If anyone asks

Daughters of the Swahili Coast , Zanzibar, c. 1900. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University.

Daughters of the Swahili Coast, Zanzibar, c. 1900. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University.

Today we welcome Kate, who lost her first son Connor to SIDS in 2008, as a guest writer.

Kevin Brockmeier's book A Brief History of the Dead is loosely based on an East African concept that there are three stages of human existence: the living, the recently dead, and truly dead. The recently dead (or living dead) are those who still exist between the two realms of life and death—although they are dead, they still have people among the living who remember them. Thus, a part of them lives on.

Ah, yes, I thought, when a co-worker first told me about the book. This explains so much about those of us who have lost a baby, and why we do what we do.

Any time we humans lose anyone we love, it’s like that person falls off the edge of a cliff. Yet in the very moment of that fall, our memories of that loved one weave themselves into a net to catch our departed, holding them close to us. True, they are still over the cliff and agonizingly beyond our vision or touch. But our memory net keeps them from falling completely into the abyss of death, of oblivion, of being Forgotten.

People fortunate enough to live a long and rich life have a large net, with family and friends spaced out along the edge of the cliff to hold it. Memories of them may even be passed down to the next generation, so that with the passing of their contemporaries, the net may shrink, but is still in place; just picked up by a different shift, or maybe even two or three. Sometimes we catch glimpses of the strength of so many people holding so many memories of a loved for so long: “My grandma used to say that her grandfather loved to…”

But that net and its capacity to fend off the abyss of Forgotten, is precisely what drives us as bereaved parents. What if we are the only ones who have even a few, meager memories of our child? Then it is up to us alone to stand at the edge of that abyss, holding, grasping, clinging to that tiny memory net to keep our child from becoming even more dead than he or she already is. Our only hope is to keep our little net strong through reminders, or else help spread memories of our child—even second-hand ones, like those we create by talking about them at support groups or online—so that we have a few more people lined up who can hold even a single strand of this fragile web. Sometimes we simply grab the person next to us and thrust a memory-strand into their hands, begging Hold this for a minute, please. We never know which of those conscripts might choose to keep standing there and holding onto that memory for days, or weeks, or years.

If anyone asks, that is why we bring up our dead child’s name years later, even if it seems awkward, uncomfortable, strange, or obsessive. That is why we hold onto their clothes or toys; invoke them at celebrations and gatherings and anniversaries when they are far from the minds of other guests. That is why we can’t seem to just 'let it go'.

'Letting go' is, after all, exactly what it would mean to stop mentioning or remembering them altogether. The world expects us to let go of the little memory net that holds our child from falling deeper into the abyss. It shouldn't, but it does.

Ask any parent: if you could keep your child from dying in the first place, wouldn’t you?

We tried, and we couldn’t.

But maybe, as long as we’re still living, we can keep our children from truly dying in the second place. Wouldn’t you?


Have you come across any particular theories, books, songs, or interviews that have shaped your reckoning with death and loss? We'd love to hear more about how the commercial or literary writing or art of others has resonated with you.