How to Name Dead Babies


The first dead baby you name is a boy, full-bodied but purple, lost deep into the second trimester. You have a single long, blizzard-bright night in the hospital while the meds muster him on his way into the world having already left it, to mull over names with your partner, who sleeps and weeps in turn while you labor and read Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine for the dozenth time—spring semester will begin in a week, no matter who is dead or alive, and you get to teach a book you love. You hide in it.

The characters, so familiar by now, so careening and fierce, pungent with longing and loss and truth, turn and eye you. They speak the same things they always have, anew, somehow speaking for you, too. Why did you not see it before, that Marie mourned for decades the stillborn girl she bore and buried, that, like everything else, it bruised but did not break her; how, now, shall you not worship Saint Marie for this, her most remarkable feat? And yet it’s Lipsha who tells you, So many things in the world have happened before. But it’s like they never did. Every new thing that happens to a person, it’s a first.

Let’s not pretend first means there’s a good place to start. This is an end we’re talking about here, or the beginning of reckoning with an end, so you can leap off and never arrive, or you can back up and go round again, anywhere, for as long as you like. Less an A to B than an M.C. Escher lithograph, those penrose stairways defying gravity, sense, stages, will.

During your first, second, and third pregnancies, you were familiar with this statistic: one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, a walloping twenty-five percent. You’d lived with that fear, palming a threat, an unshelled walnut clutched in your hand, for each of the first trimesters. But no one told you that one in one hundred and five pregnancies end in stillbirth, not until it happened to you; no one mentioned that it’s fairly—isn’t that the phrase your midwife used—common? Suddenly it seems like the tree you’ve been standing under. It reaches skyward, towering over you, the ground scattered with balls of green and black, the hulls, the shells, and everyone you know wants to tell you of someone they know who had a stillborn.

Do these numbers provide meaning, a place you’ve landed, a group you’re now part of? Short of a diagnosis—a name—is that what unites you? One, one hundred and five, two hundred and ten, three hundred and fifteen, four hundred and twenty, five hundred and twenty-five…

When you lumber down to the basement with the last box of Baby Things, you’ll step on a plastic egg, having rolled, you guess, from the holiday crate. You’ll hear it crack like a fortune cookie and when you pick up the ragged pieces of pastel, a half-shell still intact, you’ll try for whole, silent minutes to fit it back together before you let it drop. Nothing will be hidden or found in that one again.

This is something no one warned you about: you’ll start to hate the basement, all the Baby Things crammed into corners, cobwebbed but not consolidated—they’re somehow every-which-a’where, at each turn. To everything, turn, turn, turn—you hate the basement. Which is fine, since your hate right now needs a place to tuck away, to be slotted. Better to hate the basement than your partner, your two living children. Right? Or your two rescue dogs, whose ability to make it into this world breathing and whole seems, at this moment, exorbitant, ludicrous.

Definitely don’t think about your dozen houseplants, their flossy green flourishing, their branches studded impossibly with buds. You will want to kill them for being alive. You will not water them for weeks (are you trying to kill them?) and still they will survive. They stay alive, despite you.

”No fair!” your sons say when one and not the other has a party at school, when one and not the other gets invited to a birthday. No fair, no fair. You’re not sure where they’ve heard this phrase, and so you hold back, physically biting your mouth shut against the quip from movies and uncles and Sunday school teachers: Who said life was fair?

”I can tell you’re sad,” you say. Is this the right response, what that book on parenting suggests? You kneel and touch their faces with the tips of your fingers. ”I’m sorry you’re sad.”

”I’m not sad!” your sons say. They fling themselves away from your fingertips. ”I’m mad!”

You can cherish searching for and landing on a name without enjoying it at all. And, as with anything, limitations exist. Lines that can’t be crossed, even for those who grieve.

Say, for instance, you’d wanted this child to have a family name, an honor-name, maybe your mother and mother-in-law’s name pressed together, Karen-Ann, or your grandfather’s middle name, Roscoe. You never met your grandfather. He died of leukemia a few years before you were born. He was fifty-four. Your mother finishes every mention with ”you would’ve loved him.” Who can blame you to have wanted something of him, this gentle man whose dimpled smile is caught in your throat today, since wherever he is might be where your son is, too. Is it ridiculous to want them to find each other? Two souls you don’t quite know in a place you aren’t quite sure of.

Lulu Lamartine doesn’t chide you for this, Lulu with her hundreds of sons. The one that dove into the river, let his boots fill, and so must wander as a spirit forever. She asks, How come we’ve got these bodies? They are frail supports for what we feel. There are times I get so hemmed in by my arms and legs I look forward to getting past them. As though death will set me free like a traveling cloud. You’re not Ojibwe like Lulu, but your own ancestors, the Alabama Choctaw, seem to whisper into your silent Protestant spaces of the first and second shilup, shadows inside and out. Taken together: somehow both sinister and soothing. What kind of name is Lulu? Or Beverly, who begat the one that would drown himself? I’ll be out there as a piece of the endless body of the world feeling pleasures so much larger than skin and bones and blood.

You won’t name your dead child after a dead grandfather you never met. Your clouds don’t need those markers to collide. And maybe no one would say it, but the word ”macabre” would bounce between their ears like a pinball, and maybe, after all, someone wouldn’t be able to help themselves, the way so many of the things people say seem to come from that space, some invisible lever pulled back, the coil releasing with a stark jangle, then all the pinging and dinging and whirling within, the ball spinning the slots wildly, bouncing and sliding, shooting, at last, out their mouths.

You can always have another one. Honey, focus on the ones you already have! You’ll see him again one day. Well, Roscoe does have sort of an obsolete feel to it. A time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to—

You can’t really name a dead child after anyone living, either. Certainly not your mother and/or your mother-in-law. Not a mentor, nor a surviving grandparent or great-aunt. A living child named after someone you love is an honor. A dead child is, if not an insult, a sort of burden. An awkwardness. You’d have to work your way through a maze of caveats—”we’re not saying that you…” or “we hope this doesn’t indicate…” and “it’s only that we felt…”

The second dead baby you name follows the first so closely that when you find out you’re pregnant again, you believe without realizing you believe it’s redemption: this one emerging from the haze of loss, the fluke of tragedy, and now your suffering will yield something beautiful. Is this what you had to do, lose one to get another? Like a wet swimsuit, you cling to this, or it clings to you, suctioned, subconsciously. Then, held in the tender heat of early summer, you begin to bleed and bleed and soon enough the idea of redemption shucks you of its husk, its tassels—while you lose this baby, your own body starts to shutter, is snagged by a drop in blood pressure so severe it nearly takes you down, too, but in what would otherwise be your final, faltering moments, you’re spared, and when you come to, you sense something new.

You’re glad to be alive, sure, but now there’s more than one thing missing: no room for harvest, no room for moon. No diagnosis. No known name for what ails you.

Can you name your dead child after a historical figure? Maybe. But this, too, holds a vague, unpleasant irony. The one who didn’t live named after the one who will live in perpetuity. How do you name a stillborn Malcolm or Luther or Lozen and not be harkening, weirdly, their being silenced, assassinated? Harriet or Jovita or Ida Bell—not names for one who didn’t make it outside the womb, not when their namesakes took on and survived more than you can fathom. That, and, well, it’s another form of tokenism. You love what they stood for but aren’t naming a living child after them, someone who could grow and go and be and do the actual principles they fought and died for.

It keeps you humble. Dead babies are good for nothing if not a rather rabid brand of humility.

Speaking of virtues, you might be tempted to forage among them for a name, some upstanding quality you’d have wanted your child to be drawn to and/or demonstrate, some measure of whatever it is launched into this world, commemorated by the space your child would have had in it. Pax. Hope. Felicity. True. Valor. Joy. Justice. Faith. Merit. Mercy. Nope. Nope. Nope.

Does it work when they’re dead? Doesn’t it doom instead of dawn the possibility that more of said virtue belongs here?

Same for any name associated with health and happiness. You and everyone else on this earth want a hardy, lusty, whole, live baby, and, well, hell, you would’ve also welcomed variant, divergent, and alter-abled health. You want happiness, too. But you didn’t get any of that, and such ugly incongruity means Hale won’t work as a name for your dead baby. Nor Ken, Felix, Asher, Na’im, Winston, Gil, Millicent, Allegra, Farrah, Blythe, Laetitia, or Chara. The only ones that could work have other, larger associations, like Gabriel, “God is my strength,” or Valentine or Eloise—”healthy, strong, vigorous”—whose better-known angel or saint might override root meaning. Even so, that particular irony might sit somewhere inside you, maybe the back of your knees, maybe the sump of your bowels, like a stone.

The third dead baby you name: a girl who didn’t make it past the seventh week of pregnancy. Her heart beat a handful of days.

If you say the word slowly enough, Fa-ir-ly. Then speed it up, Fairly, Fairly, Fairly. Fehrleigh. Doesn’t it sound like a name? How common could it be?

Fairly: to quite a high degree, emphasizing something surprising or extreme. Fairly: with justice, suggesting honesty and straightforwardness, e.g. fairly and squarely.

To be fair, saints make a mean dead baby name. They’re dead. They’re lauded. They’re dead and lauded for specific and compelling reasons, and yet you could borrow from their causes without seeming overly noble, superficial, or quietly fraudulent (see tokenism above).

The tiniest—and you will find this to be true, as in hairline-tiny—of comforts might be that a dead baby named Tiernan is a nod to St. Tighernach of Clogher, who not only performed miracles but made a major dent in social norms such as the dehumanization of slaves and mutilation of those killed or injured after a battle. Okay, yes, nice. A dead baby named Christopher points to the patron saint of travelers, and one named Hilde summons up St. Hildegard of Bingen, poet, scientist, theologian, artist, composer, and mystic, credited with saying, “God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God.” A time of war, a time of peace, a time you may embrace, a time to refrain from—Of all the things you need, you need a fucking hug.

Nector Kashpaw mostly knows what he needs, how to reach out if not how to mourn. Higher Power makes promises we all know they can’t back up, he says, but anybody ever go and slap an old malpractice suit on God? Or the U.S. government? No, they don’t. He also knows how to bargain, maybe most of all with himself: Faith might be stupid, but it gets us through.

You bargain, too: it’s okay you named the ones who didn’t make it past the first trimester mainly because you named the one who made it well into the second, whom you held in your arms. Don’t they all deserve names—a way of holding (on to) them? It’s okay you didn’t know which to name, when. Mourning can’t be boxed, has no expiration date. No rules. No guides, not even this crumbling thing, not the staircase circling back on itself. Not the flimsy progress implied by stages. You may find a part of yourself harkening June Morrissey, the way her clothes were filled with pins and hidden tears.

But you are not June. You are you, and your own swashbuckling is equal parts lucid and anemic. You charge to your computer at regular intervals, determined to find a name you and your partner will agree on, A time to gain, a time to lose, and when those sites pop up—”Twenty ‘Oh’ So Cute Names with O Sounds!”—they feature, without fail, a photo. Some newborn in a hand-knit cap sleeps, beautifully, indiscriminately, grinning even then, and you see what you were meant to see: someone else’s perfection. Someone’s Harlo. Someone’s Kohl. A slew of Willows and Sparrows and Yarrows and Meadows and Poseys.

You see the whole of this forest. You see your cracked egg on the floor and again it’s Lipsha who tells you, You know, some people fall right through the hole in their lives. It’s invisible, but they come to it after time, never knowing where.

The fourth dead baby you name is, actually, the first you lost. You didn’t think of this until you’d lost so many babies you believed you were doomed. Cursed? The first baby you lost had been a twin. Your living son’s twin. Your first child, who lived, who had a twin you didn’t speak of because she was lost before you knew she was there. Was she even a she? In the eighth week of your first pregnancy, the ultrasound showed two gestational sacs, two fetal poles, but only one heartbeat. And now you wonder: why didn’t you mourn her? Should(n’t) she have a name?

After a time, you’ll wrap their names around your arm with ink. You’ll mark yourself with them, as you have been marked by them. You’re learning not to care how inconvenient your grief is for others. By now you know for certain: your grief is inconvenient to others. So when people comment how cool your tattoos are—what are they?—you’ll do what you need to do. Go there: take the risk of speaking their names aloud, collapsing all propriety, that hallowed, hollowed space between you and a stranger or neighbor or colleague or relative when it becomes clear that, yes, you have four dead babies. Or don’t.

Because—it’s true—no one will say your dead babies’ names but you. You may think they will, but they won’t. They may want to, may have the pluckiest of intentions. But they’ll stop short, afraid of what will happen when the names come from their mouths. Afraid for you, for themselves. They may avoid entirely the topic of your dead babies, those who would have loved them and called them by name every day and those who simply cannot handle your pain. This particular kind. They’ll clear a broad swath, make wide berth, feverishly hack out some new conversational path in the wilderness, anything to scuttle round it, anything at all to leave behind, move beyond, forget both the idea and the reality of your dead babies.

Give it time. Or even, Time heals all. Or worst of all, Isn’t it time to move on? These people mean well. Turn, turn, turn. Don’t they? They’re the same people who would, if given a chance, suggest the names Malachi, meaning “my angel,” or Seraphina, just to harken the seraphim that watch over you, whose ranks your baby girl has joined, praise be, because God needed her more than you. Because God has a plan.

You want to say, God needs babies?

Luke. Lars. Jem. Elle. Wren. Beau. Judd. Maeve. Day.

You will say the single syllables too hard, too leaden for others to say.

You’ll speak whole names into an empty room sometimes.

You’ll take each one out like a forbidden sound and let its music hang. Henry. Hen-ry. H-e-n-r-y. You’ll see the letters above you, your head on a pillow. You’ll twist and lope after sleep like a dog.

You’ll walk.

During the fog of day, when you try to keep it plastered sloppily together for the ones who managed to be born alive and want another spoonful of yogurt or help with subtraction, please, Mama, at all the moments you least expect, picking wild berries, say, or checking out books from the library, pressing cider at a family reunion, the names you chose will come choking out from somewhere inside you, into your fist, your shoulder or the knee you can bend and bite, the hank of forearm where the letters of their names leap in tiny lines, heartbeat-black, impossibly circling. Most of the time, they’ll be the only prayer you have.


Rumpus original art by Lea Wells.

Susanna Childress is the author of two volumes of poetry and a book of essays, Extremely Yours, forthcoming from Awst Press. Her short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry can be found at Iron Horse Literary Press, The Oakland Review, Image, Best American Poetry, Ocean State Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and Relief. She lives with her family along the western shore of Michigan. More from this author →