The utter devastation of a child dying is a memory that never leaves a family, writes Amanda Ducker.
The utter devastation of a child dying is a memory that never leaves a family, writes Amanda Ducker.

Infant death: When the unthinkable happens

OPINION

BEFORE she climbs through the wire fence into the cemetery, Mum passes the baby to a young man. From the grave, I watch him hold his son for the first time. Through the fence without snagging her flowing skirt, Mum opens her arms to take the little one back. In that capable way of hers, she looks as if she has carried her grandson this way many times before. She could almost be bearing a saddle or some other everyday object, but it's my nephew in a coffin.

We have been here many times before, but never with a dead baby.

We would always stop at the bush graveyard to say hello to Mum's paternal grandparents on our trips to the coast from our farm. Sometimes we brought their graves flowers from roadside stalls.

We'd always let our dogs out here, too. They'd scrabble out of the Land Cruiser to sniff and piddle then chase each other in big arcs. I'd always marvel that, from this point on, the pair became playmates for the holidays, given they fought at home.

My sister and I would comb the rows of headstones looking for dead children, calling out their ages to each other and wondering why they had died. Sometimes we removed plastic flowers because Mum thought they were awful.

Never to hold that tiny hand again. Picture: iStock
Never to hold that tiny hand again. Picture: iStock

Today Ma and Pa get drifting rose petals and a great-great grandson laid to rest alongside them. Our dogs are dead, but in our truce we resemble them: there will be no family fighting today.

At one point, a biggish dog - belonging to a mourner, I suppose, almost falls into the grave. As the edge crumbles away, somebody grabs it by the collar and yanks it back.

A man playing our dead baby one last song on a piano accordion lurches backwards when the wooden crate he's perching on gives way. Nothing is funny, though. Nothing is playful.

Men take turns at the end of a shovel to fill in the hole. The younger ones plunge the blade into the pile of earth furiously, pausing to wipe away tears with the backs of their hands.

Dad is a pitiful figure weeping at the head of the grave, clutching a photo of his only grandchild. It's not even a good photo.

My sister is here, too, bodily at least; she is remote, almost unreachable. Her faraway eyes belong to every grieving mother. I am just the younger aunt - I am nothing - and I am bereft. We are scarcely real, this is not happening, was he ever here at all?

We called it cot death then. Soon it would be SIDS, for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Now it seems to be Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy (SUDI), the tautology in the name underlining the profound shock when it happens. A seemingly healthy baby dies and your mind wants to reject the information.

"Z is dead," my sister had said on the phone, having been unable to reach Mum. "I've just found him."

Never again to cradle his little head in our hands Picture: iStock
Never again to cradle his little head in our hands Picture: iStock

Was he 10 weeks old? 12 weeks? I can't remember. I can't even properly recall his face now. The last time I looked at photographs he didn't look quite the way I remembered him. He'd be about 33 years old now. My memories of burying our family's baby are more potent than my memories of him when he was alive.

I'm remembering this all today after hearing that October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. It is a time of remembrance for lives lost in pregnancy, childbirth, infancy and childhood.

The most powerful documentary I've ever seen was Losing Layla, a 2001 story made by Australian Story producer Vanessa Gorman. It began as a pregnancy video diary, revealing her partner's apparent ambivalence to the news and her delight. The camera kept rolling after baby girl Layla was stillborn.

Vanessa was stoic until her mother finally arrived at her bedside, where Layla still lay, then her raw grief came in torrents.

Today I am thinking of my parents, of Vanessa's mother, and of all the other parents who have supported their adult children through insurmountable grief while experiencing a double dose of it themselves: a dead grandchild and the anguish of a broken-hearted daughter or son.

And I'm thinking of my sister and her first baby and the three words she chose for his grave: Perfection is brief.

amanda.ducker@news.com.au

Family members who are suffering from a recent or long-ago loss will find a supportive and understanding community, and lots of shared stories, at rednosegriefandloss.org.au

Originally published as When the unthinkable happens



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