We are a narrative species, Margaret Atwood says. It’s what sets us apart from other animals. From the moment we are born, we are woven into a narrative. Parents tell stories to their children. Mundane stories. And now it’s time to put on your socks. And this is how we put on our socks, and now our shoes. Look, we just put on our socks and shoes! We narrate our lives and in doing so, we are able to step outside of ourselves and become observers of our own lives. Watching our stories unfold. Being both ourselves, and our own storytellers. Creating, reflecting, rewriting. 

I have been struck with this idea since I heard Margaret Atwood speak. Turning this new definition over in my mind slowly, walking around it to see it from all its angles:

The unconscious narration. Today I am going to the grocery store. I need to get my purse, get out my keys, oh, and grab the reusable bags. I open the door, look out at the yard. There is Joseph’s camellia, blooming now. It is spring again. Joseph is still dead.

Narrative worn smooth by repetition. My baby is dead. My baby is dead. My baby has died. My baby died.

Narratives imposed on me by culture. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. God always has a plan.

Narratives formed in an attempt to answer questions. My baby died from a cord accident. Wrapped tightly around his neck, twisted at his bellybutton. An accident. That is all.

Stories left untold. ‘A cord accident,’ she said, ‘is not an explanation. Really, it is the same as not knowing the cause of death.’

Narratives that migrate over time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hold him. I held him and thought, ‘This is not my baby.’ I couldn’t look at his face, bruised and peeling. At least I got to hold him. I got to hold my sweet, baby boy, featherlight. I wish I’d held him longer. I wish I’d looked at his beautiful face, touched his swollen eyelids and kissed his tiny chin.

The story I am compelled—over and over—to tell. I have two children. My daughter is one year old. My son, my firstborn, was stillborn.

We are a narrative species. 

When Joseph was died and born, we were conscious of his narrative. The way we shaped it, intentionally and not. We were afraid that Joseph would become his story. That, in the telling, he would be reduced to a tidy, practiced recitation safe for mass consumption.

And so, in the early days, the story was short. Our baby Joseph was stillborn. We are devastated. End of story, no questions, please. I was afraid to open the door when friends rang with food and hugs and good intentions.

To each other, though, we relived his story over and over. Unbelieving, as if uttering the sequence of events could make it more real. As if words were tangible and we could wrap ourselves in his story like a blanket.

I didn’t know at first that I was allowed to talk about it with the outside world. I didn’t know that in telling his story—out loud, in verse, in paint and charcoal and tears—my grief would begin to heal. A river stone worn smooth by the waters flowing constantly over it, rounding its edges.

I needn’t have been afraid of Joseph becoming a story.

Joseph is only his story.

His story is all I have of him.


What stories do you tell yourself? What stories do you tell about your baby(ies)?