Uncomfortable Shrine To The Dead

by admin on April 23, 2012

So my story is actually “what am I supposed to say/do” question, I am writing on behalf of my mother.

My mother has a work friend who I will call Jane for the sake of this story. A few years ago Jane gave birth to a stillborn baby boy, and she and her husband were quite obviously very upset about this (who wouldn’t be?). My mom has been to Jane’s house a few times since the birth (but she hasn’t been in a long time now). Basically Jane and her husband have a shrine to their son in their living room consisting of a few large poster sized photos of the baby; the baby was stillborn, so they are basically large posters of a dead purple baby. The shrine consists of things like his first outfit and hospital tags, those things are quite sweet. Jane also has a photo album which she shares with guests when they come over which holds photos of family members holding the dead baby, and more photos of the baby. Every year as well, Jane and her husband throw a birthday party for the baby.

Now, I just want to say, that I do not begrudge Jane and her husband for the way they grieve, nor do I want to question their etiquette, they suffered a great trauma and I respect their feelings. The problem is, is that it makes my mother and the friends that she has spoken to very uncomfortable. The photos of the dead baby, the parties for the dead baby, the shrine, the album, it makes my mom feel really uncomfortable and she never knows what to say, she avoids going to Jane’s because she doesn’t want to have to see the many photos of the baby on the walls.

So what should my mom do? Does she keep making excuses and finding reasons not to go there?

Does she just suck it up and go there anyway? IS there a polite way to tell Jane that she is uncomfortable? It’s such a tender topic, that we both have no idea what she should do?

Have any readers ever experienced something like this? 0415-12

Grief of this magnitude can, after years, become a habit that is hard to break out of.   They are so used to seeing the shrine and reliving the pain that it has been normal for them and they have forgotten what life was like without grief.  Someone needs to gently move them forward into the land of the living with gentle steps such as suggesting moving the shrine to a less frequented room with the goal being to reduce the shrine to a more manageable size and location that is more private.   They are not forgetting their deceased child but rather are creating a more special place for their memories of him.   Also, friends can invite them to dinner where they can have the opportunity to see a normal living space and learn to enjoy simple pleasures again.

Who that “someone” is who brings this to their attention must be someone who is kind and gentle and has enough of a relationship to broach a tender topic like this and be trusted.   Perhaps your mother is that person.


{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Shea April 24, 2012 at 7:53 am

Cupcake, I don’t think people are saying that everyone should ostracize the couple, just that they should avoid going to the couple’s home, due to the discomfort from the enormous pictures of a deceased infant decorating the house. Most people have said that friends should be sure to invite the couple out to restaurants or cafes, or to their own homes.

Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is here. Having never lost a child myself, I don’t really understand what this couple is going through, so I don’t really feel I can condemn them for their method of trying to cope. Also, putting up pictures of their deceased child in their house seems to fall under the “their house, their rules” rule of etiquette. However, making one’s guests profoundly uncomfortable (in this case, specifically by showing around photos of the baby) is also rude. I know I would be very uncomfortable being shown multiple pictures of a purple, clearly dead baby while sitting in a room adorned with more pictures of the same.

One major problem I see is that the baby was stillborn, so they don’t have any pictures of their child alive. It might make some people uncomfortable to see pictures of a now-dead person when they were alive, but I think it’s far more common in this day and age to be made uncomfortable by pictures of the dead, particularly a dead child. It’s understandable that the couple want to have photos of their child around, but it just so happens that the only pictures they have are of a sort that are going to cause grave discomfort for many people. I know a woman who lost her son, and she has many pictures of him in her house, but he died when he was in his early twenties, so all the pictures are of him alive. It makes me sad to see them, but not uncomfortable. If she had pictures of him after the accident that killed him, or of him in his casket, I’d find it hard to visit her.

I agree with admin that these people need professional help dealing with their grief. I hope they’re receiving some. I don’t know what the answer is here, really. It’s just an all-around awful situation.


Enna April 24, 2012 at 8:37 am

@ Denise Miller, my deepest condonances for your loss. The way you morn your son is very meaningful with the balloon on his birthday and visiting his grave every month. Having the foot and hand print in the living room is a nice memorial to your son.

@ Angeldrac, you’re right that people telling Jane to “move on” won’t help but I don’t think having large pictures of her deceased child will help her either. To me, it does sound a bit unhealthy.


Cami April 24, 2012 at 8:57 am

My POV is two-fold.
1. While Jane and her husband have a right to feel and act any way they wish in the privacy of their own home, I think that right is not absolute when you start inviting others into your home. For example, if Jane and her dh were nudists in their home, would it be appropriate for them to host a dinner party in which the guests had to worry about more than hair from the cook’s head being in their soup? So, if you are engaging in behavior that makes people deeply uncomfortable when you invite them to your home, you need to stop. Or you need to stop inviting people to your home.
2. These parents are stuck in a phase of the grief process that is not healthy for them. They have essentially set up an automatic pain infliction plan in their own home. I have experience with this pain delivery system because a close relative of mine enshrined a room of their house, although it was not their living room. After 3 years had passed, I was elected by the family to have a gentle conversation with the mother and my dh with the father. We did it separately, both asked questions and very gently suggested that the lost child would always live in their hearts and that if the child had lived, surely she would not want the parents to daily inflict pain upon themselves as a remembrance. A year later, the shrine was quietly taken down and the room restored to its original function. The mother told me that she deeply appreciated that I had — in her words — “called her on her wallowing” and that she felt I had given her “permission” to move onto the healthy stage of grief called acceptance.

What a difficult problem it is to solve here in the OP! I really doubt that politely declining invitations and bean-dipping is going to work because I’d bet that Jane is going to ask why all of her invitations are suddenly being refused. I also doubt that she’s going to accept the polite lies that suddenly everyone is very very busy. So not telling her the truth now is just playing the odds and hoping that they run in favor of avoiding a difficult conversation.


Guess April 24, 2012 at 10:14 am

My DD died 11 years ago. We almost forgot her birthday this year, but last year we had ice cream cake at the grave site. She was stillborn, 40 weeks. w We do have two shelves, about the size of a small suitcase, filled with mementos and photos. It is in a far corner of the house where you have to go to it, and really look, and even then, it does not scream “dead baby.”
DH and I have tow other children, and we spent months attending a Pregnancy Loss Support Group.
Some couples divorce after the loss of a child.
One mom freaked out a carpet cleaner when he asked about the baby photos in her bedroom, but no baby items around the house.
Bereavement photography has a long history, and is usually tastefully done, since it is such a sensitive subject. I personally would not have a large poster, let alone in the main room, and then invite unsuspecting others to see the photos and mementos.

Oh-I did just recall- I have a photo holder tissue box, four sided. One for each child, and one of DH and I before kids. I usually have the deceased child’s photo turned, I guess to protect others? The box lives on a far shelf in the den. Anyway, while hosting a party, a good friend who knows the story came to me and said, I am turning the tissue box away, because see the picture and it makes me sad. It had been moved during dusting, and I had not noticed her photo was turned out.

And I was totally fine with the moving back. It was a party; we were having fun.

My mother’s ring has three stones, but only two are on earth.
Is that morbid? I purposely chose a ring hat does not scream “I am a mother’s ring.” It looks more like a pretty three stone cluster in a swirl design.

If asked, I will share. But I do not force my story on others.
Well, I guess I did here, but if have read past 50 comments, you are obviously interested. 🙂

The OP’s story is one we cannot judge. Even having suffered child loss myself, I cannot say she is grieving the right or wrong way. That is like telling someone they chose the wrong floor plan for their house. We each have our own way to do things.

Either way, a work friend is NOT the person to tell her, “you are doing it wrong!”


Miss Alex April 24, 2012 at 10:20 am

Admin, I’m so sorry to hear about all your losses.

OP, I think that recommending this family to a grief counselor might be the kindest option.


J'smama April 24, 2012 at 10:31 am

Rachel – Quick question, how do you “Grieve properly?” And what does adopting a child have to do with moving on with your grief? Those two things are not related. Just because you lose a child doesn’t mean you ever forget the child you have lost. I have a beautiful little boy, but does that mean I’ll ever forget the daughters that are gone. Anyone who has ever buried a child – no matter how old – knows that one child can never be replaced by another child. I still feel intense sadness when I think of my girls, although I work, laugh, and live a productive life. I pray you never go through that kind of heartbreak.


Missy April 24, 2012 at 11:30 am

Before I say anything, I think I should point out that it is unfair to ask mourners to “do it right.” I and some friends belong to the lovely “dead baby club.” Initial grief will range from plastering the pictures all over to complete denial. Pretty much every person in our club has been informed by someone who just doesn’t get it that we are “doing it wrong” and that our incorrect mourning will doom us to eternal dysfunction. People who take pictures with a stillborn are “morbid” while others who don’t are told that they won’t have anything real to mourn and will therefore get “stuck.” The truth is, the vast majority of people who mourn in very different ways and manage to live normal lives regardless.

One of my my best friend’s mother bakes a cake for her stillborn’s birthday every year even though he would be over 40 now. She is a contributing member of society and is happy most of the time. But that doesn’t mean she is able to stop thinking about her child and she allows herself to do that within reason.

That said, people who are close to a person will know very well when it is an unhealthy spiral. Someone pointed out that it is not a mourner’s problem if you are uncomfortable with the mourner. There is going to be some time when a person will probably be less happy, less effective, and have trouble enjoying life. I have yet to meet anyone who knows how to skip real mourning. It happens, but most people move on at their own pace. You don’t move on because someone tells you to. You move on because you are ready.

Like the Admin said, people who are close will know the difference from real, healthy, processing and an unhappy downward spiral. If your whole motivation for remedying the situations is because you feel uncomfortable or you dislike their mode of mourning, you are probably not the one to help them move on.


abcd123 April 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I really suggest that you have this couple listen to Janet’s song “Together Again”. It’s the only song that I know of that deals with death positively. After listening to the song and really feeling the lyrics, it makes you feel a little lighter if not happy. In her album, she says “You don’t have to hold on to the pain, to hold on to the memory” prior to the song. I think it’s a perfect advice to those who have extended periods of mourning.


Enna April 25, 2012 at 4:35 am

@ Guess , sorry for your loss. As for OP’s Mum being suitable or not as a work firend is something that varies as each situation will be different and must be treated as an individual case. It depends on the personalities of the people involved and the kind of relationships they have. Even if the OP’s Mum is not close enough to do this, maybe she can do other things to help support Jane? It could be as simple as going to the shops with Jane and helping her push a trolly around.

@ Cami: I can see where you are coming from with beandipping. Maybe, depending on the situation it would be an idea that firends invite Jane round when she invties them? If people stop visiting Jane she might work out that it is the photos that are putting people off if she’s getting plenty of invatiations but few people except her invataions.

Does Jane have any firends who have children? Because if she does, these firends may not want to bring their children round to see the photos. What happens if an unsuspecting firend brings their children round?


Wink-N-Smile April 25, 2012 at 8:56 am

It may be unhealthy, but it’s not your place to police her health in this aspect, any more than it is to tell her, “Those chips you’re eating aren’t good for you,” or “You should lose some weight. It’s not healthy to be so fat.”

If it makes you uncomfortable, don’t visit her in her house. Take her out, or invite her to your place, instead. And give her time. The loss of a child is one of the most prodound losses a person can suffer, and this is even harder, as the parents never got to make ANY memories of the baby when she was alive. No happy gurgles or anything. Just the kicks in the belly and then pain and death. It is heart-crushing, and I’m not surprised they haven’t had another baby. My sister never had another one after she lost her baby at birth. It would have been too much for her to bear. Mother’s Day is particularly problematic. Do you send a card, or don’t you? Is it rubbing salt in the wound? Or would it be more painful to ignore the day, and her sacrifice (She had a difficult pregnancy and was told she ought to abort, but she opted to stick it out and give the baby a chance).

I think your best bet here is to lead by love. Comfort the parents as best you can, and give them the time they need to mourn. Grief does dull over time. It never goes completely away, but people learn to cope and they do, eventually, in their own time, move on. And when they do, they’ll appreciate your kindness, compassion, and patience that much more.


Jenny April 25, 2012 at 4:48 pm

But, Wink, if you think someone has an issue to the point of mental disorder (such as bulimia or extreme depression) then what do you do? I think this couple has possibly gotten into a dangerous pattern of grief and potential psychosis Sure you don’t police other people’s behavior, but how do you raise the “I think you need help” without sounding like that?

Grief does dull over time, but sometimes it doesn’t. And it sounds like it isn’t here.


Ally April 25, 2012 at 7:09 pm

OP here, I really appreciate everyones kind words. I do agree that it probably isnt my moms place to say anything, but I know that she is quite friendly and close with Jane, as is my moms way, everyone loves to be friends with her.
I do agree that Jane and her husband need help, perhaps this is something mom can help with? We are not sure just yet, but hearing all your stories and advice has really helped. Love this site and thank you all for not turning my words against me! I am always afraid of that happening in blog situations.
For those that have experienced similar losses, I am very sorry and I hope reading this story wasnt too painful.


acr April 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm

What an awful, terrible thing. I can’t even imagine.

However, this really struck me:
“Jane also has a photo album which she shares with guests when they come over which holds photos of family members holding the dead baby, and more photos of the baby.”

Say what you will about their right to grieve in their way. I don’t think that excuses them basically strong-arming every person who enters their home into looking at photos of the corpse of a child. I, personally, would never go back, and I would probably dramatically distance myself from them. It would be more acceptable to me of the photos had been taken while the child was alive. But, frankly, I don’t think ANY level of grief justifies this treatment of other people. Especially not grief that is YEARS old.


Anonynyme April 26, 2012 at 2:38 am

A Facebook friend of mine made a photo of her stillborn baby her profile picture. While I am terribly sorry for her loss I found it a bit confronting to see her dead baby like that when I wasn’t expecting it Putting photos of her little boy in an album on FB is fair enough, but a profile is very public and you see it without warning which was especially upsetting to me as I was pregnant myself and quite hormonal and emotional at the time. Grieving, grieving publicly and for a long time after the loss becomes awkward for everyone the bereaved person knows. But I wouldn’t want to tell her (or the couple in the OP’s story) not to do it.


whatsanenigma April 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Personally I am wondering what the couple is looking for, when they invite guests to a home with such pictures on the wall or pass around on purpose an album of such pictures. Do they really expect visitors to completely ignore the wall pictures, or to flip through the book in silence?

I don’t know…I’m no mental health professional either. And of course they have every right to decorate their home as they please and grieve in whatever way works for them. But to have it out so publicly, not even to warn potential guests of what they will see, and to deliberately have them look at the photo book…are they perhaps requesting in some way some kind of advice on dealing with this grief?

I suppose the more fundemental question might be, if it is on display to the public, is it fair game to discuss? And if it is, then can the person displaying the things only expect a certain kind of discussion? Is it fair for them to expect that no one will involuntarily recoil or suggest grief counseling or anything at all of that nature? It does not seem right either, on the other side of it, to just ignore the things on such public display and, in the case of the album, literally being put into your hands. Not right, perhaps even disrespectful or dismissive.


miss1tiki May 3, 2012 at 2:35 am

I have a son who was stillborn and it was the toughest thing I’ve gone through. I have his little things (knit cap, gown, foot/hand prints etc) in a little box that I would look at often the first 2 years or so after but I didn’t make others. A relative of mine has a son that died as a young teen from cancer, it’s been 6 years and she has a shrine in his room, talks about him constantly telling the same stories over and over. I can’t imagine what her pain must be as mine was really bad but she is alienating others. It’s uncomfortable to be made a hostage to someone else’s grief for so long. I redirect the conversation each time (anything will go back to her son no matter what you are talkin about) so I can understand the OP’s POV. I’ve been on both sides and feel its unfair to make others go down a depressing path with you. Btw, I have photos of my son and as gorgeous as he was the purple lips and bluish skin are distrubing and I found that I have a difficult time looking at them and he is mine.


Susan May 3, 2012 at 10:47 am

Calli Arcale is right about the Victorian post-mortems. I have a small collection, not because I’m into death and dark things, but because I find them, and all things mourning-related in that era, interesting.
The ones I have, though, are small and are kept out of sight. I know some people would be freaked out by them and totally respect that. Add to Calli’s comments: the death rate for babies and small children was quite high back then. Sometimes it was the only picture families had.

The pictures make me sad; there’s no other way to feel about a baby’s death.

Regarding large pictures of deceased children on a living room wall (which no one can really avoid) is a bit much for me. I knew someone who put a picture of her stillborn son on her LR wall many years ago. It was huge, and frankly it made me uncomfortable. I’m not judging, or saying that it’s wrong, just that it wasn’t something I’d be comfortable with. A more private room would be more appropriate, perhaps?

My grandparents had 2 large framed pictures of their dec’d children (not postmortems) on their bedroom wall. Even as young children we knew these pictures were special, and that Grandma had never stopped mourning or missing her son and daughter.


Enna May 13, 2012 at 10:47 am

@ Wink-a-Smile: chips are unhealthy yes. But one portion isn’t going to harm you. I would be more worried about the couple spiralling down and down in their grief and not being able to get out. What happens if they have another child? Is that child going to grow up in the shadow of his/her deceased sibling? Acr makes a point that showing the photographs to every guest isn’t fair on the guests.


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