Gabriel Santorum and our Rituals of Grief

Because I am a self-confessed former political junkie in recovery, I sometimes miss stories when they first happen (which, trust me, isn’t really a problem).  Which is why I’m just now hearing about this Santorum, dead-baby deal.  For those of you who like me were fortunate to miss this story as it developed, here’s the brief version:

In 1996, Rick and Karen Santorum lost a child just past 20 weeks gestation.  The baby died 2 hours after birth.  The Santorums held and spent time with their deceased infant.  They took the baby home for their other children to be able to do the same.  They also had a funeral service and burial.  We know all of this because Karen Santorum wrote about it in her book Letters to Gabriel which came out in 1998. 

The reason it is in the news is because two commentators – one real liberal and one token “liberal” hired by Fox News to lose arguments – both made reference to this event on TV recently.  Both spoke of this story as being so strange, distasteful and crazy that voters who heard about it would reject Santorum as a disturbed wack-job.  Controversy ensued.  The Fox news talking head claimed in a tweet to have apologized directly to Rick and Karen Santorum who were brought to tears when asked to comment on these fools’ words.  (They don’t deserve to be named.  Fools is name enough.) 

I became aware of all this because, thankfully, mainstream news providers like Good Morning America and ABC News have started running stories explaining that the Santorums’ behavior, far from being weird, morbid or creepy, is normal, advised and healthy.  (I would guess that this is not simply good journalism at work – no doubt many reporters already know from experience that it is Santorum’s critics who are weird, creepy, odd and freaky.)  It is in line with the recommendations of everyone from the APA (American Pregnancy Association) to the dumbest shrink working in Sheboygan. 

When I heard this story, I went poking around because most controversy is ginned up and relies on distortion and a certain amount of dishonesty.  And now I am just stunned.  Mouth agape, almost beyond words stunned at some of the things I have read tonight.  Yes, two liberals picked this story out to use as evidence that there’s something wrong with Santorum.  And yes, several liberal media types have pushed back against these two.  But even many of those were of the “well, sure it’s weird and gross and creepy, but we shouldn’t criticize people for the things they do when they are deranged by intense grief.”  Also, most of them pointed out that such wackjobbery is just part and parcel of the “fetishization of the fetus by religious conservatives”.  Many conservative commentators have responded by claiming that the whole thing is proof of the level of moral degeneracy required to support legal abortion.  As if pro-choice folks just ask the nurse to dispose of their dead fetus with the rest of the medical waste when they suffer such a loss.  And we won’t even get into the comments section.  (Another piece of advice to recovering political junkies is avoid reading comments as much as possible.  Just don’t do it.)   A few liberal commentators wrote good, honest and touching columns supporting Santorum.  (Here‘s an excellent one.)  But the majority of what I read was so revolting that I’m not going to link to it.  Such things don’t deserve attention or brain space from decent people.

It just amazes me that there appears to be a decent size contingent of people for whom the entirely normal rituals and practices of people who have suffered the loss of a child in pregnancy or shortly after birth are creepy and beyond the pale.  A writer at The Daily Beast (liberal, but hardly an obscure corner of the web) included “referring to their deceased children as if they were living members of the family, naming them, and writing letters” on his list of weird things conservative, religious people do when they lose children.  I guess there is a decent size contingent of people who have had to deal with fewer hardships in life than the average refrigerator.  One would think that having the mental facilities needed to make use of language and eating utensils should render it impossible to be so clueless, bigoted and small minded, but alas, it clearly doesn’t.  Maybe they were fed arsenic as children.  (OK, I’m going to stop.  Be nice, Rebecca.)

I suppose the good part of all this is that over the next few days the average American will be getting a crash-course in dealing with the loss of a pre-term baby or one who dies after birth.   Obviously, the average person who hasn’t suffered debilitating damage to the portions of their brains responsible for rational thought can see that there is something wrong with all this “OMG – they touched their dead baby!  Growdie to the max!  Throw it away, for heaven’s sake!” nonsense.  However, the rituals of death and mourning that are used when we are faced with these sorts of losses are not generally part of our everyday conversations.  And, tragically, there are parents who have the misfortune of experiencing the loss of a baby while amongst people who were fed arsenic as children and have suffered debilitating damage to the portions of the brain responsible for rational thought.  (Suffering the loss of a pre-term or just born baby seems to be fairly effective in reversing arsenic poisoning and brain damage, but I wouldn’t wish such a thing on even these moral midgets.)  Too many people have had to blindly stumble through their loss without anyone to tell them that yes, their loss is very, very real and yes, there are things that we know help people work through their grief.  Things like holding your baby, taking pictures, and even “referring to their deceased children as if they were living members of the family, naming them, and writing letters”.

Losing a baby to miscarriage, premature birth, physical defects, illness or even accident is a very personal experience.  And there is no one way to handle it, of course.  Not everyone is going to want or need to name the child lost to an early miscarriage.  Many of us wouldn’t hold a funeral service to rival grandpa’s for a baby lost to pre-term labor.  Others would. 

But all too often the loss of a child in this way becomes an isolating experience – as if no one else could possibly understand what we’re going through.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The loss of an unborn or just born child has always and likely will always be part of the human experience.  As awful and painful as it is, it’s much closer to having cancer than being kidnapped by a stranger in terms of what sort of events one might encounter while moving through life.  No, it’s not nearly as common as it once was (PTL!), but it is still a common enough experience that the normal experiences, rituals and practices surrounding it deserve to be more widely known and talked about.  None of which is to say that the loss of a child is just one of those things – ho, hum happens to lots of people.  Not at all.  Each person’s story and experience is as unique as each person is.  But no one should feel like they are alone, carrying a burden too awful to even speak of.  And it hardly needs to be said that it is all too common for those who haven’t personally suffered and worked through such a loss to compound a parent’s suffering by saying stunningly unhelpful things and relying on erroneous assumptions to guide them.  So, although I do realize that there are people for whom this conversation will come too close on the heals of their own loss for comfort, I am glad to see talk of how we grieve these losses given attention by big media outfits.  It should never, ever, ever happen that someone would feel comfortable enough in their own ignorance of how the world works to say the sorts of things which I read tonight.  Not even for the sake of politics.

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2 thoughts on “Gabriel Santorum and our Rituals of Grief

  1. I lost a child as the result of an ectopic pregnancy. The day before I landed in the ER, God told me it was girl, and she wouldn’t make it. That gave my husband and I space to name her, and then, to grieve. I have two teens now, but I have three children. People can mock me if they wish. I know the truth.

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    • Megan, I’m so sorry that you went through that! So often I have seen that these children who are lost before we even have a chance to know them seem to have a way of becoming very real family members. I would guess that this has been your experience as well. Their short lives change things. Their very existence has a profound effect on the people involved that never goes away. I’m afraid I’m a bit like people who are tolerant of everything but intolerance; I’m a very empathetic person who doesn’t have much empathy for those who have no empathy to offer those who have dealt with tragic circumstances!

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