The latest intra-pundit flap of Campaign 2012: a couple of my liberal colleagues have called Rick and Karen Santorum “crazy,” or “very weird” for wrapping and caressing the body of their baby, who died only two hours after emerging from 20 weeks in utero -- and taking it home for their children to see. These opinions provoked a conservative backlash. (One liberal later apologized.)
Maybe it’s not too late for a teachable moment about neonatal death and stillbirth — and the special grief that these not-uncommon, but obviously insufficiently understood, tragedies inflict upon parents.
Nine years ago, my son Jonathan’s heart mysteriously stopped in utero — two hours prior to a scheduled c-section that would have brought him out after 33 weeks. Next came hours of induced labor so that my wife could produce a lifeless child. I cannot describe the anxiety, emotional pain, and physical horror.
And then there was the question: what about the corpse? Fortunately for us, our hospital’s nurses were trained to deal with infant death. They washed the baby, wrapped him in a blanket and put a little cotton cap on his head, just as they would have done if he had been born alive. They then recommended that we spend as much time with him as we wanted.
My wife held Jonathan for a long while. I hesitated to do so. At the urging of the nurses and my wife, I summoned the courage to cradle Jonathan’s body, long enough to get a good look at his face and to muse how much he looked like his brother -- then say goodbye. I am glad that my love for him overcame my fear of the dead.
We, like the Santorums, took a photograph of the baby -- lying, as if asleep, in my wife’s arms. We have a framed copy in our bedroom. It’s beautiful.
Jonathan’s body was prepared according to Jewish law, including circumcision, and buried after a religious service. Clergy and friends gathered at our home to support us.
I regret that, unlike the Santorums, who presented the body of their child to their children, we did not show Jonathan’s body to our other son, who was six years old at the time. When I told him what had happened, his first question was, “Well, where is the baby?” I tried to explain what a morgue is, and why the baby went there. It was awkward and unsatisfactory -- too abstract. In hindsight, I was not protecting my son from a difficult conversation, I was protecting myself.
I’m not defending Rick Santorum the presidential candidate. From what little I know about him, he seems to have his own issues with moralizing and judging. To the extent he has used his family’s experience to make a point about abortion, I object.
But I am defending the right of the Santorums and all families to grieve an infant’s death in accordance with their personal needs and beliefs. My plea is for a little more respect regarding the way people deal with loss, and a little more maturity about physical contact with the dead. If that puts me in sympathy, for a moment, with this right-wing politician, so be it.
Jonathan’s death was probably the hardest moment of my life. But actually touching his body was a source of comfort and the first step in going on with life. Not weird.