might have get relief for them to be free from their frail body but you know how out of our hands mortality is. My mother has also “lost” a child to severe mental illness. She will die of her illness someday almost inevitably and my parents will lose her twice. I have had four miscarriages and can only speak for myself because I realize many people fee differently but I have never felt for a minute that my sadness at these losses held a candle to the loss of my mother and my mother-in-law. We all grieve in our own way and few pain in our own way. I think I am still learning this but I try to not judge how another grieves or put parameters on how someone grieves. I also have learned that it’s ok for me to feel less grief over something than someone else.

  25. As an anthropologist, I highly suggest “Death Without Weeping” by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. There is a pdf here, or you can read her book. Basically, she wonders if love for a newborn is a natural state or one shaped by cultural understandings of life and death related to economy, religion, economy, etc. As you read her ethnographic account of the difficult lives of the women of a favela in Brazil, you will weep and marvel at the ability of humans to keep going and find ways to cope with situations that seem unimaginable.

  26. This reminds me of Visiting the British Museum with my sister who lives so very far from me and who I miss so much. There were Roman tablets on display written by a woman to her sister in around 100AD and the phrase “Farewell my sister, my dearest and most longed-for soul” leaped out at me and I have never forgotten it. It suddenly brought them that much closer knowing that through all that space and time people still felt the same,though it is so often hard or almost impossible to imagine.

  27. I’m so late in commenting, but this is such a thoughtful post and I so appreciate it. We lost our first son. He was born early at 24 weeks and passed-away in my husband’s arms. It was devastating. He would have been 10 years old this month. I feel his loss every day. Sometimes I still awkwardly tell people that we have 4 children, but that our oldest is not with us, he’s in heaven.

    One of the most comforting things to me was when my husband’s grandmother who is English and Welsh and who grew-up during the Great Depression (i.e. stiff upper lip, not very expressive or animated in her displays of emotions) wrote me a letter and said “You will never forget. I have never forgotten my first daughter, Donna.” Grandma Marshall was well into her 90s when she wrote me. She’d lost her oldest child, Donna, before she was a year old to spina bifida. One of the hardest things about losing a child, especially an infant is the idea that they will be forgotten. Admittedly, we’ll all likely be forgotten, but one of the biggest components of grieving the loss of an infant or young child is the lost future since their life was so comparatively short. . . we didn’t get to know him and neither did anyone else. It can feel like your child never existed or that he or she never mattered. It’s so disorienting. Her note telling me that we’d never forget him was a balm to my broken heart.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and sensitive post!

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