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The Public Processing of Death

Josh asked me if I had ever been to Chad’s Trading Post because he had been listening to a This American Life about the Massachusetts’ restaurant created by the family and friends of Chad who had died before he could open the space.  I brought up a different, nearby restaurant, Fire and Water, that was owned by Star Drooker that sounded similar.  Josh told me it had been mentioned in the episode as well:

In Northampton, where I used to live there was a couple, and they own a cafe. And at one point, they had a child who lived 19 days. And after they disconnected him from life support, they built a shrine in their restaurant for him. Pictures of him connected to white tubes dotted the walls and beams. And his father, a musician, would perform a song at the cafe– weekly, as I remember it– comparing his son to a [? salmon ?] and to the messiah. And some of us, at first, though we knew it had to be hard, felt a little embarrassed for them. As though this tragedy had driven them a little crazy.

I think it’s hard for us to know exactly what to do or say when we see public mourning like this because we see it so rarely. The intensity of it is shocking. It’s too naked. And usually we think that if you hold onto someone after their death this way, you can’t live your own life. But clearly you can.

Fire and Water was one of my favourite places to eat and study while in graduate school.  It made me embarrassed that the radio host expressed feeling embarrassed for them because the processing of their grief felt completely normal.  Not naked or shocking.  There were pictures of their son, Jesse, up in the cafe, and they spoke openly about their child; just as any parent would.  In other words, Star and his wife acted like parents: a behaviour we’d never call shocking under other circumstances.  But because their child was dead, the radio host expected them to stop behaving like a mother and father.

Not to single out the radio host: I’m sure there are other people who expect the same thing.

How long does a child have to live before a person is cemented in the role of parent?  I mean, obviously this radio host didn’t believe 19 days made you a parent.  Would a month?  A year?  Did the child have to reach kindergarten or high school graduation or middle age for his mother and father to get to keep their titles?  I mean, it’s an odd thought — that we give and snatch away a title so easily.

I guess the This American Life episode pissed me off because even if it came to a good place with that last line of the transcript, there was still a layer of judgment over the words.  Star and his wife mourned the loss of Jesse, but they also celebrated their child’s life in the same way that people do every single day: posting pictures and telling stories.  It was a backdrop to my daily chai which felt no different from my classmates who talked about their kids.  Star’s way of processing made more sense to me than locking up those feelings inside.

I can’t say that I felt honoured that Star shared his child’s life with me, any more than I feel honoured when I run into any parent and they start telling me about their kid.  It just was.  I say that as someone who experienced that cafe in my early twenties, who had not really experienced loss yet.  All I can say is that the way they spoke and celebrated their child felt exactly like the way any other parent celebrates their child.

People with children who are alive don’t have a monopoly on kvelling rights.  We all get a chance to talk about the people that touch our heart.

I guess I’m sensitive to this because how are our blogs — especially those like mine that discuss loss — any different from the cafe?  I have no pictures to post, but I certainly have stories to tell.  And I don’t discuss loss because I’ve been driven a little crazy.  I discuss loss because it goes hand-in-hand with life.  That it’s impossible to speak about life without acknowledging loss.  We will all lose people we love.  It would behoove us to be a little more careful in how we view another person’s process of trying to make sense of something that can feel senseless.


1 a { 11.12.14 at 8:31 am }

I think that there are people who have never really experienced a loss devastating enough for them to understand that one’s day-to-day life can be affected for years or even forever.

2 Katherine A { 11.12.14 at 9:12 am }

Really beautiful, thought provoking post. I love it: that parents with living children “don’t get the monopoly on kvelling rights”.

When I was reading the excerpt of the program, one thing the host said stood out to me: when the host talked about how in the photos, the baby had all kinds of tubes and such. There seems to be this idea that it is somehow bad/uncomfortable/etc to put up photos of a sick or dying child. Part of me just wants to look at that host and tell him that these are probably the ONLY photos this couple has of their child. And that to them, this child is precious and beautiful so why wouldn’t they want to show off the photos they have?

Honestly, I suspect that if I’d been more daring, I would have probably kept the ultrasound photos from my first loss framed for a time instead of putting them in a memory box and/or shown them to a few close relatives or friends.

3 fifi { 11.12.14 at 9:42 am }

In Victorian times, it was common for people to take photographs of their dead family members, known as “memento mori”.

See: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/01/30/memento-mori–victorian-mourning-photography-immortalising-loved-ones-death_n_2580559.html

The above link is one of the few pages that uses the word “sad” to describe these photos. Most modern observers seem to find them “creepy” or “macabre”. But I find them touching rather than creepy. Photography was very expensive at the time and this might be the only picture the family might have, particularly in the case of children.

Today, we have photos of our children from the moment they’re born. So the only “memento mori” that are taken these days are of stillborn babies. There are actually photographers who specialize in taking such photos. And anyone who has a problem with that, well that’s their problem.

4 Bronwyn { 11.12.14 at 10:14 am }

“It’s impossible to speak about life without acknowledging loss.”

True. I’m not sure we have a great handle on how to do this in the current day, with all the new-fangled forms of communication we use. Our way of relating has changed. This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about with the cafe, except I guess in the sense that it’s two people doing something that may not be exactly part of the standard script. What exactly is the standard script?

5 deathstar { 11.12.14 at 10:50 am }

Until I had undergone infertility and came to understand how women felt about losing their child through blogs, I had very little compassion and understanding about life and death. Until I had to care for child myself, I had no deep understanding of what a task it was. People live their lives in their own orbits and until they have immersed themselves in another’s experience, it is difficult to comprehend certain things.

6 Kathy { 11.12.14 at 1:03 pm }

I once worked with a woman who lost her son in a horrific accident before we knew her. Although everyone was sympathetic, people felt uncomfortable when she talked about her son. I’ve never been sure why that was. Perhaps some felt that by talking about their kids they were opening old wounds for her. Perhaps they didn’t know how to respond. Grief is a difficult subject for sure, and knowing how to be a comfort to people who are going through it is something we should all work on.

7 Mrs T { 11.12.14 at 1:52 pm }

It has always bothered me we give bereaved people a short “pass” for grief and then we expect the bereaved to be more sensitive about not making other people uncomfortable than the other people have to be about making the bereaved comfortable.

8 Chickenpig { 11.12.14 at 8:05 pm }

Fifi has a point about the Victorians. My mother was named after a dead great grand aunt that died at 1 year of scarlet fever. She was given a beautiful velvet case with a photograph of the baby crawling on a bear rug on one side, and the baby a few months later carefully arranged on a velvet sofa. It isn’t readily apparent that the baby is dead. The photo case is meant to be displayed, and it was. That baby girl only lived to be one year old, but boy, was she loved. Loved enough to be talked about so that my grandmother knew her and named he second child after her, and pass on her photos. Loved enough so that even now, over 100 years later, I know about her too. I know that my great, great, grandfather sent for the doctor as soon as she fell sick, but he came too late. I know that her sister, my great grand aunt became a chemist to fight disease, getting her Masters and PhD from Columbia at a time when women rarely went to college at all…in part because of her sister’s death. What I learned is that everyone in my little family matters, no matter how little time they spend with us. Love never dies.

9 Sue { 11.12.14 at 11:48 pm }

Two days ago I told my father about my aunt, his sister, who died a couple of years ago, and that since then not one person had said the names of my children aloud. I asked him why he never mentioned them. And he, through everything we talk about in this community, and in my little baby list community are still afraid that it will hurt me, that it will remind me. As if I do not think of them everyday; as if Hecqill remind me if something painful I’d forgotten. We talked a bit and he also said he avoided commenting on social media about others’ babies because ge didn’t want me to feel like hex was rubbing something in my face…or something. Protecting me. Somehow he had no idea how much it hurt that they just disappeared like that. Especially with all the kvelling over my sister’s daughter.

This passage above resonated for me:

How long does a child have to live before a person is cemented in the role of parent? I mean, obviously this radio host didn’t believe 19 days made you a parent. Would a month? A year? Did the child have to reach kindergarten or high school graduation or middle age for his mother and father to get to keep their titles? I mean, it’s an odd thought — that we give and snatch away a title so easily.

10 Sue { 11.12.14 at 11:53 pm }

Something else he does, has said my whole life is, “well, when you’re a parent…” When you’re a parent you want to keep them from making mistakes, from getting hurt, from pain…

One very difficult day, I said, you know, Dad, I know exactly what that’s like, and I had to do exactly that. In the mist basic and painful way, so if you say that to me again, I swear , I’ll… I don’t know, but he got the message.

11 MrsH { 11.14.14 at 12:36 am }

I think that people who have not had much life experience are very afraid to probe deeper than the surface, both within themselves and within others. It is not just about a child’s death that this man would have felt embarrassed. He would have felt embarrassed about any talk of emotional pain. Emotional pain, for him, is weakness, and weakness is a cause for embarrassment. He has just not been exposed to the raw realities of life that we all have to eventually go through. We all get our share of emotional pain that is so BIG that we must share with people around us. BIG PAIN has to be shared, or else we just cannot bear it. That is a hard thing for an immature radio host to understand.

12 Vinitha { 11.14.14 at 2:07 am }

When the baby grows inside you, you are parent. The moment we see the child we are parents. There is no off switch there. 1minute, 1 hour, 1 day the title is there and there is no turning back.

13 Bookgal1977 { 01.22.15 at 4:13 pm }

See, I didn’t take the statement by the reporter this way when I heard the show.

I took it, especially with that last line, as the reporter saying that lots of people are uncomfortable with public displays of grief, because we dont see them much. Because he says “And some of us, at first, though we knew it had to be hard, felt a little embarrassed for them.”

Tat use of “At first” is very important. I think he’s not saying that reaction is right, but that as a society is it fairly normal. We are taught that these kinds of deep things are not for the public view, that we shouldn’t make a fuss. That holding on to those we’ve lost in any everyday way is bad. Unhealthy. Keeping us from moving on.

But that last line clearly says this reporter has realized thats not true. That public grief, and holding on to people, can be part of a healthy life, part of “moving on” while not having to move on in the way that society pressures those of us who have dead loved ones.

I took it as saying that no matter HOW long a loved one has been here, the idea that expressing that grief and love in public ISN’T embarrassing. He was wrong to assume that.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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