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Friday, January 13, 2017

Grief and baby names

The wind and rain that pelted us with stinging force earlier this week couldn’t stop us from going to our grief group for parents who’ve lost children. It’s pretty much the only place where I feel normal. Or normal enough. 

bereaved mom bereaved dad bereaved parent
One of the women there talked about her infant who died and wondered if she had another baby if she could give her new baby the same name. Her daughter had been named in honor of another family member and she wanted to give that name an opportunity to have longevity with a healthy baby, if she were ever lucky enough to have another baby. A healthy baby.

Long ago before I had children, I spent a small amount of time researching my family tree. I found old documents from family members and from genealogy web sites. I remember looking at the large families with many births and usually some infant- and childhood deaths. A hundred years ago, it wasn’t uncommon. And having never been a parent, it didn’t really phase me at all. Births and deaths generations before me. All of it was just names and dates written in looping cursive on old documents. I remember noticing that some families had more than one child with the same name. It was confusing until I looked more closely at birth dates and death dates. It became clear that the families who had more than one child with the same name had more than one child with the same name because the first child with that name had died. And so that name was reused. If baby Edith died, then the next baby girl was also named Edith. At the time, having never had children, I didn’t understand the practice. I probably joked that those large families must have run out of names that they liked. An ignorant joke from an ignorant childless woman.

A few years later when I was the mother of three-year-old Riley, I approached the idea of reusing names from a different perspective. It was after his third heart surgery failed and an external heart and lung bypass machine was keeping him alive. I was six months pregnant with his brother. And as I sat at the end of Riley’s hospital bed, I rocked myself, trying to reassure myself that everything would be okay because I had a healthy version of him in my stomach. I imagined he’d be the same in every way, down to the way he said rhinoceros. Russell Norris.

Six Hens cover art, Issue 7
I wrote about that day in the latest issue of Six Hens.

So I could relate to this woman in my grief group, her desire to reuse her dead daughter’s name again if she had the opportunity. Of course she wanted to. Of course, I understand. No, it’s not strange. How beautiful to get to say that child’s name again and again and have it associate with life and not solely with grief and loss and pain.

I don’t know, but I wonder that if you reuse a name, over time the memory gets confused about which child you’re referring to and they blend. And in that blending, I wonder if the dead child gets to live. I doubt the grief subsides in any way and I doubt the pain of loss subsides, but I wonder if perhaps it’s easier to pretend that the living child is both children.

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