Dear Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar,
I'm so sorry to hear about the death of your baby daughter Jubilee Shalom. I saw the photograph of you holding her feet, so tiny yet so perfect. And so precious. I'm sure you will treasure every photograph, especially the ones that illustrate your love for her.
Showing the photographs at Jubilee's memorial service was such a touching and fitting tribute to your baby girl. Making them available to the public is provoking both compassion and outrage. Compassion is coming from those who empathize. Outrage is coming from those who are frightened.
I wonder if you are even aware of the naysayers, the doubters, and the critics, some of whom are watching in abject horror. They look at you and can't imagine why you're not shrugging off this experience, as if it's akin to a rained-out picnic or missing a bus. They wonder, what's the big deal? You never even got to know the kid! You can just have another one. Or better yet enjoy the ones you've got!
But here's the bottom line: They can't imagine what you're going through... because the death of a baby is so very, truly unimaginable.
The skeptics are also products of our death-defying, death-denying culture. Dead bodies have become scary because for the past 140 years, we've increasingly dispatched them to funeral parlors. As a result, we've forgotten the after-death care practices that had been handed down through the ages. We've lost the time worn traditions, such as washing, anointing, and wrapping or dressing the body. We've also abandoned the custom of making postmortem portraits. Creating an image of the dearly departed was considered essential, especially for a child, for whom it was likely no other portraits existed. Portraiture turned to photography in the 1800's, but nowadays, with cameras everywhere, we have plenty of photographs to hold onto in our grief-except when the baby is a newborn.
Michelle and Jim Bob, I imagine you forgive all your detractors, for they have not walked in your shoes. They remain blissfully ignorant, and I bet you don't even begrudge them their good fortune.
I also imagine you know that your actions are speaking louder than words. You are undoubtedly educating many people about this often hidden bereavement. Because of you, some folks are realizing that parents shouldn't be denied the very rituals that would comfort them, such as photographs, spending time with their infant, providing after-death care of the body, and holding a memorial service. Perhaps in those resisting this lesson, you are planting seeds.
To those who've experienced the death of a tiny baby, you are a beacon of hope. By demonstrating that babies who die so young still matter, you are affirming that these little ones are important members of the family. They are worthy of loving and honoring and remembering. Other parents needn't share your religious faith to embrace this understanding with you.
As for me, a longtime parent advocate, I am so grateful for the brave example you are setting: Doing what you know is best for yourselves and being unapologetic about it. Of course, not every bereaved parent would choose to do precisely what you've done, but that's the point. You are essentially showing other bereaved parents that they too can find their own way, and not be considered pathological. Having observed bereaved families for almost three decades, I can assure you that what you are experiencing and expressing is normal, and you are not alone.
I also want to acknowledge that Jubilee is not your 20th child, as reported widely in the media.
Jubilee is your 21st, as your second baby also died. Each baby was one of a kind. The uninitiated public may not make an accurate count, but rest assured, parents who have traveled this path understand exactly how many children you have in your quiver.
With warm wishes and highest regard,
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To learn more about bereavement photography and see exquisite, heartfelt photographs of babies and their parents, go to the website of Todd Hochberg, who I consider to be the best in this field. He recently wrote about his work in The Lancet.