More than a decade ago, my son died in utero and I instantly shut down. I cannot begin to convey the contours of the sad land that day showed me.
In calm tones, a nurse asked if I wanted to name him, a question that sliced me more than any scalpel: it made my boy’s existence so real.
This idea of a name, almost above anything else, marked how far away our boy was from life. Perhaps you might be able to imagine how cavernous the emotional dissonance such a question could start, how clamorous and strange all the questions seemed, unhinged from time. Within the scope of the same conversation, I was being asked about baby autopsies and names.
As someone who has lost a child, I'm particularly moved by the complex act of naming a baby who did not reach term and died in utero. Longed for babies who were miscarried or stillborn.
It's a buried question in the bereavement community: some parents choose to name, and others don’t. Some choose to share the name of the baby widely, others do not. My son has a name but I don’t share it widely, particularly. My reasons for this are complex.
I don't think there is a right or a wrong thing to do, but I do think that thinking about the act of naming is important.
Why? Because unique weight lives in names. A name affirms existence and even a kind of permanence.
As we come to understand the many forms of trauma and the resilience of those capable of surviving it, we learn our stories about particular traumas evolve. No stasis applies to those living with trauma. Instead, survivors find a kaleidoscopic way to understand their experience in retrospect. Bits of glass fall in seemingly random ways and slowly a pattern can be discerned. When we move, the pattern changes again. As is true in so many other moments of life, essential truths contain multiple versions, especially truths as porous as existence.
As it happens, we ultimately gave our son a name which, had he lived, would likely not have been his name. In a moment of tragic and crushing beauty, considering a baby whom we already loved unequivocally yet who would never live among us, we gave him the name Dylan.
Writing it here, I note the great ambivalence I have both about naming and this name itself: a name which recalls his death. I note how carefully I share it here, fearing judgment about this boy, this moment, this name which I never use without care, wishing to guard some precious truth.
There is a real fear among loss moms that crucial people may not understand that a baby was named, let alone why. I fear too many references to my son's name will reveal the rift between those who don’t understand what it means to hold a warm, dead baby and those who do. Since some might consider me morbid, I fear being stranded on a spit of land the baby-bereaved know well.
And yet this also is true: hanging on to slight memories of an ephemeral existence is harder than it seems. The banality of the everyday can wash over all. The ephemeral memories are more easily threatened than sturdier, less impermanent ones. Comb a mossy old cemetery and you’ll find lots of tiny headstones commemorating unnamed babies.
Another fear haunts me: those whose hearts have been as broken as mine will be confused by my ambivalence about his name. I am not ambivalent about the tragedy of Dylan’s loss. I have learned that happiness is hard won after loss, but possible. My heart pinches when I see incomplete family photos, yet the pinch does not steal from the joy in the life I have built.
Photographs courtesy of I-Stock.
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