Monday, January 19, 2009

Barren B*tches Book Tour: "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" by Elizabeth McCracken

The latest selection for the Barren B*tches Book Tour (organized for our reading & blogging pleasure by the ever-energetic Mel at Stirrup Queens) is the amazing stillbirth memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.

I read an excerpt from McCracken’s book in O Magazine last summer & couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. I’ve read some other very good stillbirth memoirs – among them Shadow Child by Beth Powning and Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash – as well as many “self-help” volumes, including the classic “Empty Cradle, Broken Heart” by Deborah Davis. Like reading blogs and message boards, I find that hearing other people’s stories validates my own experiences and makes me feel less alone in a world full of babies & (seemingly) effortlessly pregnant women.

McCracken’s book has its own unique voice and rhythm, and I appreciated her frank prose and wry sense of humour. I see at least part of myself in every stillbirth story, and there was lots of me in this book (although obviously much that was different too).

Each of us on the book tour reads the book, submits a question (which is added to a list distributed by Mel) & then answers at least three of them in our blog. (I can rarely limit myself to just three, though…!) Here are some of the questions with my answers.

The author expresses gratitude that she was able to easily conceive and deliver a healthy child after Pudding's death. Even Pudding's story, while distinct in its own right, is told through the lens of a grateful mother holding her happy sleeping baby in her lap. "I am not sure what sort of person I would be if that hadn't happened," she says. While it is impossible to hypothesize what might have been had some other course of events transpired, how has having other living child/ren either before or since your loss affected your grieving process? If you have not lost a child, how has your in/fertility affected how you view other people's losses? And do your views change if the grieving have other living children?

My stillborn daughter was my one and only pregnancy. I was never able to conceive another child. So obviously, I am not sure what sort of person I would have become, had I had another child.

Sometimes, I can't help but be envious of those who do achieve a subsequent pregnancy, or who have other living children. At the same time, I know enough loss moms to know that subsequent pregnancy is not a cure-all. We have several friends that we’ve made through our pregnancy loss support group who have had one or even more subsequent children. One is due any day now with her third subsequent baby -- but I know she is often upset that nobody seems to remember the little girl she lost. Everyone assumes everything is OK now – but it’s not. No amount of subsequent children will ever make up for the ones that were lost.

I have other friends from group who had other children prior to their loss. They say people would point to their other children as a source of comfort (“You still have them”), as though having other children would somehow lessen the fact that another child had died.

From their experiences, I believe that other children, whether born before or after a stillbirth, can never replace the child who died. They may bring joy to the family in their own right, but they cannot & should not be regarded as substitutes or compensation. Each child is his or her own person with his or her own place in the family, no matter how long they’re around.

After expressing some regret that she did not press for more urgent care with her midwives before Pudding's death, the author apparently comes to peace with the medical care she received, as she realizes the outcome would not have likely changed. How does your (or her) experience affect the way in which you approach your medical care or approach to pregnancy and birth, if at all?

My experience made me realize that doctors are not gods, that there are limits to what they can do, that modern medicine does not have all the answers. For the most part, I felt I received good care, although there were certainly moments (like when the admissions clerk sent us to the regular maternity ward, instead of the special care unit where they were expecting us… & insisted that we hand over our credit card to pay for a private room, even though my dr had said that’s what I’d be getting, without mentioning payment) when I wondered about the medical system.

I have also heard some real horror stories (some of them lawsuit-worthy) from our support group clients.

I did not have a subsequent pregnancy, but if I had, I am sure that I would have been in the doctor’s office every week demanding to hear the heartbeat, asking for ultrasounds, & every other form of reassurance they could give me.

On pages 79-80, McCracken speaks of losing a friend after Pudding's death. I was struck by the way she wrote this passage because it clearly expresses her feelings about the conflict and about her former friend, replacing the silence that she used to break off the friendship (I suspect the friend in question has read the book by now). Have you lost friends during or after your infertility/loss/adoption? If so, how much of the blame for the loss do you place on communication and/or miscommunication? Does your former friend know how you feel about him or her and the loss of his or her friendship?

Sadly, yes, dh & I have lost some friends along the way since loss and infertility touched our lives. The example that always springs to mind for me is our neighbour, dh’s cousin, whom I’ve written about before here. I don’t know exactly why we drifted apart the way that we did, and I’m not sure how they would describe it from their perspective (I’m sure we are partially responsible too), but from mine, it all seemed to begin following our loss, particularly as time went on & it became obvious that there would be no other babies. It’s as though we became less interesting people to them, people they were less able to relate to, without the common bond of children to tie us together.

I’ve also written about another friend:

Another friend & former coworker called one day. "Hey, I tried calling you at work. What are you doing at home?" "Well...I lost the baby," I said flatly. "Oh!" she said. I briefly outlined what had happened. And then she began to babble. I realize I caught her totally off guard... but one of the things she said has forever stuck in my mind as one of the dumber things anyone said to me, post-loss:

"Well, you know, Lori," she said, "you've had a pretty easy life up until now." I know I recognized right off the bat that this was a pretty odd thing to say, and I found it harder & harder to keep up my end of the conversation. After we hung up, I mulled the conversation over & over in my head. This friend hadn't had a very easy time of it in recent years -- her husband had left her, she was having difficulty dealing with a high-spirited teenaged daughter. I'd always been there to listen & encourage her.
Basically, I felt like I'd been told that I'd had a pretty cushy life (in comparison to hers), so suck it up. And was I imagining it, or did I perhaps detect a faint note of glee, that I was finally sharing some of her pain -- perhaps even gotten what I deserved?

We have stayed in touch -- but needless to say, we have drifted apart & only speak to each other a handful of times during the year.

My favourite line of the book comes on page 103: "Closure is bullshit." In your opinion (whether or not you have experienced pregnancy loss yourself), is this true or false?

This was my question. : ) And I totally agree with the author. Hearing & reading about people who have experienced some sort of tragedy clamouring for “closure” usually makes me shake my head. It might make you feel somewhat better to successfully sue your doctor for negligence, or see your child’s murderer brought to justice, but it won’t bring back the people you love. I think the hurt lives on, to some degree, for as long as you do.

On page 13, McCracken writes, "I want a book that acknowledges that life goes on, but that death goes on, too, that a person who is dead is a long, long story. You move on from it, but the death will never disappear from view. Your friends may say, Time heals all wounds. No, it doesn't, but eventually you'll feel better. You'll be yourself again. Your child will still be dead." Do you agree with the idea that those that have died continue on? Have you ever found that Time could actually change your perception of death? If you haven't experienced the death of a child (or even if you have), how might this translate into other areas of your life? (ie. infertility, adoption, loss of other family members, etc).

I absolutely agree with this view. My daughter continues to be an important part of my life, 10 years after her stillbirth. I very recently wrote a guest post for Glow in the Woods that addressed this topic.

Most people outside of the ALI community seem to distinguish between pregnancy loss in each trimester. When I was reading this book I kept running through my head about my miscarriage, how I felt quite similar to what Elizabeth McCraken described often enough. It still reached me, even though I lost my little one so much earlier in the pregnancy. If you have had a miscarriage, rather than a stillbirth, did this book still resonate with you? Or could you not relate at all to the loss that she experiences?

At the beginning of each meeting of the pregnancy loss support group dh & I help facilitate, we run through the “house rules” – one of which is “Every loss is significant, regardless of gestation or circumstances.”

I can remember attending a facilitators meeting at which we watched a video about miscarriage, featuring several women describing their experiences and their ongoing emotions. I was struck by how similar our feelings and our situations were. The only differences I saw were that I was able to see and hold my baby & I had more mementos than these women did.

There are definitely differences in circumstances and experiences and reactions -- but at each meeting, as parents tell their stories, I always feel there are more similarities than differences among us all. Grief is grief -- no matter how we all got to this point, we’re all feeling a lot of the same things and having a lot of the same thoughts.

Have you ever wished that someone wrote the book on the "lighter side of losing a child" (or IF, loss, insert your situation here)? Have you ever found that book? Have you found it in a blog? How have you used humor to work through times of grief?

I’ve never found that book (if you do, I’d like to hear about it!). I do sometimes find some humorous things in loss or IF blogs -- stuff that perhaps an outsider wouldn't find funny, but is to those of us inside the loop.

As we open our support group meetings, we always say, “It’s OK to cry, that’s why we brought the Kleenex.” We’ve also begun to add, “It’s OK to laugh too,” because, contrary to what people might expect to find at a grief group, we also do a lot of laughing. Sometimes the humour is pretty black, but that’s OK.

The author talks about "out-traveling sadness" on page 132. It brought to mind all of the trips we took to forget about IF and how they never worked. What are others experiences/thoughts? Does it work for anyone?

I was amazed when I tapped into an online support group shortly after my loss, to find out how many people had taken trips or vacations to “get away” afterward. One couple’s family gave them money for a vacation. Some said the vacation was just the tonic they needed. Others said it was a total waste of money, as they realized they couldn’t run away from the situation. It was still waiting for them when they got back home.

My parents came to be with us for a few weeks after our loss. My dad repainted our backyard shed & re-wallpapered our bathroom for us. As a thank you, knowing that my parents love casinos, we decided to take a short overnight road trip to a new casino that had opened recently, a short (under two hours) drive from where we live.

It was a mistake. Dh hates casinos & was in a bad mood the entire trip. I was in tears, navigating back & forth between him and my parents, putting on a happy face in front of them. We’ve never been back.

If you had gone through what Elizabeth McCracken had gone through, would you have wanted a picture? Why or why not?

I did go through stillbirth. And when the hospital social worker, who called me before I headed to the hospital, suggested that I bring a camera, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even pack it, in case I changed my mind (who said I had to use it?). Taking pictures of dead babies? It seemed so morbid. What would people think?

So I, who am known on all sides of our family, as “the family photographer,” did not even pack my camera when I headed to the hospital. Fortunately, the nurses took some photos for us. Unfortunately, they were Polaroid photos, and they are horribly taken. There are six photos, and Katie is barely visible in them. There are three of us holding her, and three of her by herself. As I wrote in a recent post, she is lying on a metal tray, with only her face (barely) visible through the blankets, with a nurse’s gloved hand and a bag clearly labeled “SOILED LINEN” in the background. My support group facilitator, who taught seminars to nurses and other professionals who deal with bereaved parents, told me she’d like to use my photos as an example of how NOT to take them.

They are lousy. But they are infinitely precious, since they are the only photos that I have of our very brief time together, that confirm her existence.

One couple who came to our support group were so disappointed with the Polaroid photos that their hospital provided that they donated a digital camera to be used by other bereaved parents. They were thrilled when, some time later, another couple arrived at our group who had used the camera. They had some of the best non-professional photos that I’ve seen yet.

Thank goodness for organizations such as Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, which are helping to add normalcy to the practice of taking photos – not to mention providing parents with stunningly beautiful keepsakes.

So this was one point where McCracken & I differ. I know she worried about making “a fetish” of a photo. Maybe it’s because my photos are so lousy, but I don’t look at them very often anymore. (But I still like knowing that they are there.) I had one (of me & dh with Katie) copied and framed, and it sits on top of our bedroom armoire, along with a few other keepsakes. I know other parents who have their child’s photo on display in the family room, along with photos of their other children. They sometimes get some “looks” from visitors, but they don’t care and I don’t think they should. It’s their house.

In my 10 years as a facilitator, I can count on the fingers of one hand the clients I can recall who, when given the opportunity to see their baby and/or take photos, have declined. (I know of many, like dh & me, who initially did not want to see the baby, but changed our minds and are very, very glad that we did.) I sometimes wonder about them, and whether they have ultimately regretted their decision.

If you had experienced a late term loss, would you have wanted to knowthe sex of the baby during any future pregnancy? Why or why not?

I knew Katie was a girl in advance, and I would definitely have wanted to know in any subsequent pregnancies. Knowing the gender, being able to give the child a name in advance and make plans for nursery décor, etc., helps make that baby more real to you, I think. Even if there is a subsequent loss, knowing is not going to make you hurt any more or less – not knowing is not going to protect you – you’re still going to hurt just as badly as you would if you know.

I do know some parents who have chosen not to know, and that’s fine too.

On page 94 Elizabeth McCracken writes, "I've never gotten over my discomfort at other people's discomfort" also "I don't even know what I would have wanted someone to say", and I am wondering how you have handled that discomfort when something terrible happened to you (suicide, miscarriage, failed cycle, etc.) Is it better for another person to say something cliche that makes you feel awful or is it better for them to ignore the topic all together?

Ignoring the topic is NEVER a good idea. The clichés can make me wince, true, but I usually try to recognize that the person meant well. Better to have at least made the effort to acknowledge my pain than pretend that nothing happened.

McCracken states that her only regret regarding Pudding, was that she didn't hold him. Would you hold your baby in the same situation?

I did see and hold my baby. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Dh was opposed, and my mother (who flew in to be with us) said she’d go along with whatever we wanted (although I think she secretly wanted to see her grandchild). When the time came, I decided that I did want to see her – I felt that I would ultimately regret it if I didn’t – and dh surprised me by saying he wanted to see her too. We are so, so very glad we did. We each took turns holding her. I asked to hold her one more time before handing her back to the nurse. I said “Goodbye, baby, Mommy loves you,” kissed my fingertip & pressed it to her forehead.

That was the only skin-to-skin contact that I had with her. I didn’t unwrap her. It didn’t even occur to me that I could or should. (This is where I think some guidance & suggestions from the nursing staff would come in handy. Who knows what to do, what’s “allowed,” what’s possible, in these situations?) They handed me this little white bundle (a beautifully crocheted shawl over top of a hospital blanket, with a little white crocheted cap perched on her head), and I just stared and stared at that tiny red face. After not bringing along my camera, I think this would have to be my second-greatest regret about the whole experience.

But then, there will always be regrets. There will never be enough time, or enough photos. There will always be things we wish we had done, or done differently. Such is the nature of loss and grief.

Hop along to another stop on this blog tour by visiting the main list at Stirrup Queens ( You can also sign up for the next book on this online book club: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.


  1. It sounds like a good book, and I enjoyed reading your (more than 3!) answers.

    At the local history museum on Saturday, I saw a couple of plaster masks of infants and very young children, the pre-photography way to capture the facial features of a dead child. They were beautiful and heart-breaking.

  2. Excellent post - I truly love this book.

  3. I really need to read this book. Thanks for the review.

  4. Loribeth - wonderful, thoughtful post.

    Your answers hold so much truth in them - you have the amazingly accurate ability of being able to "feel" yourself in the shoes of someone else, even if their experiences different somewhat from your own. Empathy is a wonderful quality to have and I am sure your support group feels fortunate to have you there as a facilitator. I have always appreciated that in our decade! of friendship, you have never once made me feel as though my losses were "less" because of their brevity or because of my living children. I have always been touched by that - you are a very loving and gracious soul.

    Really needing to read the book now. I couldn't find a copy locally and procrastinated ordering so was unable to participate. I am sad now - because I think I would have really enjoyed it - many of the quotes you shared resonated with me.

  5. In my 10 years as a facilitator, I can count on the fingers of one hand the clients I can recall who, when given the opportunity to see their baby and/or take photos, have declined. . . . . I sometimes wonder about them, and whether they have ultimately regretted their decision.

    I'm one of those people. I made it very, very clear to the incredulous and somewhat hostile hospital staff that I did not want to see the babies and that I did not want photos. Though I guess that that's more unusual than I realized, I'm very glad that I made that decision.

    Though I'm sure it wouldn't work this way for everyone, I think that one of the things that eased my grief and helped me to heal faster was the fact that the twins never became "real" to me; they remained more of an abstraction than actual "babies."

    I read a (very controversial) study that, contrary to what one might think, suggested that parents who chose not to see or hold their stillborn children tended to have lower rates of depression and PTSD.

    The study was a small one and doesn't account for what may be other significant differences between those who chose to see their babies and those who chose not to. And, obviously, there are many, many parents who are glad they have photos and memories of the babies.

    Still, I feel that I made the right choice for me, as I'm sure others who made a different choice made the right choice for them.

  6. Hi Niobe, I'm glad you made a decision that felt and still feels right for you. I remember that study & the reaction it caused. It's funny who quickly "norms" change, because even 20 years ago, I don't think it was customary for parents to be offered the choice to see & hold their babies -- they were just whisked away after delivery & never seen again.

    I guess the point is that parents need to be provided with options & possibilities, at a time when they are in complete shock. I initially thought the idea of taking photos was totally morbid, but it somehow became more acceptable & less frightening when it was offered to me by the staff, and I realized that many other parents did it and it was "OK" to do.

    Not everyone will make the same choices, and people may or may not regret decisions they made under highly stressful conditions -- but I do think they need to be provided with choices, and not have hospital staff just assume they know what's best for each family (as used to be the case).

  7. great answers, loribeth! a very thought-provoking book. and about the photos, etc., I think you're right, it's about being given an opportunity and a choice.

  8. Thank you for sharing. I have never visited your blog before the tour.

    I appreciate what you said about miscarriages and stillbirth mothers having similar feelings. To those who have not experienced a loss, that is difficult to explain.

  9. I did love the closure is bullshit question and I think you hit it on the head when you said it lives on as long as you live on. I think the pain can change forms, but I'm not sure something hugely life changing can ever have a neat end point. It isn't a task on a to-do list that can checked off--it's a life.

    Great answers.

  10. You touched on so many of the questions!

    I don't know where to begin, so I'll just touch on a few of the points you've made.

    "No amount of subsequent children will ever make up for the ones that were lost." You said that so much better than I could have.

    And you posted this in response to my question, actually..."Grief is grief -- no matter how we all got to this point, we’re all feeling a lot of the same things and having a lot of the same thoughts." Thank you for your response.

    I was very interested in the comments about the photo. My sister had one done with hers, and I imagine if I were ever in those shoes I would want one too. I can also see why a person wouldn't want one. What really gets me is some people's reactions to them. My sister had a picture of her stillborn daughter up in her home, displayed next to her ashes. Some people got uncomfortable with it, making statements behind her back that repulse me to repeat (so I won't) And others who have had losses, most of them have pictures, some of them do not... that I've met that is. The opinion on them is so varied, within and without the loss sphere. Thank you for sharing your opinion. It's good to get a broader understanding.

  11. I enjoyed reading your answers. I definitely agree that people who have experienced loss have many similar thoughts and feelings about the grief.

    as for me, when i was miscarrying (at 8 weeks) i knew i was going to deliver everything and i hesitated. i didn't want to save everything and bring a bag into the hospital to see what was wrong or to find answers or the gender of the baby. for me, the not knowing was safer than knowing and being terrified.

    i can't imagine going through loss later and being able to enunciate things the way you did. Your strength and honesty about your loss are so touching and the love you have for your child resonates.

  12. I was really glad to read your thoughts about miscarriage in relation to grief and stillbirth. Sometimes I've felt like somehow some people didn't think my losses were as real or significant because they were so earlier in pregnancy, but they were so real to me. I definitely agree that grief is grief and we feel a lot of the same things even if our experiences are not the same.

    I think Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is such an amazing organization. I have felt so honored when friends have shared the photos of the babies they lost with me. I think about what I would do in that situation often, and I think I would want the photos, I would want to hold my baby. I think it would be hard for me to let that baby go.

    The part about the "fetish" with a photo was the one part of the book where I really didn't agree with the author. Of course, to each their own, but personally I just couldn't imagine not having that photo tucked away to take out and look at from time to time if I should find myself in that situation. Even now I really regret not asking for copies of the ultrasounds from my last two miscarriages even though my babies were already dead when the u/s was taken.

  13. "Well, you know, Lori," she said, "you've had a pretty easy life up until now."

    Sweet Jeebus, I'd like to slap this woman upside the head and scream "IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU!!!" As you know, we've lost some family and friends in the process as well. I just don't get that dynamic even though I get that it's fairly common in these situations. Part of the old naive me still puzzling over how people can be so cruel and dumb.

    I've had a miscarriage (8w) and lost Maddy, and I feel to some extent they're similar and yet so completely wholly different. And I just haven't found the right metaphor or way of discussing it so I haven't yet. Hmm.

    "But then, there will always be regrets. There will never be enough time, or enough photos. There will always be things we wish we had done, or done differently. Such is the nature of loss and grief."


    Thanks for these Loribeth. You've done a bang-up job writing this week.

  14. Wow, Lori, you really did go beyond 3 questions.

    "From their experiences, I believe that other children, whether born before or after a stillbirth, can never replace the child who died. They may bring joy to the family in their own right, but they cannot & should not be regarded as substitutes or compensation."

    I've seen "replacement" children (not in the ALI blogosphere, but IRL). It goes so, so poorly for everyone. The parents constantly make unfavorable comparisons (best case: child is an adequate replacement; more likely: child can't live up to expectations), and the child lives in the shadow of a ghost.

    Your experiences and perspective are a wonderful counterpoint to McCracken's. Such a thought-provoking stop on the BBBB Tour!

  15. Wow Lori! You have some wonderful insightful comments.

    You said, "Each child is his or her own person with his or her own place in the family, no matter how long they’re around." I'm glad you mentioned this. I wrote things similar in my post but the idea that lost children still have a presence in the family is important for others to understand. In the same stream of thought are the photos you discussed. Having that momento, even though it's difficult, helps others to see that these children are a part of people's lives. It is probably the one distinction between still birth and miscarrige that can't be ignored- the physical memories of a child. I wish I had that but I know that with my miscarriages it's just how things are.

    And I second Tash about your friend's hideous commetn about having an easy life up until then. I mean, really! How does having had more or less challlenges in life make losing a child more or less okay? Does the fact that I have had many challenges in life mean I should have miscarried in her eyes? Who decides? Grrr, that really riles me up!

    Thanks for your insights and for your comments on my post.

  16. I enjoyed reading your post because your experience is so close to McCracken' bring a lot to the discussion. The thing that stood out most to me was: "They may bring joy to the family in their own right, but they cannot & should not be regarded as substitutes or compensation." That is exactly how I feel about Evie and you put it better than I have been able to do. I was especially interested in reading your thoughts about holding and photographing stillborn babies because they are an excellent counterpoint to McCracken's writing. Thanks. And, thanks for your sweet comment on my blog, it means a lot to me.

  17. Wow...thank you for the depth and insightful nature of your answers.

    I am simply stunned at the coldness and insensitivity of the "friend" who said..."Well, you know, Lori," she said, "you've had a pretty easy life up until now." I th ink if anyone said that to my face I would be tempted to b*tch slap them.

  18. Great answers Lori. Sigh, I loved this book, yet I wish I didn't know about its existence!

    And just to comment on Niobe's comment, I often wonder if it would have been easier if I had chosen to not see Hannah. Because that way, she would just be an abstraction and I wouldn't stare at her picture all day long (it's on my desk at work). Just looking at that picture makes my heart ache so much, yet I can't bring myself to put it away. So I understand why Niobe's decision was the right one for her and I want her to know that sometimes I think it would have been the better one for myself.