An Infant's Death
How do we respond?
Posted Dec 10, 2016
I watched as efforts to save the life of an infant baby girl failed. I tried to comfort the grandfather as he explained to me that his granddaughter had been born with problems so significant that her life would never have been more than a flickering light. He showed me a picture of her smiling in her car seat when they first brought her home. The mother and father, so young themselves, collapsed in tears, as this small corner of the world melted into inconsolable grief.
An hour or so later I introduced myself to the parents and sat beside them as they held their daughter, as they cradled her and loved her. She had dark hair that clung to her head. Her mouth was an ‘O’. Her tiny hands rested at her side. Her eyes were closed, the illusion of sleep still on her face. “She’s beautiful,” I said. They smiled. “She was lucky to have you as her parents.” My voice crackled. “In just two months, she touched so many lives,” said the young mother, her eyes swollen. I reached out and caressed the baby’s cheek with one finger. “I want you to know that I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers.” I hugged them both.
I went to calling hours a few days later. I was surprised that they remembered me, a stranger to them really. We talked briefly. They thanked me for coming. Then I crossed the room to the snow white casket, little more than two feet long. As I knelt, I looked at the smiling picture framed in front of me. I closed my eyes for a long moment. Then I patted the casket, got up, and left.
I slept poorly all week thinking about this child and her parents; thinking also about my two young granddaughters.
There is a clear plastic blotter on my desk where I am writing this. Under it is this little girl’s obituary. It is right above a list of everyone who died at Sandy Hook.
The psychologist and philosopher, William James, writing about religious experiences over one hundred years ago said that mystical experience “defies expression; no report of its content can be given in words.” The same can be said of tragedy. When we are first pummeled by a tragic loss, words elude us because we can’t yet attribute any meaning to what has happened. It is an existential sucker punch; our breath, our spirit, leaves us in an instant and we feel like we may suffocate.
But we must respond. So we moan and we heave and we contort our faces and we lurch about having lost our balance and we fall and hope the ground catches us and we weep until our eyes are dry. The tears fall more quickly, more steadily than words ever could. And these expressions of our guttural humanity are the only language we have at first.
In time we find words again. With them we capture memories, create stories and find hope.
David B. Seaburn is a writer. His most recent novel is More More Time. He is also a retired family therapist and minister.