April 29, 2006

Daniel Raeburn Writes About His Stillborn Daughter In The New Yorker

In this week's New Yorker, Daniel Raeburn tells of Hemingway once boasting that he could write an entire novel with only six words: "Asked to prove it, he took a napkin and wrote, 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.'"

At ten words, the subtitle of Raeburn's article comes achingly close to replicating that literary feat: "Irene Raeburn: born December 28, 2004, died December 24, 2004."

As I was reading it, I couldn't decide what to quote from it, it all rung so lucidly and emotionally true. What would someone need who suddenly found himself needing to read an account of a couple's experience with the stillbirth of their daughter? The reflection on the time and signs before the baby died? The decision and agony of inducing a natural delivery in the maternity ward? The numb mourning and awkward announcements to friends and coworkers?

I figured the most important and useful thing would be to quote from a couple of months after their baby's death. It's that numbest of times, after the comforting crowds have gone home, when the feelings of loss can really sink in. That's when Raeburn and his wife attended a "perinatal loss" support group meeting at the hospital:

Under humming flourescent lights was a conference table with coffee and untouched cookies, ringed by twenty or so frightened faces, one of which was flashing indignant looks and leaking angry tears. The woman said that she'd lost her girl and now everyone wanted her to pretend that her girl had never existed. The rest of the room seconded her complaint. We finished each other's sentences. At last we were among people who could understand us. Society was on trial and we were the jury.
Everyone outside the room seemed to think that having another child would somehow erase the loss of this one, that death was some kind of math problem to be overcome by procreation. Everyone was supportive, but they were all secretly hoping that "it" would get better, that "things" would go back to normal, as if normal were an option, as if normal even existed. If one more person encouraged us to put it--it!--behind us, we might just lose it.
I asked the room, "What do you say when people ask you if you have kids? If I say yes, they're going to ask about them. If I say no, I"m lying."
Nobody knew how to answer my question.
This article is not online, but let me know if you can't find it, and I'll email you a copy. [update: I have a 1mb pdf scan of the story, which is 1/13th the size of the one Scott mentioned below. If you'd like me to email it to you, please just drop me a note. I'd rather do that than post the file online. Thanks.]

[7/5 update: The New Yorker just published "Vessels" online, along with a followup essay by Raeburn--about the birth a few weeks ago of their new daughter, Willa. Thanks to the editors--and the Raeburns.]

"Personal History - Vessels" by Daniel Raeburn, The New Yorker, May 1, 2006


I haven't seen the article, but I'm afraid even your little presentation of the "highlights" is about all I can take.

I don't think it matters when a child is lost, in utero or at 30 years-old (like my sister) the heartbreak is real, intense, and never fully heals. I couldn't understand what my parents had gone through with the loss of my sister until I became a father myself a year later...and then I cried more about her passing than I had at her funeral. I finally could imagine the grief that loss of a child at any age would bring. Support groups have helped my parents and I imagine they help to a degree in this instance as well.

Finally, I believe the answer to the question at the end of the excerpt should be as open and honest as the parents are comfortable with. For me, I believe I would say, "We had a daughter who died before her time..." and leave it at that.

Heartbreaking post...I can't say thanks, but I do respect your courage in posting it.

Haven't read the article yet, but I've shared some of the experience. There are no answers, but a few comments:

A few years ago, Jeff Zaslow wrote a column in the Wall St Journal on parents who survive the death of a child. He noted that English has words for the survivors of two of our three most important relationships - orphan, widow/widower - but there is no word that describes a parent who has lost a child.

Our experience of the death of children must have changed in fundamental ways over the last 100 years. Walk through a cemetery and see the markers from even the early 1900's: it was common for parents to lose at least one child before they died. Now, it is so uncommon that it seems a violation of the natural order for a child to die before a parent. And without that experience, we don't know what to say. I wonder what the grieving process was like in the 19th century when a child died.

My view is that the expression "losing a child" sucks. Forces beyond human control brought a life into being, then ripped that life away. "Losing" makes it sound likes the child was misplaced in a moment of thoughtlessness.

Given the choice between a rational, purposeful existence we can direct and a random universe acting without principle or purpose, the human belief system compels a belief in purpose. And it compels us to cast those actions which go against that belief out of our consciousness. So the death of a child confounds our expectations, and the easiest course of action is to avoid it.

And my answer to the question at the end about what you say to someone who asks if you have children is that "it depends."

Our first son died when he was shaken. Our second son was born 15 months later. Once I was invited to talk about the effects of shaken baby syndrome on families, and I thought about opening my remarks by saying that when someone asks "do you have children?" I am inclined to say "I have two sons, I have one son, I have none."

My wife and I have given birth to two splendid baby boys. We only have one now, and because we know a child can die, we have lost our shield of illusion and know that our son can die.

To some degree, when someone asks the question, if I think they care about the response, the answer is yes, I have two boys, but one died.

It's sort of like the decision you make when you've survived a night of GI distress, and some cheerful soul asks "how are you doing?"

And on the subject of not talking about dealing with "it"...

What is interesting to me is that when I tell them how he died, we wind up talking about the inevitable momements of frustration and anger that come with raising children, and most parents have a story about a moment when they almost lost it. Almost everyone also says they've never talked about that moment to another person.

We don't like talking about the demons, either the ones that inhabit our universe or ourselves.

Final note about things we don't like to talk about that concern kids: if you consider Google News as a gauge of what's important to our culture, there are about 690 hits on "child abuse prevention" and 2060 on "paris hilton".

A bit disconcerting when you think that April is Child Abuse Prevention Month (I'm assuming that Paris has not had a month, week or day named after her yet).

[thanks for your excellent comments, George. Raeburn does talk a lot about the history of children--and mothers, for that matter--dying in childbirth or thereabouts. Very sobering and instructive to think about how far we've come, but also how much we can still learn from the past. -ed.]

Do we know if this article *will* come online at some point? I would love to read it.

I don't want to detract from the previous post- it prompted a memory I thought I'd share.

From my modern-day perspective, I can only venture a guess on the 19th century grieving process. What I can tell you is that even just reading dates is enough to make this mother of one cry.

On Christmas Eve this year, I took a minute to ask my father-in-law about his parents and their immigration to the US from Sweden. As we looked at family records, I noted that his grandmother, Eleanor Jansen, was one of 8 children in her family.

Looking closely at the dates, she had had only one living sister. The other 6 children had been born and lived "short" lives. The 1st, a boy, had 7 months; the 2nd, only 2; then a year and a half passed, a girl lived for 9 months; twin boys made it 12 months and 13 months; Eleanor was born and lived to have her own family of 2 sons; the 7th child lived 15 days; and the 8th, a girl, was Eleanor's living sister.

By my calculations, the idea of a next child may have been the moving force in getting through the grief, as conception would have been soon after the previous death. But then, I have to guess that their perspective on having children was tempered with the expectation that in 1888, having a child and living to see them grow up was a miracle, or perhaps just a roll of the dice. They may have known this and taken that chance over and over again.

My tears were for the mother and father and the cycle of loss. I had to wonder if I could have survived as a mother when the odds were against you and your baby.

My mom rolled 5 for 6. So far, I'm 1 for 1. But I still think about my younger brother when faced with "rolling the dice" again.

Perhaps we've forgotten the birth of a child is, in itself, a miracle-

My son was born December 10, 2004 and passed away December 15, 2004. When asked if I have any children, my answer is "I have a son who passed away." As mentioned, there are words for orphans, widows/widowers. But the subject of having a child pass away is almost taboo. There are no sympathy cards written for us. Many people don't have a memorial for their child. Some don't even get pictures. The feeling you get when you look at the crib that's never been slept in, the toys that were never held, the picture of your child that never came home, is beyond words, beyond emotions.
If someone's parent dies, you would never even think about asking anything like "Are you going to try to have another?" But frequently, that's the first thing we hear. At the same time, you'd also not make it a point to avoid mentioning "parents" around someone who's parent had passed away.
My son is not living, but I am a proud father. Any other children we have will know that they are not an only child, that they have a brother named Aiden.

I would very much like to get a copy of this article, online or otherwise. Several people told me about it appreciating its relevance to my story and current area of graduate study--however, it was off the newstands by the time I went looking.

[I'll scan it and email you. -ed.]

Thank you for bringing this article to our attention. Very moving and great to hear that someone is breaking down some of the barriers that exist today for parents who have lost children.

As a mom who will likely only have one child Ive begun doing some research on the only child. I came across an excellent post by Kitty Raymond (a Calgary expert on sleep, eating, discipline etc.). In her article she says with respect to the unsolicited opinions one gets when stating they are only having one child.

the very worst comment anyone could ever makeĶ.."what if something happened to your "one" and that was all you had?" (as if having two or four or six meant you wouldn't mind losing oneĶ)

It doesnt matter whether you have one or 20 children, the overwhelming feeling of grief is still the same.

Like one of the other posters I did not fully understand the loss my mother felt when she lost her son until the day I had my own child. Parenthood does amazing things for us and exposes us to a world unimaginable to those who have yet to experience it.

I have two beautiful healthy daughters and lost a son due to a late-term fetal demise 3 years ago. One of the most annoying and at most times difficult situations is when a stranger sees me out with my daughters and comments "What, no boy?" or "Are you going to try for a boy?" I know they mean no harm, but it's hard to stay polite at times like that. Like the parent of an only child, I wish people wouldn't inquire so freely about the number or gender of children in my family. You never know what a family has been through!

Would you please e mail a copy of this article to me. Thanks,

please email the article to me too....

Please email the article to me too - thanks so much.

I really enjoyed this artlice as well and reading your thoughts on it.

Raeburn's article was probably one of the most painful personal narratives I have read in a long time. The agony of loss admist every day life --delivering a dead infant on a maternity ward and comforting others who are meant to comfort you. In personal narrative, we look for the writer to relieve us of their story by delivering uplift, redemption, or wisdom. Raeburn did not do this to his credit --- he gave us exactly what this feels like. I had 3 late term miscarriages a long time ago and his raw, guilty, poignant, angry sadness is just about right. These feelings aren't sustained nor can they be --but Raeburn's honest evocative writing reawakened them quite swiftly. My empathy to him and all that have shared the experience.

thank you so much in advance for sending me a copy of the article

After some work, I was able to post a pdf file of this essay at Rapidshare.

Here is the link to the article:


I hope this is not illegal.

What a compelling article. I can't imagine why the New Yorker would not provide a link to it.


[Thanks, and apologies to the people I forwarded this 13mb attachment to. -ed.]

Oh, Gosh, I'm sorry about that. I should have mentioned the file was 13mb. Was so relieved about just getting the file up somewhere that I left that part out, even though I did mention on my own blog.

Hope people get to read it though.

My father has been researching stillbirth for 15 years. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail Haydel1@bellsouth.net. He would be glad to speak with anyone who has had this experience, especially those who are pregnant again. Also feel free to visit his website: www.preginst.com. His name is Dr. Jason H. Collins.

Our story is eerily similar. Our daughter, Donnalee, was born January 19, 2005; died January 16, 2005, on her due date. Induced, vaginal delivery. We'd very much like to read the article. Can you please get us a copy? Thank you in advance.

I would very much like a copy, as this article is more important to me than you know. the stores have already replaced the New Yorker with the new issue, and $9 per copy is ridiculous. I would be so appreciative if anyone could e-mail me a copy. thank you

You may want to drop Mr. Raeburn an email asking permission to reprint his story on the site. His email address is: danraeburn (at) earthlink (dot)net. The address was easily found by doing a google search of the author's name.

[I now have a 1mb pdf scan available to email, just ask. And it's the magazine that decides on republishing rights at this point, I think. -ed.]

Dear Editor,

Sorry to trouble you like all the others, but I would really like to read this too and also missed the copies on the newstand. Thanks in advance....

Please email this article, thanks

My daughter's little boy was 'born sleeping' just a fortnight ago. Could you please forward me a copy of the article by Daniel Raeburn.
With thanks

Please e-mail Raeburn article to me. Thanks

Please email me this essay. Thanks!

please send me the stillborn article too i experienced this and woudl liek to read the story

Please email me the article. thank you for posting this...

I read the full version of this article and it literally took my breath away. It's a must read, giving realistic and valuable insights on the immediate and long-term effects of stillbirth on mom and dad. Just as important, lessons can be learned by the general public on how to interact with couples in this grave situation or at least to begin to understand the psychosocial aspects of it all.

Please send me the pdf version of this article.

Thank you so much!

Could you please email me the article? I would like to share it with a mother who recently lost her baby. Many thanks.

We just discovered that one of the couples in our childbirth class lost their daughter to stillbirth. We have since discovered that stillbirth is much more common than we imagined, and are stunned at how affecting this experience has been as new parents. Thank you for posting this, and reminding us all how fragile, and often cruelly unfair, life can be.

Could you please email me a copy of the article? One of my husband's coworkers lost her baby at 8 months last week and he wants to share the article with the people in his office... Thanks.

I would very much like to receive a copy of the New Yorker article written by Daniel Raeburn and his experience with stillbirth. I would also like to read if you have it Perry-Lynn Moffit's letter to the editor.

If you need to remove the signature lines please do.

Thank you.

Amy L. Abbey, Editor
Journeys: Stories of Pregnancy After Loss
"The birth of a child isn't always a nine-month process."

I have not experienced a stillbirth myself but I know my heart breaks to read or hear about a baby passing away, whose never going to know how much he or she would have been loved. Please e-mail me the article.

Can someone please email me this article? We lost our little girl "Taylor" a year ago on June 11th. This was our first child and of course we could not have been happier. I went in for my weekly check-up at 38 1/2 weeks and they could not find a heart beat. I delivered her vaginally early the next morning. It was an umbical cord accident that took her away from us. It is kind of ironic how something that was to give her life, caused her death. We got to hold her and take pictures that I am so grateful for. It is so hard when it is your first child. My husband and I took a vacation on her birhtday this year. We had to celebrate her very short life. She has changed our lives forever. I really don't think people understand the horror of giving birth to a child that you already know is gone. I look at her picture and think to myself, she is absolutely perfect. She just looks as she is sleeping in the picture. This has taught us a valuable lesson. That were are not invincible and our life can be taken at any time. We have tried again and have had 2 miscarriages since. We hope our vacation has produced Taylor's brother or sister. We will keep you posted. We feel that doctors need to let new parents know of the danger of this. I had no idea that this could happen to me at 38 1/2 weeks. I never had one complication with my pregnancy. This was such a shock. Thank you for your time. Today is Father's Day, another milestone to endure.

Can anyone email me a copy of the Daniel Raeburn article? I've desperately been trying to get a hold of a copy. Much appreciated.

This article is very disturbing. It shocks me to think a father could write about his daughter in such a cold, disgusting, and graphic way. It turned my stomach to read his words. I'm surprised a publication such as The New Yorker would print such a thing. My husband and I also lost our precious little girl. I could never imagine describing her in such a heartless way. I just don't understand it.

[Hi Irene, I'm deeply sorry for your and your husband's loss. The Raeburns' way of coming to terms with their own, similar tragedy is obviously different, but I saw it as anything but heartless. I can't begin to say what you or they "should" do or feel, but please rest assured that many, many people have written me to say how touched, moved, and comforted Raeburn's account was for them. Even in similar situations, I guess, parents have different needs, emotions, and ways of keeping themselves going. I hope you can understand that urge, even if you don't understand or identify with the particular approach. -ed.]

Hi. Would you mind emailing me a copy of this article. Thank you so much. Emma

We recently received permission to reprint this article on my website, if you would like to read it online, it is now available at Rowan Tree Foundation: www.rowantreefoundation.org

It is such an incredible essay.

[thanks for the heads up, Corinne -ed,]

Mr. Raeburn,

I'm leaving a comment here because I'm sure that you'll read it at some point and the New Yorker doesn't provide for comments or links your email address.

Thank you for sharing these stories that both moved me to tears. I'm sorry for your loss, happy for your gain and grateful for your work.

Would someone please e-mail me the essays discussed above? My daughter just lost her first baby, and my first grandchild, last week. These essays seem like they would be very helpful.


Gary, I am so sorry. The link you want is here http://www.rowantreefoundation.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=84&Itemid=2

It is very graphic, as Irene says above. But my understanding is that it's written by a father ***in shock, in denial, feeling remote and removed from the situation***.

When my daughter died, I never noticed some of the things that Daniel Raeburn noticed and wrote about. And some of the things that I did notice, I will never tell as they will remain between just me and my daughter.

I hope she's playing happily with your grandchild, somewhere warm and sunny xxx

Please email the Raeburn Vessels article from the May 2006 New Yorker. I have a close friend who has just experienced a similar loss and I think this article would be helpful for her as she copes with the complications of her family's grief. Thank you.

I have found a new link to Daniel's touching words about his daughter (New Yorker have moved it and I couldn't find it in their search tool)


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