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Author Emma Hansen writes about the grief of losing a child in her new memoir, Still.

Aaron VandenBrink/The Canadian Press

  • Title: Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Motherhood
  • Author: Emma Hansen
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
  • Pages: 284

The joyful act of bringing a baby to term, only to see that life cut off before it begins, severs the trajectory of life itself. It is spring arriving with no flowers. It is reading a book with pages torn out. It is taking a breath without air. A child’s death destroys one of the narratives we rely on to make sense of our lives.

We don’t start out confident in the story of our children. Early in pregnancy, we are careful not to become too attached. We hold back sharing the news of this new life with others until we pass the 12-week mark. And though we start this journey with cautious trepidation, somehow, irrationally, over the course of nine months, we inch toward the due date with audacious blind faith.

What feels tenuous at first soon becomes a growing physical certainty – a spine, then limbs, a nervous system, then a brain. A tiny body awaiting its turn at life, a blueprint for a human being who will grow, kick, laugh, fall in love, mature into an adult and maybe have children of their own one day.

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To the parent of a dead child, this confidence ends up looking like hubris.

Child loss is a topic that makes people uncomfortable, but any parent who has lost a child knows it’s not all that uncommon; it’s just ignored. This willful blindness is possible because there are two categories of parents in the world: those who must live every day of their lives without their children and those who can forget that children die at all, because their children did not.

Our cultural silence around child loss also means there aren’t many books about it. Sure, an author drops in a tragic character here and there, or a film uses someone’s lost child as a plot device to explain a relationship’s demise. But there is a surprising dearth of stories that reveal what it means to lose a child. After all, if we’re uncomfortable hearing about it, why would we want to read about it?

The reality is that child loss can happen anywhere, to anyone. Perfectly healthy babies die. Sick children die. Infants die for no determinable reason at all. Even in a life that looks Instagram-perfect, babies die.

Emma Hansen, a woman in her 20s, seems like the last person you’d suspect was about to enter the invisible realm of parents who must live with the loss of a child. Her book Still: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Motherhood (Greystone Books) opens with descriptions of what could be any normal pregnancy of a young woman in the Western world – prenatal classes, monitoring appointments and checkups, pictures of baby bumps shared on social media. There’s a blog in which she documents her journey to birth, with posts that muse on everything from the organic creams she will use for her soon-to-be-born baby to recipes for pregnancy-safe smoothies.

Hansen’s is the kind of life that is no doubt the envy of many – the daughter of Canadian athlete and activist Rick Hansen, a model with a handsome husband and beautiful home. Her pregnancy has been uneventful until she notices, the day before the baby’s due date, that her unborn son has gone still inside her. When the doppler machine she has at home fails to pick up a heartbeat, she and her husband rush to the hospital, only to confirm the worst – the child has died just 24 hours before he was due to be born, as a result of an undetected knot in his umbilical cord.

When a child dies at any age, everything changes, yet nothing changes. Life goes on, even when tragedy stops the world for us. Hansen, heavily pregnant, must now return home to the agony of waiting for labour to begin.

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When it does, the story of Reid’s birth unfolds like almost any birth story, except he is born quiet in a maternity ward otherwise filled with the cries of life.

What happens when the story of a child ends before it begins? How does a mother make sense of her body stretched out of shape, but no child in a bassinet? How does she make sense of the blood and stitches that remain, while the child does not? How does a parent comprehend the miracle of a life that never gets to be lived?

No wonder it’s hard for us to talk about dead children. There are barely words for this kind of anguish, let alone answers.

Hansen does not look away from these questions, nor does she shield us from the physical and emotional realities of what it means to move forward in life without the child she carried for nine months. In the past, the bodies of stillborn children were swept away by nurses before the parents could even look at them; it was thought that to see their dead child would be too traumatic. But times have changed, and the hospital where Hansen gives birth considers Reid’s birth to be as special and important as any other. She and her husband spend hours with their son, dressing him, holding him; family members are allowed to visit and hold him as well. These are among the most riveting passages of the book, despite how difficult they might sound. Hansen’s willingness to not look away from the body of her child, and beyond that, to share the experience of meeting him on these terms with us, shows us that we also cannot look away from death. When we do so, we ignore part of life.

Hansen’s account of tragedy also teaches us that we must not look away from grief. Much of the ensuing chapters document the first nine months after Reid’s death. Hansen goes through all the usual postpartum changes, but without the associated sleepless nights and feedings. She and her husband go for walks without a stroller to push. She captures the disorientation she feels, at one point noting poignantly, “I am a mother, but what kind of mother am I?” In losing a child, a parent also loses part of a newfound identity. How will they now answer the question, “Do you have children?” Saying yes or no both feel true and untrue at the same time.

Even though Hansen’s story is one of tragedy, there is much beauty to be found in it. She has since gone on to have two more sons, but the depth and singularity of her love for Reid permeates each page. Her memory of a child who never got to live shows us the truth of the words by the poet Emily Dickinson: Unable are the loved to die, for love is immortality.

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Amber Scorah is a Canadian-American writer living in New York City. She is author of the memoir Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life.

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