I freely admit to a certain fondness for the Duggar family. They seem like genuinely nice folks who simply happen to hold different religious views than I do. When I heard that Michelle Duggar had suffered a second trimester miscarriage week before last, I felt terrible for her – both for her tragic loss, and also for the onslaught of meanness that was about to come surging her way.
As a strongly pro-choice woman and mother myself, I’ve blogged before about how hypocritical I find it that so many other women who would go to the mat to defend my right NOT to have children are so nasty in their criticisms of another woman’s choice to have lots of children. Michelle Duggar’s reproductive choices are not the same as mine, and mine likely aren’t the same as yours, but when we start defining what’s acceptable in terms of how a grown woman should and should not conduct her own reproductive health and life, we’re headed down a slippery slope.
And the same is true when it comes to the public criticism of the way Michelle Duggar has chosen to express her grief at the loss of her pregnancy in the second trimester. The Duggars decided – as many, many parents who suffer a second or third trimester pregnancy loss do – to name their baby, a daughter they christened “Jubilee Shalom Duggar,” and to hold a memorial service for her, just as they would have if the baby had been born alive but had died the next day. Their decisions to do even these things sparked some public derision, but it’s been one specific element of their memorialization of their loss that’s really got people talking – and mostly not in a good way. The particular choice they’ve made that’s being most scrutinized and negatively commented upon is their decision to have photographs taken of their tiny baby after Michelle delivered her at home, and to then share those photos beyond their own family.
Many public critics are saying that they would never take photos of a dead baby or child, PERIOD, but the outcry grew in volume and negativity after the Duggars’ sensitive photos entered the public domain via a young adult member of their extended clan who made the unfortunate decision to tweet them out for the whole world to see.
I have no idea whether Michelle Duggar or her husband knew of or approved their young cousin’s ill-advised action in tweeting their special memorial photos of their deceased baby to the cruel world at large immediately following the service, but I have a pretty strong suspicion that they did not know that she planned to do such a thing. But now that it’s done, it’s done. There’s no way to get that horse back in the barn. So the next day, the Duggars published the photos on their own website, where if these private photos were going to be displayed on the internet anyway, Mr. and Mrs. Duggar could at least place them in an online context with which they felt most comfortable.
But while I agree that this young woman’s tweet was probably not the most sensitive way to share these very personal photos publicly, the idea that there is something bizarre, inappropriate or distasteful about grieving parents photographing a dead child – whether that child died in utero or after birth – or in then sharing those photos in whatever way they choose is something with which I take great issue.
The criticism to which Michelle Duggar is currently being subjected has ranged from the mild and thoughtful (my friend and fellow Babble blogger Monica Bielanko gently expressing her personal discomfort with seeing the memorial photos) to the viciously cruel and salacious (the National Enquirer referring to the photos and the parents of the baby in the photos as “creepy.”) But however the negativity toward this grieving mama is being expressed, it shows a profound lack of understanding for the experience of maternal grief.
I have suffered several first trimester miscarriages, and while they were disappointing and physically draining, I really did not feel any grief around the experience. However, I know many women who have been shaken to their core by deep grief after losing pregnancy even early on. But when it comes to pregnancy loss near or after the time of viability, which is where Michelle Duggar lost her baby, I don’t know anyone who’s been through that particular hell who didn’t see it as losing a baby. Nasty online critics can demean losing a child five months into pregnancy, as the Duggars did, by referring to this family’s dead child with the technical and cold terminology of “miscarried fetus,” but that doesn’t reflect how the mother who birthed that tiny child, held her and laid her to rest feels. To parents who lose a baby in the second or third trimester, they just HAD A CHILD DIE. It’s as simple as that.
So then the question becomes, is it humane or reasonable to in any way question the decisions that a mother makes in how she grieves her dead child? What purpose does that serve? WHY would anyone even raise the issue of whether the way that a mother has chosen to grieve is “appropriate” or “correct?” The myriad ways that people grieve and memorialize their dead children are deeply rooted in culture and religious practice, and when we criticize others’ grief rituals, we’re expressing a type of bigotry, as well as a lack of respect for our own families and their histories.
While Americans today rarely display memorial photos of a dead child, and may find the idea “creepy,” our great-grandparents (NOTE: NEXT FEW LINKS CONTAIN GRAPHIC PHOTOS OF VICTORIAN DEATH IMAGES) did so quite regularly. Loving, perfectly normal parents would pose their just-deceased babies and children in various ways, often with the grieving mother holding the child, or with the living siblings gathered around, and would then treasure the photos – or the portrait painted from the photos – for the rest of their own lives.
And displaying photos of dead children isn’t the only grief custom that may now be seen as bizarre but not so long ago was seen as beautiful and sacred; in my own family there exists a framed wreath of about 18 by 18 inches, dating back to the mid 19th century, intricately woven of the hair of various children who died in the same generation. (It looks very much like this one.) It’s an item created for public display, even though nowadays most people would find it bizarre if we chose to hang a large wreath made of our dead child’s hair in our living rooms.
Even today, in a nation homogenized by television, interstate travel and the internet, there exists a panoply of grief rituals within specific American subcultures and religious groups, and they all deserve our reverence and respect. Orthodox Judaism requires that a dead relative never be left alone before burial, and prohibits autopsies, embalming and cremation, for example, while here in the the southern U.S., where I live, it’s very common for protestant families to hold open-casket events called a “receiving of friends,” in which their dead child (or other family member) is displayed for all to see, embalmed, hair dressed, and laid out for hours in a sumptuous coffin in a room full of flowers and food. Visitors come by the funeral home to show their respect by signing the guest book, speaking gently to the bereaved parents, and by filing past the deceased slowly and reverently, then circling back to tell the grief stricken mama and daddy how beautiful their child looks.
Various types of public display of the dead are cultural traditions of mourning that help many parents navigate their grief, and while it might make some people uncomfortable to see a dead child dressed in her best and laid out in repose in a satin lined casket as people file past – or to see a cardstock photo of a tiny foot pressed up against a bereaved mother’s hand published on the internet – that doesn’t matter.
Basically, what I’m saying here is this: let’s all try to be kind. The Duggars may be on television, and they may be of a different faith tradition and culture than I am or you are, but they are real people – real people who are trying to deal with the death of their baby in their own way, within their own cultural context. And whether or not their way is YOUR way is absolutely immaterial. Another family’s grief practices aren’t anyone’s business but their own, even if those practices include public display of the dead or photos of the dead. Criticizing the way people memorialize a dead child is just cruel, no matter how you couch it.
The fact that those photos of Jubilee Duggar’s little foot and hand might make other people uncomfortable – people who didn’t just have their child die – isn’t the point. Memorial rituals and grief traditions are about helping the parents whose child has just died feel comforted and supported. They’re not about pleasing the rest of us, or about conforming to how we would do it, or about conforming to funerary rites that we would prefer. In fact, expressing our own preferences or tastes in criticizing the way another parent chooses to memorialize her recently dead child strikes me as being in far worse taste than anything the bereaved parent might have done.
If those photos of Michelle Duggar’s dead baby’s foot offend you in some way, why not take that negative emotional energy and turn it into something good. Why not grab your own camera, and go take a photo of your own healthy, beautiful, living child. I’ll bet that as you look through that viewfinder at your own good fortune, manifest in every breath your beloved son or daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew takes, you’ll have a new perspective on this whole thing.