By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
I studied Victorian literature in graduate school, and alongside the novels I read, I learned a great deal about culture in Victorian England. Nineteenth-century Britain was fascinating to me—particularly in all of its contrast with our contemporary society. The strictly gendered spheres for men and women, the uncomfortable clothing, the formal social structure, the likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth—it all seemed so impossibly long ago, as I read about it surrounded by the comfort of modern conveniences (and wearing pants rather than a crinoline petticoats).
When my daughter died, though, I suddenly felt a kinship for those women who had seemed so far removed from me in history. Because in the nineteenth century, many children didn’t live to grow up.
In a world before vaccinations, before germ theory, before ultrasounds, before doctors practiced the simple act of washing their hands before caring for a patient, every pregnancy was precarious and for every 1,000 infants born between 1875 and 1905, between 150 and 200 of them died. That number—10-20% of babies!—is staggering.
Before I lost my own baby, I think that I imagined the commonality of infant death would somehow lower the despair that people felt about the loss of their child. If it was occurring so often, surely it would have to hurt less?
Now having experienced this grief firsthand, I am quite certain that it does not work this way.
The American author, Mark Twain, lost his beloved daughter, Susy, in 1896, when she was twenty-four years old. It was not their first lost—Susie’s older brother Langdon died when he was just 19 months old. But one does not become immune to loss having experienced it before, and he felt shock as well as grief. Twain wrote in a letter to a close friend after her death, “I did know that Susy was part of us; I did not know that she could go away; I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.”
What the Victorians did manage, perhaps much better than we do today, was to acknowledge and incorporate such loss. While a black veil is rather impractical for everyday wear, I can appreciate the impulse to put a barrier between oneself and the world.
After Eliza died, I longed for an outward and visible sign to wear out in public—a black mark of some sort, like the arm band men often wore, so that people would know that I was grieving and would hopefully treat me gently.
While I’ve little need for the Victorian tradition of a black boarder on stationery, I might have benefited from a subject line grief-indication in my e-mail: “Sender is in mourning.” Or maybe an auto-reply function until I could deal with my inbox: “I am currently out of my mind with grief, as well as out of the office. I will be responding to e-mail when I can bring myself to care about your petty issues again; possibly, never.”
Living in the twenty-first century, a healthy young woman with access to quality healthcare and excellent doctors, I knew there was a chance that something could still go wrong, but I had no reason to believe it would happen to me. I assumed that once I got to third trimester, I safely assume that my pregnancy would result in a baby I would bring home with me. Twain writes about taking for granted his daughter in much the same way, not realizing she’d be gone so soon:
“To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the need to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in a night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper. How am I to comprehend this? How am I to have it? Why am I robbed, and who is benefited?”
That feeling of being robbed matches my own experience so vividly. It felt as though my baby had been stolen away by death, a shocking theft that I could have never expected. It was senseless and cruel that I lost something that everyone else got to take for granted. She was ours; I had counted on her. And now we were robbed of the experience of being her parents.
With Eliza’s death, I joined a legion of parents from the nineteenth century (as well as generations previous and later) who grieved the loss of their child—unexpected and bewildering, heartrending and devastating, no matter how common such a loss might have been.
Unlike nineteenth century parents, however, I was grieving my daughter in a society that expected my grief to be hidden, muted, and private.
I had once thought that the Victorian emphasis on death—photographs, elaborate wakes held in the home, jewelry made from the lost loved one’s hair—was over-the-top and kind of morbid. Now I craved physical connections to my daughter and socially mandated rules for marking my loss. I was glad to have photographic evidence of her; I wanted to touch her clothes, to feel connected to her, to carry something of hers with me at all times. Shouldn’t there also be a clear set of rituals? I would have liked to cover my mirrors with black fabric and wear a black uniform for a year. I felt like my inner devastation deserved to manifest itself outwardly. How could people expect me to just return to my old life, picking up the pieces and going on as though nothing had ever happened?
Without social norms to direct my grieving process, I felt as though I had to carve my own way.
I sought out support groups to find other bereaved parents experiencing the same feelings. I selected personalized jewelry to commemorate Eliza and make me feel close to her. We created our own, private rituals and symbolism with candlelight, sunsets, baby ducks, and pink magnolia blossoms.
The loss of a child is certainly less common than it was in the nineteenth century, and we should all be grateful for that.
But as death becomes more unexpected, grief becomes lonelier.
I think parents in the 1800s were just as heartbroken as we are today, but I hope they were able to find solace in knowing they were not alone. Today, many of us seek the same connection and mutual understanding (often on the internet) because it does feel that we are fewer and farther apart. Our traditions have shifted, but the heartbreak of grieving a child’s death remains a universal truth.
Our society today makes little space for people who are in mourning, and I think that’s why it’s so important to share our experiences and risk that vulnerability.