Ghostbelly: a conversation with Elizabeth Heineman

Bucking Americans’ typical cultural aversion to death and the dead body, Lisa brought her stillborn son Thor’s body home. She shows him around the house. Takes him for walks. Talks to him. Creates memories. 

This is the story in the new memoir of stillbirth and loss by author Elizabeth Heineman. Ghostbelly pulled me in immediately. Elizabeth is a feminist and an academic, which is apparent through her analysis to the broader themes she tackles surrounding Thor’s birth and death—home birth, advanced maternal age, relationships, parenting a living child, medical care and birthing culture in America.

But her writing isn’t exclusively academic. She narrates the story of Thor’s life and his death in beautiful and poetic passages. And she delves deep, with a painful honesty, into those questions we that we babylost parents ask ourselves—who do we blame for the loss of our child? How do we grieve? What do we do now that our child is gone? Lisa generously agreed to an interview—a conversation, really—about writing, grief, loss, and her book. Because we both had so much to say, our conversation will be posted here at Glow in the Woods in two parts.

I was captivated by your writing, by all the angles you wrote from, by all the pieces of your journey and healing. But it was a heartbreaking read, and painful. Like pressing on a sore tooth, it felt good. It helped me feel closer to my stillborn son Joseph. Who else do you hope will read it? What do you hope they get out of it?

My experience writing it was a lot like your experience reading it, except times a hundred thousand or so. It was painful, and it felt good. I love your analogy of pressing on a sore tooth. Writing about Thor kept me close to him. In a way, writing about him created Thor. One of the things that’s so existentially horrifying about stillbirth is that stillborn children exist in this liminal state between having-been and not-yet-having-been. Even women who experience their babies as “real” prior to their births get to know them in a whole new way after they’re born—when they get to see them, hear their cries, rock them, nurse them. Never mind what happens in the next few weeks, as, say, the baby turns out to have a good appetite but be a restless sleeper—as the baby really turns into an individual. Stillbirth banishes the possibility of even that most basic establishment of a child’s presence. So at some level I was worried that if my partner and I just buried Thor, if we just “remembered him in our hearts,” then it would be as if he’d never existed. I needed to make sure he existed.

When you were writing Ghostbelly, who did you write it for?

When I was writing, people kept telling me how wonderful it was that I was writing: that my book would be a gift to other bereaved parents, it would helpful to midwives and grief professionals, and so on. It irked me. I knew they meant well, but what they were suggesting felt to me like instrumentalizing Thor’s death: OK, my son died, and that was bad, but look, I’m making a book! It seemed to deny the vastness of what had happened, to shrink the significance of his death into something familiar and manageable.

So I felt the need to insist on the selfishness of my activity: to say “I’m writing it for myself.” And that was the truth.  I was simply compelled to write, obsessively. It came as a complete surprise to me: I’d never been someone to keep a journal, never used writing as a form of self-expression. Thor’s death cracked something in my brain, and out of the crack came a creative energy I didn’t even know I had.

But here’s the thing: even though I was writing to process my own experience, I also needed to communicate. Never mind the people who dismiss or trivialize stillbirth—even with my best friends, there was so much that I couldn’t say in conversation. So I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t just writing for myself: I wanted to get this thing published. But I wasn’t worrying about audience, which was a good thing, because that would have inhibited my writing. I would have been trying to anticipate what others wanted or needed to read, rather than what I needed to say.

I really identify with that. I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve got lots of fans of my writing—family and friends—that I felt like I should be sharing what I was writing right after Joseph died. But it wasn’t for them. The art I was doing wasn’t for them. To be honest, I wasn’t sure for a while I even wanted to put any of my writing or art out there, even anonymously. Who do you want to read your book, now that it’s out?

Bereaved parents. Their families and friends. Grief professionals. Midwives and doulas. There are lots of people with a personal or professional connection to the theme, and part of me wants to add “and anyone who might in the future experience the loss of a child or know someone who does”—in other words, everybody. But I also hope readers will come to it simply for its literary qualities: people who like reading good memoirs, or just good books. It’s a feminist book, so I also hope people interested in feminist perspectives on mothering, grief, or the politics of maternal health care will read it.

You've clearly spent a lot of time thinking about answers for the judgey observers—and now readers—in your life. You've examined your experiences so thoroughly, as any good academic does, and presented justifications for the way things went. Your book deals a lot with issues of blame. Who do we blame? Who do we want to blame? How do we deal with our feelings of self-blame? Those were some of the hardest sections of your book for me to read, the chapters where you berate yourself and your body. I wonder, how do you feel now, five years after Thor's death, about blame? 

I think all parents who experience the death of a child are haunted by the question of whether they could have done something differently, which is just a gentle way of asking whether the death was in some way their fault. Even if it’s 100% clear that it wasn’t. You still torture yourself with “what if” questions. It definitely wasn’t your fault that some drunk driver plowed into the car your daughter was driving—but if you hadn’t phoned her just as she was about to get into her car, she would have been five minutes further down the highway, nowhere near that driver. 

Without wanting to give away too much of the book, I’ll say that my situation was genuinely more ambiguous than that. This wasn’t one of those cases where everyone could agree that there was nothing that could have been done. Because Thor, in fact, could have lived. In the months following the stillbirth, I had to consider, very seriously, the possibility that I had made a fatal mistake in my health care choices. I had to consider the possibility that my midwife had made a fatal mistake in her care for me. I had to consider the larger context of American maternal health care—the ways economics and politics and culture sometimes combine in toxic ways. My partner, Glenn, tortured himself about his role. Although there’s an urge to find a single culprit, it’s usually not so simple. There were many different moments, many different decisions where, if any one of them had gone differently, Thor would be alive today.

All that is reflected in the book. You’re right, I spend a lot of time on the question of responsibility, or how things might have gone differently. And I keep coming to different conclusions, because in a situation with many possible culprits, the one you choose depends partly on who you’re pissed off at at the moment. On page 177 I might have been feeling particularly self-hating, while on page 204 I might have been feeling particularly angry at the medical profession. (I just pulled those page numbers out of thin air—don’t go looking them up!) That’s the tension between me as an academic and me as a grieving parent, or just me as an imperfect human being. I wanted to present my own inconsistencies in trying to unravel the question of blame. That was more honest than trying to present a watertight case. 

As time went on, how I felt about Joseph—about his body, his presence, his place in my life, in my family's life—changed. A lot. There were things I wish I'd been able to do, later, that I didn't want to do at the time. Like taking pictures of him, with him. Looking back now, are there things you wish you'd done differently? Can you even consider that question?

I don’t think there’s any way to get it 100% right. There was a time—I write about it in the book—where I realized with horror that I’d erased Thor’s smell by tossing every piece of fabric that had ever touched him into the laundry. When I came home from the hospital, it felt very important to create sanity in whatever ways we could, and cleaning was part of that. Later, I desperately wanted to bury my nose in something that smelled like him. Of course, the smell wouldn’t have lasted forever, but that wasn’t really the point.

I think the hardest part is wondering whether I did the best I could have for my older son, Adam, who was sixteen at the time. He was good at asserting his needs, which included not seeing Thor or pictures of him. Since his other mother—my ex—and I shared custody, he just stayed with her when we had Thor at home. But both Glenn and I felt strongly about displaying photos at the service. We let Adam know this in advance, but I honestly don’t know how easy it was to maneuver through the space without accidentally seeing them. There were a few other moments along those lines.

For the most part, I figured that when something like the death of a child happens, there will be some fissures—if there’s any time when you can’t guarantee that you’ll do everything right for everyone, the death of a child is it. I relied a lot on the fact that Adam is emotionally a very healthy person, and I also know that he grew in his own way through the whole experience. Part of that growth probably was seeing me in a genuinely bad way—so bad I couldn’t fully tend to him. That’s part of growing up. But still, I wish he’d been spared the whole experience.

In the book, you talk a lot about your partner and Thor's father Glenn, about your relationship, and the differences in the way you were grieving. I know it's often very painful for partners to face the fact that we all grieve differently. How did you and he deal with those differences? How did you nurture your relationship through that early grief?

Glenn and I were incredibly lucky: we just didn’t experience the strain that so many couples face. This may be a good place to point out that we were a bit older (perhaps obvious from the fact that I already had a sixteen-year-old), and that we’d both been around the block when it came to relationships (perhaps obvious from the fact that I had a sixteen-year-old with a woman). We’d accumulated a bit of experience and wisdom. We didn’t have any expectation that we’d handle things the same way, grieve on the same schedule, or want to do all the same things to remember Thor. But I think it only worked because we both did grieve. I think if one of us had had the impulse just to shove it under the rug, then we’d have been in big trouble.

Now, five years later, how do you incorporate Thor into your family's life? You mention in the book that you've mostly stopped bringing him up to friends, but do you and Glenn still talk about him? Do you talk about him with your older son, Adam? What do you—or will you—say to your new baby about Thor?

As it happens, we live only a couple of blocks from the cemetery where Thor is buried—and that cemetery was on my running route even before my pregnancy. So I run by the grave a couple of times a week, deliver new bird food, and say “hi.” Every now and then Glenn, James, and I all go there together for a walk. James likes to fill the birdfeeder, and we plant flowers in the spring (though often the deer nip them before they can grow).

James is almost four now. He learned about death initially by seeing dead animals, so we were able to talk about what happens when bodies die: how they go back into the earth, but how the people (or animals) who loved them might miss them and be very sad. And when you live close to a cemetery, as we do, you learn what they’re all about, even if you don’t have a dead sibling. On one of our recent walks to the grave, he asked me what was written on the gravestone—he’s at an age where he’s interested in letters and how words are put together. So I showed him the letters in Thor’s name and explained who he was. He processed this news in a very kid-logical kind of way. He understood that Thor had grown in my tummy but then had died, so he concluded that he, James, must have grown in Glenn’s tummy. Then I had to double back and give a refresher on the subject of adoption. No, not my tummy, but not Daddy’s tummy either.

Glenn and I sometimes talk about Thor. I continue to have new insights, and so does he, so we share them. New things come up because the book is out; I may tell him about a conversation I had with someone who attended a reading. Sometimes I share those things with Adam, too. But we don’t talk about him a whole lot—there’s no real need. Thor is just part of our common history. 


Continue reading:  part two of our conversation.