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.

 

{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Cat Whisperer April 23, 2012 at 6:54 am

Wow.

This is a real paradox. “Jane” and her husband are obviously dealing with a tremendous loss in a way that works for them, but which may be costing them friendships and damaging relationships they have with other people.

In the context of what they’ve lost and had to deal with, saying something like “people are uncomfortable with pictures of your dead baby” just feels wrong. But it’s true: I’d feel the same way OP feels.

I think that only someone who has suffered a loss of the same magnitude, i.e., suffered the loss of a child, has any chance of being listened to by Jane and her husband. For this reason, I think that if OP could find out if there is a support group for parents who have suffered the loss of a child in infancy, and could put them in touch with Jane and/or her husband, that is the best hope of helping Jane and her husband to deal with their loss in a way that doesn’t make other people feel helpless around them.

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Sarah Jane April 23, 2012 at 7:07 am

This story breaks my heart. Perhaps someone kind and gentle as the admin describes could recommend counseling to this couple, if they are not already in pursuit of it.

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The Elf April 23, 2012 at 7:31 am

Since Mom is a work friend, not a close friend or family, she needs to just express her ongoing sympathies and try to change the subject when the photo album comes out. If Mom and Jane are religious, comments about how the baby is waiting for her in heaven or something is appropriate. Trying to meet in more nuetral places is fine, too.

But this is ultimately a task for someone who is very close, who can pull Jane aside and say “enough with the pictures, already”. Deep grief, even over years, is normal. Even a sort-of shrine with a picture is fine. It’s the sheer number pictures that are too much, in such a public part of the house, given the way our society deals (or rather doesn’t deal) with death. It’s bound to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

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Angeldrac April 23, 2012 at 7:36 am

Lifewithoutcameron.com is a blog my friend has been writing for the past few years since she lost her first baby. Please read it for a more indepth insight into a grieving parent’s mind.
While I can definatly understand your mother’s discomfort (I really do, I have felt similarly), I feel it is minimal in comparison to a parent’s grief.
This mother will never have the chance to boast of her son’s school grades, to watch him play with his friends, to kiss him good night and, her whole life, will be faced with having to explain away her feelings, to explain “how many children [she] really has”, to feeling like the rest of the world will keep turning and will forget her little baby who she loved so much. I’m sure her life is filled with wellmeaning people telling her to “move on”, “get counselling”, “have some closure” etc.
As far as etiquette goes, I really think the best thing for your mother to do is, as you suggested “suck it up” or not go there. Your mother could also be in the unique position to be one of the few people that asks her about her baby, who remembers the baby and isn’t just telling her what she should do or feel.
Please, please read some of my friends blog, it really could be quite a help for you in this situation.

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Drawberry April 23, 2012 at 8:45 am

This would be one time in which above all else I do agree with the admin’s statements.

This couple suffered a devastating loss that has clearly damaged their lives and left a hole in their hearts. All of which, is entirely understandable. However I do agree that this couple is focusing so much effort on returning to their pain and even obsessively reliving this. It has crossed from grieving into a whole different territory and I would recommend the couple visits a counselor for such a tender and heartbreaking event.

Whatever does happen, I really do hope that this couple can move on in their lives and find a healthier way of honoring their passed child.

What you described reminded me a bit of the ‘closet alters’ that are seen in Japan. They are typically used by those who practice Buddhism. A small shrine is erected inside of a wooden cabinet that displays possible religious icons (if the family has any) as well as various things like candles, bells and incense . Platforms may be inside where offerings such as food or wine are placed. Often times photographs of dead loved ones may be put inside such a shrine, and these alters are often regarded by Japanese Buddhists as essential in the home and a high percentage of homes feature one. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butsudan) Perhaps a similar set up, following in practice with the religion (or lack of) of the couple will give them a private place to mourn their child without having to feel as if it’s being relived each time they step into the living room?

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jena rogers April 23, 2012 at 8:52 am

I would disagree with Admin. That “special someone” should be a grief counselor, other mental health professional, or clergy — someone qualified to work with this level of grief. A “work friend” is exposed to a multitude of risks in attempting to play such an intimate role suggested here. A close family member might best be the one to steer them into professional counseling if they are not able to consider this without a nudge. Were I in such a situation as the mother of the OP, I would have no choice but to distance myself as much as humanly possible. While the couple might or might not take the hint, the main purpose would be to protect my own emotional health, while also mitigating the risks of saying something that might offend. I personally see no other alternative.

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Gina April 23, 2012 at 8:56 am

It seems to me that the OP’s mother’s discomfort is her problem, not the grieving parents’ problem. For these people, there is no “life without grief” anymore. Yes, the way they express it is unusual (and it would make me uncomfortable), but that’s not for a coworker to try to fix.

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Enna April 23, 2012 at 8:59 am

I agree 100% with the admin on this on. How long ago is a few years? Two? Three? Clearly losing a baby is one of the hardest things to face in life if not the hardest, so saying “get over it” would be wrong but they do need some strong support from firends and family to help them in this difficult time. Showing the photos to every vistor does sound like a cry for help to. Does your mother’s firend invite people with young children over? It would be very distressing for them.

I think your mum should have a talk with the other firends who have voiced simillar concern. How close is your mother to her firend’s family? If any of the firends are close to other family members who have or may voice simllar concern get them on board too. This may not just be a “one person” job, everyone needs to be on the same page and others, whilst they may not be suitable to have this gentle talk with Jane, they may have useful suggestions or other roles.

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Enna April 23, 2012 at 9:04 am

P.S when Jane and her husband throw a birthday party for their stillborn child – what does this entail? Do they invite people round?

I can understand why your mother does not want to be rude but is uncomfortable going round and has considered making excuses, but what happens if Jane and her husband start loosing firends over this? They will be more isolated.

I think inviting Jane and her husband round would be a good way to see her without having to see those distressing photos. She will also, like admin says about enjoying simple pleasures again.

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Denise Miller April 23, 2012 at 9:14 am

I disagree strongly with the admin.

5 years ago this October, our son passed away from SIDS at 10 weeks old. His picture is in every room of our house (granted, they are not poster sized and we are fortunate to have many of him living, and none deceased), and in the front room of our house, there is a mold of his foot prints and a framed part of wall taken from his nursery.

We visit the cemetery at least once a month (it used to be weekly until we moved further), we do March for Babies every single year in his memory AND we host a balloon release on his birthday every year with cupcakes. It is important to our older child and one day I believe it will be to our subsequent child. To those who have expressed we should “get over it and move on” I’ve explained that their presence is not necessary at all. As long as we are living he is our son and we will continue to celebrate his life, no matter how short it was.

I’m really sorry that the death of their child and the way they chose to remember that child makes other people uncomfortable. I understand it is incredibly taboo in our culture still, which I believe is why many people chose to decline photographs or keep them hidden, but they have every right to keep their home as they choose. It is not anyone else’s business to dictate to them what is healthy and what is not. Especially not someone who has not gone through the loss of a child.

If it were a living child, would it be ok to have life size photographs and share the memories and pictures? If having the photographs and sharing their child with others brings them comfort, then let them. If it makes someone uncomfortable, don’t go. But do not displace your discomfort onto them.

And please, do not make the assumption that just because they chose to continue their child’s life that they are not enjoying the simple pleasures again to the best of their ability, or that they have not been under the care of professional help to deal with their grief. Putting away the pictures will not change how they live their lives.

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admin April 23, 2012 at 10:39 am

The difference between you and the OP’s family is that you have photos of a child while alive hanging on your walls whereas the grieving parents in the story have photos of a dead child. I can’t think of any context where photos of the dead being displayed in this manner would be appropriate. My husband has a photo of his sister and father shortly after their deaths in peaceful repose but these are private photos that are not shared unless specifically requested by close family to view them.

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Shoegal April 23, 2012 at 10:00 am

I have to ask as well – what do you do at a birthday party for a stillborn infant? Celebrate???? I’m at a loss and have no words. I can’t give any advice and I can’t judge these people at all – it is beyond my realm to advise your mother or the parents.

My only thought is that your mother (as a co worker/friend from work) is probably not the person to help the parents move on from their grief. Time does tend to lessen the pain over the years and my guess would be that it will no longer seem appropriate to do this ritual. Having large posters and a photo album would seem more appropriate if the child had lived even a couple of hours – but what memories are they trying to preserve??? Again I’m not judging – but I would want to limit my visits to Jane as well.

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Liz April 23, 2012 at 10:01 am

I tend to disagree with the admin here. I don’t think it is the OP’s mother’s place to try and nudge Jane to move on. Jane will move on in her own time, even if it is years after people think she should. My grandmother passed away nearly 10 years ago- her mother survived her. Her mother (my great-grandmother) still cries and goes through pictures and talks constantly about her daughter and also has a small ‘shrine’ to her daughter. Sometimes it is exhausting but the loss of a child seems never to ease, no matter how old that child was when they passed and no matter how much time has gone by.

My grandfather has a ‘shrine’ in his house for his late wife. Her urn, with ashes, sits on a beautiful little high table with pictures and other small mementos around it. My mom crocheted some very intricate doilies to put under the urn to change with the holidays and seasons. Though my grandfather doesn’t go through pictures with visitors and there is no picture of my grandma right after she died. But it’s not weird, at least not to our family.

I tend to feel that if the OP’s mother is uncomfortable then she either needs to suck it up or doesn’t go to the house. Harsh as this may sound, it’s not the mother’s place to try and fix or nudge this woman towards ‘letting go and moving on’ and I think doing so would destroy any relationship there is, not to mention possibly opening old wounds from the infant’s passing and setting the woman back, possibly ruining any progress she has made of letting go. If the mother is uncomfortable, then she need not go there. What someone does in their own home is their business. If they want a shrine to their child, that’s their prerogative. I don’t see how something so personal and painful can be a breach of etiquette- the two things seems so unrelated to me.

On the other hand, the birthday celebrations seem just a little strange only for the fact that the child never lived to see a birthday- and the birthday is also the deathday. Celebrating the birth/deathday in this unique situation seems like it could just continually open new wounds or dig deeper into old ones. My family all call or get together on my grandmother’s birthday though and we joke and laugh about what she’d be like today. In fact, her birthday would have been last week and my aunt was joking that my grandma would have had all kinds of plastic surgery by now. Sometimes we go out to dinner on her birthday. For my family, this is a time to get together and remember her and also connect with each other. It has turned from a sad event to a mostly happy one, remembering good times and thinking about who she’d be today.

Apologies for the novel- this is an issue that seems to have struck a cord with me. I don’t mean to be rude or condescending and hope it doesn’t come off that way. It just seems like this is an issue the mother has, not the grieving parents and that her discomfort is merely her own problem and shouldn’t become the problem of the grieving parents.

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Bint April 23, 2012 at 10:19 am

Do not touch this with a bargepole unless you are very close family. For all anyone knows, Jane and her husband are having grief counselling, are still hugely struggling, and find it hard enough to have everyone on their back about the one way they have found to cope with the death of their child.

Your mother should stay away from the house if she is uncomfortable – I certainly would be, and they don’t need people ill at ease on top of everything else – and maybe extend overtures to Jane about meeting elsewhere, to show support in other ways.

A work colleague, no matter how close, broaching the subject of how a mother deals with the death of her child strikes me as hideously inappropriate. Leave this to the people who know them best.

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Anonymous April 23, 2012 at 10:29 am

I echo the sympathies of the other commentors. This must be a truly devatasting loss.

Admin’s last paragraph of her response stated, “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”, so I don’t think is saying the coworker should approach Jane. I agree with this. But, unless coworkers know some of Jane & husband’s family or clergy, how would they let someone close enough know that (maybe) the couple needs counseling?

I also agree with @The Elf- the sheer number of pictures and showing every visitor is what makes people uncomfortable- maybe whoever speaks to them could suggest they move the larger pictures to another room. Keep an 8 x 10 in the living room- on the mantle, a table- wherever. Or as @Drawberry suggested- a prayer closet. They remember their child but it’s not the main focus of the their living room.

My thought is the living room is where we receive/welcome most of the visitors into our homes and the huge pictures of their child would make me uncomfortable, too. I know that they are NEVER going to “just get over it” but making it the entire focus of their life seems unhealthy. Of course, they have the right to greive however they choose and no one is disputing that. I hope that they feel comfortable moving the items into a less prominent part of the home before everyone stops visiting.

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Xtina April 23, 2012 at 11:06 am

Denise–my condolences on the loss of your son. I think you have found some very touching ways to honor his memory.

I really feel for Jane in this situation and the OP’s mother absolutely should NOT be the one to broach this subject with her; I would just not go to their home, or invite them to mine instead for social gatherings–yes, somewhere along the way, maybe a close family member or grief counselor needs to speak to them about whether or not the ways they are grieving might be unhealthy or hurting their relationships with others–but ultimately it is their choice how they want to grieve or honor their son’s memory and in that case, my opinions would matter very little.

I will also agree with the OP and our admin that the pictures of the deceased baby are misplaced–again, totally understand that this is Jane’s choice and I’m not saying she should just magically ‘get over it’, but as a matter of MY opinion, I think removing the photos to a more private location and not passing them around would be better, at least where guests are concerned. For some people, seeing photos of a dead person can be extremely upsetting.

As for the birthday party–without knowing exactly what is entailed in that sort of event and how they celebrate, I can’t say, but if it’s a full-on birthday party as if the deceased child were indeed alive, that just seems unhealthy, to say the least–creepy at worst.

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Xtina April 23, 2012 at 11:08 am

whoops, clarification in my post above–I meant to say that I would INSTEAD invite Jane to my home as opposed to going to her home for events if the photos bothered me. I did not mean I would stop socializing with Jane completely!

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LonelyHound April 23, 2012 at 11:34 am

OP, I am sorry for Jane’s loss and agree that while someone kind and caring should nudge the family they should only do so to suggest grievence counseling or talking with a pastor/priest. I think Jane and her husband need help grieving. They do not need to stop but need help grieving in a manner that would be productive.

Forgive me, Denise Miller, but I am going to use you as an example. Grief is very much needed in Jane’s case, but if two or three years have passed I do think it is time for productive grief. Denise Miller is a great example of what I mean. She has taken her grief and turned it productive- March of Dimes raises awareness of babies health issues, they remember with a balloon release on her son’s birthday and they keep momentos around. The difference is, and the reason why I think they need to start progressing to productive grief, is Denise has other children with which to share her son, Jane does not. If Jane and her husband stay mired in their deep grief, however justified, they may miss out on their opportunity to know the joy of parenthood and that could send them into a tailspin of depression. It is not as simple as moving on or forgetting, we are not asking them to; but if they do not get help they might miss out on the happiness they are supposed to have.

I do hope Jane and her husband find peace and happiness. My prayers are with them.

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admin April 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm

You and Stacey in a previous comment are hitting the nail on the head. Grief that spirals downward into social isolation and social dysfunction is a terrible trap to be in and the mourners need help moving forward with processing their grief productively. To my thinking, watching people go that route with assurances that they can “grieve however they want to” is somewhat unkind as it keeps them trapped in depression. I’ve seen firsthand the devastation to a family when one family member cannot escape from the grief they feel. One was a husband who, 15 years after his wife’s death, is still profoundly grieving and socially distant from family. I cannot help thinking his late wife would not have wanted her death to be the catalyst to his living a truly pitiful life. The other was a mother who gave birth to a stillborn, full term son and despite having another son 2 years later, her grief negatively affected the second son’s life well into adulthood.

There are times we do not have the luxury of grieving any way we want to because to do so is to change other people’s lives, particularly family members who may or may not be in a position to do anything to change it (children, for example). I have lost five family members in the past 18 months, which includes my aunt who died yesterday, and if I were to blanket this blog with memorials to them or photos of the deceased, we would have a real life scenario of the effects of those actions. Mainly readership would plummet and a few kind regulars would privately ask me if things were OK. But my grief is restricted to what I consider to be more appropriate venues, namely memorials on obituary sites, at the grave site, or private mourning. No one is suggesting the grieving parents stop grieving or sweep the deceased child’s memories under the carpet but a living room is the social hub of the house where guests are expected to be received and for some people, such raw displays of grief can be quite disconcerting or even troubling if it dredges up their own memories of lost ones. After a few years, it is time to move the shrine to a more private area of the house such as a hallway or nursery room where guests are not as likely to be in.

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Lisa April 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I realise it must be terrible for them (I’m no stranger to grief), but if I encountered this unexpectedly I would not be able to hide my horror. Who wants to see a disgusting dead purple baby, apart from the grieving parents??? I would probably hurt them very much with my spontananous *YECH* reaction, even though that would be the last thing I’d want to do to them. Very difficult situation.
The problem is also that EVERYONE has devestating losses at some point in their lives. To keep the focus on them, their grief, their baby, their pain, over and over again, forces everyone to make them the center of attention constantly in a “My pain is worse then yours” scenario… I can understand breaking down in uncontrollable sobs every once in a while for the rest of your life, but to give actual birthdayparties 5 years later is very out of touch with reality.
The problem with this is of course that there IS no way to tell them. You can’t tell someone not to grief and it’s heartless to do so. Gosh, I really feel bad for your mom.
OP, please tell her that she has handled the situation with class and grace and in the best way she could. Like I said, if I saw that I probably wouldn’t be able to politely induldge them. It’s a sad situation all around.

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Elle April 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Your mom is a work friend and not a friend-friend? Then I would go with the “continuing to find polite excuses to not go to Jane’s house route.” The matter of whether Jane is mourning in a healthy or over-the-top fashion is completely immaterial.

If your mom says something, however well intended, polite, sensitive, and understanding, there is too much of a chance of it resulting in something catastrophic with fallout that will get all over the work environment.

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Stacey Frith-Smith April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

This topic is one on which there are likely to be a great number of views. The concern that I would have is not whether the family’s choice of how to grieve is atypical, but what it says about their overall prospects for being in close relationship to the living. If you magnify one area of your life to such an extent that others cannot participate in or relate to how you are living, you will go through the experience more isolated than might be wished. For a number of years, people will be sympathetic, but might be uncomfortable. Eventually the sympathy of friends and family will not carry the weight of such continued intense public grief and there will be a further separation from otherwise loving relationships. We all have some sorrows to bear, some admittedly far more than others. We all feel the weight of our own griefs, and the sharpness of them, far more than even our closest relationships. I suppose it is why we create the forms around which our griefs are expressed. Funerals, wakes, memorial services of all kinds and remembrances are all part of the language of expression commonly spoken. It may be that the variance in how these things are done and the number of years devoted to their practice is not open ended. In sympathy, we all desire to help those who grieve by offering comfort. I suppose it is just as valid to offer the wisdom of our own experience as it is to acknowledge the different ways and timetables people use to grieve. While the emotions expressed may be sharpest in the hearts of those closest to the loss, the whole community participates to some extent in sharing the burden of sorrow. Otherwise, where would comfort come from? In this sense, we don’t grieve alone, and others will desire, rightly or wrongly, to help as best they can. Whether this entails the sentiment that the period of grief in its current intensity has lasted long enough, or the sentiment that a shrine to a lost loved one is dominating the public living space to such an extent that guests are taken aback, these thoughts are not offered for harm or callousness of heart. To dismiss them completely over the long term may create an insularity of society that is not easy to recover from. That would have the unfortunate consequence of removing social and emotional resources from families in need of them, if for no other reason than to balance the intensity of their private pain. My heart goes out to this family. Thank you for kindly bearing with this long commentary.

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Jennifer April 23, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I have to disagree with the admin on this one. The OP stated that this was the woman’s home, and she can do as she wishes in her own home. The OP’s mother should either accept it, or continue to decline. What an absolutely devastating loss, to lose your child. I have a question for the OP – if you hadn’t been told that the child was dead, would you know it? I had an acquaintance show me pictures of her stillborn baby, and she looked as if she were sleeping. Either way, it’s still up to the woman to display pictures as she wishes in her own home. I also think there are some interesting assumptions here – how do we know she’s not already in grief counseling; how do we know that she doesn’t have any enjoyment in life? There is no “right” way to deal with the loss of a child, and it is very wrong to think that we somehow know better than she how to handle it.

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Calli Arcale April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm

“Memento mori” is the technical term for these sorts of pictures, and once upon a time they were actually commonplace. And yes, they would often be displayed with the rest of the family pictures. Of course, that was during the Victorian period. I’m not saying the Victorians were morbid; they actually weren’t. But photography required very still subjects, and in many cases this meant that the memento mori images would often be the best images of the loved one, because they weren’t blurred, particularly in the case of children. It’s considered weird nowadays, but this was actually normal once. And it predates photography; the practice of making death masks was a big deal for a long time. An impression was made in plaster of the deceased’s face, which was then used to cast a positive image of the person. Before that, locks of hair were common keepsakes, sometimes incorporated into jewelry.

I would not presume to judge whether or not this family is grieving appropriately. What do you do at a stillborn child’s birthday party? You grieve. That’s why they’re doing it. Should they be able to move on with life? Maybe so. The pain never ends, of course, but life does go on; it’s hard to stop it doing so, even when a raw wound inside of you is screaming in incomprehension that the world can go blithely on while you hurt so much. The Queen Mother was, on the 50th anniversary of her husband’s death, about grief. She said, “It never gets better. But you get better at it.”

I’ve known people who had stillborn babies. None of them chose this particular avenue for expressing their grief. But grief is very personal, and the loss of a child is one of the most painful things a person can endure. Moreso nowadays, I think, since child deaths are less common now and so we have come to believe that children don’t actually die, which isn’t true.

Let them grieve. Unless your mother is really very very close, she should keep her mouth closed. Just try to avoid visiting in their house, and plan excuses ahead of time so that you don’t need to stay long when you can’t get out of it. Hopefully they can move forward with their lives. Perhaps they will try and have another child; it can never replace the one which has died, but it can help heal by giving them a focus for their love.

I just realized I made an error in the above text. Also, I don’t think it went through because my network reset. So I’m resubmitting with a correction. “Memento mori” is a different genre of art, intended to remind us of our mortality — stuff like the Day of the Dead artwork. I was thinking of postmortem photography. Mental Floss’s blog has a good collection:
http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/14682

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June April 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm

One of my friends went through a similar loss and similar grieving process.
However, this friend chose (and still chooses) to feature her stillborn baby as her facebook profile picture. When she was pregnant with her second child, she changed her profile picture, but then changed it back after she had her second (healthy) child. I asked if everything was ok, trying to be as tactful as possible. The baby is clearly deceased in these pictures. She told me a celebrity family faced criticism for having photos of their stillborn child and she wants people to know that it’s “part of our story”. I eventually just hid her facebook feed, since I didn’t want to see the baby ever time I logged on. That’s how I treat other friends with political rants, etc.
This is what I wish I could tell her, and those others who say such a shrine (whether online or elsewhere) is acceptable:
Yes, it is part of your story. But it isn’t your ENTIRE story. You are a wonderful, caring person with a happy partner and healthy child. Please stop focusing on the life that is lost and focus on the life you are living. The baby is only one square in the quilt that is your life. You will not forget her if you mourn privately.

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Denise April 23, 2012 at 12:24 pm

I don’t think it matters that the child never lived outside of the womb. To her and to them, the baby was very much alive. And as all parents, they see beauty in their child in the only pictures they have of them. I do not think it is anyone else’s place to determine whether or not the context of what they display in their home is appropriate.

And personally, I pray those parents never see this post. I would be absolutely heartbroken for them on an entirely different level.

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Chicalola April 23, 2012 at 12:29 pm

My sister passed away right before her 1st birthday. I was 10. My father did not deal with this well….and over the years went crazy. Every holiday that involved a family meal after my sister passed, he set a place for her. He set up the highchair, with baby table settings. He sometimes put a stuffed animal or doll that was hers in the chair. It was disturbing to all of us, but we could never really say anything. He took pictures of it every year, and it was part of his including her in the celebration. After the break up of our family, he was the only person who carried on this tradition. While cleaning out his trailer after he passed away, I saw that he had made a Christmas stocking for himself, and her. The only ones there. We never could tell him that what he was doing made us uncomfortable and did not help us. He pushed it on us, and maybe if he had known, things could have been different. I have no idea how the right way to tell someone that would be, but I do agree with other posters that it needs to be a trained counselor. I feel so terrible for these parents. They weren’t allowed all the little milestones they looked forward to with their baby, and could not decorate their home with tons of pictures of their baby. This is the only way they can see to remember. Sometimes feeling like you are forgetting that child, or moving on can be even harder.

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BethRD April 23, 2012 at 12:40 pm

It would make me uncomfortable too. But you know what? Tough for me. I’ve been around a few grieving families who have lost children, and if the experiences of my own friends are anything to go by, that poor dead baby is front and center in their minds and hearts every single day of their lives. The worst thing for these grieving parents is feeling like the rest of the world has forgotten their missing child, when they can no more forget than they can forget how to breathe. When you ask them to put away their pictures, you’re basically saying, “I know you’re never going to forget your loss and it haunts you every day of your life, but please fake happiness better, because you’re kind of freaking me out.” That isn’t really friendship. If the dead baby pictures are too much to handle, I agree with the suggestion of socializing with them at other more neutral locations, but don’t expect them to change their ways so their visitors can avoid being a tad uncomfortable for a few hours.

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kingsrings April 23, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I have to agree with the admin here. Yes, people can absolutely grieve any way they please! However, to expect one’s friends/family to understand and be okay with viewing photos of a deceased child all over the house is asking too much. Sure they can have their house any way they please, but don’t get bent out of shape if people refuse to visit because they don’t care to view such photos, or refuse to attend a birthday party for a child who was never alive. I think it’s really important for this couple to attend therapy or a support group for their loss if they aren’t already, and I do hope their friends/family encourage them to do this. Perhaps through experiencing that they will choose to grieve in a different way.

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Roo April 23, 2012 at 12:45 pm

@Gina: “It seems to me that the OP’s mother’s discomfort is her problem, not the grieving parents’ problem.”

If acquaintances were merely uncomfortable with their talking about their dead child or some other healthy and understandable expression of grief, I’d agree. But at heart this really isn’t about the fact that they’re offending their friends (even though they probably are); it’s that they aren’t processing their grief in a productive way and need help. There’s nothing healthy about displaying a poster of your child’s DEAD BODY in your living room, forcing yourself to look at it every day. There’s nothing healthy about throwing a birthday party every year with invitees as if he’s around to enjoy it. They will never “get over” their child’s death, of course, but this is sick and raw denial. They deserve the chance to get on with their lives.

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Carol April 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I think this situation goes beyond etiquette. I can’t really say, and I’m trying not to judge, but it sounds a bit like they are wallowing in their grief, and are unwilling to let it go for fear they will let go of their son.

I know people who lost a baby like this, and I know they will always grieve for that loss. Every year they visit the child’s grave, and I believe they are involved in a group for parents who lost a child. It’s a horrible thing, and heartbreaking, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The people I know, however, have let the grief go, and have moved on. They have two beautiful children now, and though they will aways mourn the loss of their baby, they aren’t letting it take over their life.

So yeah, I think if it makes your mother uncomfortable she should just not visit the woman’s home, maybe find neutral type places to get together. I don’t know that there is anything a friend or co-worker can do to help these people until they find a way to let go of their grief. I certainly don’t know that any kind of confrontation would change how these people are dealing with their sadness. They need to find their own way, I think. It’s very sad, and I am sorry for them, and wish for them to find the peace they surely deserve.

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Jenn50 April 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm

I would, likewise, be uncomfortable to socialize with a giant poster of a deceased child hanging over me. I totally appreciate this family’s devastating grief, and that how they cope is a personal matter. I don’t think it’s appropriate for friends and acquaintances to suggest that they change the way they are grieving, but I also understand that some guests would find the shrine traumatizing to them. I think your mother should socialize with these people as often as she is comfortable, but avoid doing so in their home. They certainly can’t afford to become isolated, but you shouldn’t immerse yourself in their grief. Invite them to lunch at a nice cafe, or a barbecue at your home, to the theater, or a concert, and do so often enough that they don’t feel like they need to bridge the gaps by inviting YOU over. But be unavailable when the event is scheduled at their home. If they notice the trend, and you can’t bean-dip away from explaining your reluctance to be a guest in their home, you can be delicate, but honest, blaming your inability to be there on your own frailties; “I’m so sorry, Jane, but I am SO overwhelmed by grief when I see all the pictures of your darling boy. I find myself flashing back to all my fears when I was carrying my own children, and I feel quite sad and anxious for days afterwards. I’m sorry that I’m not up to being stronger for you.” This way, if she is wondering why nobody comes over anymore, you may have provided her an answer, but you aren’t shunning her or criticizing her. She may decide to keep things just as they are, or to memorialize the baby in a less “everywhere you look” way, but at least she won’t feel like everyone has deserted her in her time of need.

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Jenny April 23, 2012 at 1:05 pm

My feeling is that it is a terrible idea to impose that kind of thing on their guests without some sort of idea about their sensibilities. For instance, if my grandmother had dropped by their house, they would be showing photos of a dead child to someone who lost a baby at a day old. I’m sure my grandmother is not an abnormality – so they’re going to impose terrible reminders on some people. Loss is terrible and you are allowed to grieve – but you don’t impose it on everyone who comes into your house. A very public display of grief like that is just not appropriate.

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--Lia April 23, 2012 at 1:06 pm

We all have a responsibility to be considerate of those around us, especially to those closest to us, our friends and family. That’s what etiquette is about. While we cut a wide berth for those who are grieving, the fact that someone is grieving doesn’t let them off the hook entirely. They still have to be considerate. I read this story, and the sentence that jumps out at me is “it makes my mother and the friends she has spoken to very uncomfortable.” This isn’t a momentary discomfort as with a small faux pas. This is 2 people who, on a regular basis, make visitors in their home uncomfortable. How is that polite?

It’s not spelled out in the original letter, but I have to wonder if Jane and her husband ever talk about anything else. Are they kind and sympathetic when friends talk about the joys and sorrows in their own lives? Or have they figured out that they have a trump card that allows them to keep all the attention on themselves for now and forever after? Did they earn a get-out-of-thinking-about-other-people card with their tragedy?

I can already hear the accusations of how heartless I am, but I agree with the admin. The kindest thing to do would be to nudge these people in the direction of grief counseling. That does not mean that there’s a set time to stop grieving, but there are more appropriate ways to deal with grief than to hold everyone you know hostage to it.

Barring that, if the OP’s mother isn’t the one to do it, I see no reason why she can’t slowly stop accepting invitations to their home and to stop socializing with them as much. There’s no sense spending so much time with people whose company and methods of entertaining you don’t enjoy. If anyone understands that life is too short for that, Jane and her husband should.

(Anyone else thinking of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations? What does it take to keep grief alive?)

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Miss Raven April 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm

This is truly an awful situation, and one that I encounter frequently at work. I would suggest referring Jane and her husband to the Compassionate Friends and the Bereaved Parents of the USA, both of which are excellent nationwide networks of support for parents who have lost a child at any age. One of them will likely have support groups in your area. Another excellent resource is the MISS Foundation, also offering support after the death of a child. Their website is a wealth of information.

I agree with the Admin that Jane and her husband have moved beyond what may be considered “normal” in terms of their grief, and are likely experiencing what is known as “complicated grief,” which is difficult to break out of. It’s true that it’s not our place to tell anyone else how to grieve, but it’s also true that these sorts of things do have accepted parameters. If the loss was several years ago and the couple has clearly not really begun to heal, that is a serious problem. It’s no surprise it’s making their loved ones uncomfortable.

I don’t think anyone needs to tell them how disconcerting their behavior is. They probably know. What needs to happen is that they need to be guided towards professional help and support, out of serious concern for their well-being.

http://www.compassionatefriends.org
http://www.bereavedparentsusa.org/
http://www.missfoundation.org

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Cat April 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm

This is very difficult. I can understand how people feel uncomfortable at large pictures of a still-born infant and I can understand how difficult it must be for parents who are full of joy and expecting a child to be taken home and instead have to face the child’s death. The bottom line is that I cannot choose how others are going to live their lives, whether it seems healthy to me or not.
My family and I went to the funeral home to greet visitors the night before my mother was to be buried. I was twenty-two years old and I was quietly crying.
A woman I did not know came up to me and berated me for being “unChristian” since Mother was happy in Heaven and I was being selfish to grieve for her. Obviously, she had never met Mother. I had my fingers crossed that she made it to Purgatory.
Had I been on my game I would have pointed out that Jesus, when he went to the tomb of Lazarus, stopped and wept. It’s the shortest sentence in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” He had already told the disciples that He was going to bring Lazarus back from the dead so He knew His power over death. So why did He weep? I think it was because His friend had died.and so that we would know we too can grieve over the dead even when we believe we shall all rise on the last day.

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lkb April 23, 2012 at 1:54 pm

As one who has lost at least two children to miscarriage, I agree with other posters that perhaps a very close relative or friend should refer the couple to a support group — there are many such groups (the local hospital or funeral home should have the information, as well as Google). It can help. (A co-worker can probably refer the information, if it is done very, very carefully and compassionately. As in, not “get over it already”.)

On the etiquette side of things, isn’t the rule, “their house, their rules, their decor”? It may be painful for visitors to see the pictures and mementos, but then it is uncomfortable for me to see someone else’s goth posters, “tasteful” nude paintings, garish color schemes etc. I wouldn’t dream of criticizing someone for those, much less someone’s memorial to a loved one (as in this case). If a visitor is uncomfortable, look away or don’t come in.

My deepest condolences to the family in question.

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Angela April 23, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I come from a culture where it is considered really inappropriate to display pictures of a person after death. I find it really difficult to view pictures of someone after death…it doesn’t seem right. Yet I also know that people grieve in their own way and I would be hard-pressed to tell someone that their style of grief is somehow wrong. I would suggest that people who are very uncomfortable with the picture display try not to visit.
I wonder if Jane has other children?

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Amber April 23, 2012 at 2:27 pm

There’s a song by Goyte that has a line:
“You can get addicted to a certain kind of sadness”

I do feel that in our current day, we are forced to stop the grieving process at earlier and earlier times. At one time, respectable people wore black for a year to signify the death of a loved one. Now, we have time off for the funeral and then it’s back to work, putting on a straight face and keeping the tongue still so that no one feels uncomfortable in the office.

However. The grief displayed by the couple is troublesome. Not because there is still grief, but because they’re obviously trying to reach out to others (invites to a dead child’s birthday parties?) while unable to move on toward a healthier state of grieving while still living. What’s the point of being alive if one is trapped amongst the dead? I really feel this couple should see a trained counciler.

The OP’s mother has no obligation to nudge the couple toward seeking help, but if she were willing, perhaps she can send an anonymous note. I say anonymous, because this is the kind of situation that may anger the receiver of the note to the point of bad blood. Grief is a powerful emotion, and no one likes to be told that they’re “doing it wrong.” Meanwhile, the OP never has to actually attend any function the couple throws. A polite “no, thank you” would suffice, I think.

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Ztre April 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I totally understand the mentality of the parents in the story, my own parents were unlucky enough to end up with a baby that had horrendeous brain problems and was stillborn, my Mum took his body home to grieve and kept photos of him in her room. However I was (and still am) petrified of dead people (dead animals are fine with me, but my mum is terrified of them she wouldn’t look at a dead hamster so I had hoped she would understand how I felt) and felt incredibly uncomfortable in my own house with these photos of my premature dead baby brother around. I think it would be for the best that OP’s Mum spoke up, for the good of the poor parents as well as for well meaning houseguests and friends, focusing on the stillborn baby will prevent them from moving on, keep the tragedy in their lives, or even having a real living child that would eventually alleviate their pain.

My Mum eventually got her child and now she can move on from her sons death, today I have a bouncing happy little sister who everyone dotes on. We would never have had this is my Mum hadn’t had the strength to move on and realise that sometimes you need to take care of the living more than you need to remember the dead.

Sorry if this sounds offensive, in any way, words are not my strong point but having watched my parents go through the same thing along with many many miscarriages I think I have a valid point here.

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GroceryGirl April 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I’m with Admin too. Here’s the cold, hard truth: human beings are designed to move on past grief. If we couldn’t, then we would have all just laid down and died out real fast back when the life expectancy was much, much shorter. For a parent to lose a child is the worst kind of grief but even that must come to an end eventually. From the DSM-IV on bereavement: “If the depressive episode either lasts longer than 2 months or includes at least one of a series of features that are unchar- acteristic of normal grief” It doesn’t sound like these people are keeping the memory alive of a loved one (the way you might by keeping photographs or ashes or such of your loved ones), it seems like they are trapped in their grief. It has been YEARS, it isn’t healthy to hold grief so fresh in your heart like that.

That said, I wouldn’t want to be the one to talk to them about it. If the OP’s mom isn’t a really, really, really close friend then I would advise her to just always host the couple at her home or go out to dinner with them.

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PM April 23, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Cat, I commend you for not reacting violently. I cannot imagine keeping my composure in a situation like that.

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wowwow April 23, 2012 at 3:58 pm

I am so glad this has been brought up, because I’ve had several situations about this recently.

I myself, have experienced the loss of two babies. I grieved more privately, but that’s just my personality–I am very introverted and don’t like people to see me cry–I keep most emotions inside, so I would never put out momentos like pictures or urns, etc. out because while I keep things private, I am still highly emotional and can’t live with the constant reminders. I get that others are not like that.

In recent months, I have had two situations presented to me like OP’s. First, we had acquaintances who found out they were pregnant, and let us know via email. At some point, the wife lost the child in miscarriage (she wasn’t far along), and they again informed us via email. Upon visiting them, with our small child in tow, we came across a small burial plot, right next to the swings in the play yard.

Maybe because of my personality, I don’t know, but I reacted quite strongly to this. I recoiled. It was a gut reaction. I couldn’t help it. I could not continue to push my child on the swing when I knew what the plot was about. I was out of breath, dizzy, and had to get away.

We all react differently to things of that magnitude. In that family, I’m sure they are all okay with how they chose to remember this child. I can not go back to the swings ever again.

The second scenario was when I was recently in a friend’s home and as I am a vase and pottery appreciater, went up to the fireplace and remarked how much I loved a vase. The woman came over, swiftly grabbed it, marched it the other room, and would not speak to me the rest of the night. I was informed later on by another friend that it was actual urn that held the remains of her husband.

We haven’t been close since. I have nothing to apologize for, and this woman would rather grieve over the dead than to join the living. That’s her perfect right, but it won’t bring her husband back and her world is shrinking even smaller.

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Library Diva April 23, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Just a comment on the fact that people are saying OP’s mom, as a work friend, shouldn’t be the one to broach the subject.

Sometimes, a casual acquaintance is the one in the best position to talk about something delicate. Family and closer friends may be too close to the situation, or the relationship may be too baggage-laden to allow for a productive conversation. Obviously, anyone talking about this with the couple should be extremely careful, approach it with a lot of compassion and concern. It might sink in better coming from OP’s mom than from Always Critical Sister-in-Law Alice, or Can’t Handle Death Cousin Chrissy, or Neighbor Wendy the Professional Widow.

Also, it’s possible that OP’s mom may be just about the only person the couple has. This summer, a colleague of mine confided in me how abusive her husband was. I took several walks outside the building with her while she sobbed uncontrollably about horrible things that he’d said or done. As weeks went on, I came to find out that other co-workers had similar conversations with her, or even worse. While she was away from the office dealing with the police after he came home drunk and smashed everything in their home, we started talking to each other. My one co-worker pointed out that her mother and father were dead, her siblings were far-flung and dealing with their own problems, and when it came to family — we were essentially it. We were the ones that saw her every day, that were there when she cried, that were noticing how she was too stressed out to eat. We banded together and helped her see the necessity of leaving, and we gave her as much help, love and support as we could through the process. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved normally. But I shudder to think what could have happened to her and her toddler if no one had been willing to get involved.

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Rachel April 23, 2012 at 7:44 pm

This isn’t normal and has nothing to do with what happened. These people have a complete inability to deal with real problems and they need to be in therapy. They are wasting their lives. They could have grieved properly and moved on to adopt a child and spend the rest of their life being happy and healthy. Mom should do something if it bothers her enough to talk about it with her daughter.

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Angel April 23, 2012 at 9:44 pm

The only thing that would really make me uncomfortable are pictures of a dead baby. Especially poster-sized ones. I can see keeping a small one in your bedroom maybe on a nightstand or something (especially if those pics are the only ones you have of the baby) but poster-sized ones in a common area of the house are bound to make guests feel uncomfortable after a while. It’s understandable that everyone grieves in their own ways, but it sounds like the way they are grieving will probably end up alienating their friends, and eventually even their families. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child, but I have lost loved ones and it sucks royally, to say the least. But keeping poster-sized photos of a dead baby in the common areas of your room does no one any favors, least of all the grieving parents. Having it there as a constant, glaring reminder of their loss, day after day, cannot be healthy. I am not a psychologist by any means, but there has to be other ways to remember their child without alienating others.

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Jenn50 April 24, 2012 at 1:13 am

Wow, Rachel. That seems really harsh. “…a complete inability to deal with real problems…” and “They could have grieved properly and moved on to adopt a child and spend the rest of their life being happy and healthy.” I don’t think you know enough about this couple to generalize that they have a complete inability to deal with real problems. They may very well be stuck in a stage of grieving and need therapy to progress. They may have had many other “real problems” in their lives that they coped with well, and this is a steeper hill. It also seems very blithe to say they could just grieve, move on and be happy with an adopted child. They may still want to try for other biological children, and they may have decided not to have children at all. Getting to “happy” is a long process for someone who has lost a child, and I don’t think you have the right to decide what constitutes having “grieved properly”. While I agree that their choice of coping methods suggests that they may need help to process this terrible sadness, I think that was a very callous interpretation of the situation.

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Marna April 24, 2012 at 2:05 am

Personally, if Jane is springing these photos on an unsuspecting guest to her home, I would consider that an etiquette blooper. It IS uncomfortable to have photos like that presented to you without warning. I know–it happened to me with a former co-worker. On day out of the clear blue, she asked if I’d like to see a picture of her son and I said, “Sure.” I nearly swallowed my teeth when she pulled out this old dog-eared photo of a darling little curly headed boy about 3 or 4 years old–all dressed up and laid out in his coffin. What runs through one’s head right off is something like, ‘Oh my word, he’s DEAD!” And then you think and try desparately to come up with something to say that fits the circumstances. I only remember sputtering something about what a cute little fellow he had been, then it descended into an awkward silence.

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FunkyMunky April 24, 2012 at 4:08 am

@wowwow What perceived crime did you commit re: the vase? A professional appreciator saying that an urn is lovely should be a compliment.

Back on topic;
I understand that the parents don’t have any photographs of their child alive, and I could understand a small picture here and there, but an album that they actually show people and large posters is something else. I don’t know that it can be called ‘rude’ exactly as the grieving and mentally ill get a pass on most normal interactions. I hope they can recover from the place they’re in now.

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Cupcake April 24, 2012 at 5:08 am

I’m a bit confused by the people who seem to be saying that if you’re disturbed by the way a person grieves you should just isolate them. To me that seems much more insensitive than worrying that someone you care about might be dealing with grief in an unhealthy or harmful way. For many people, looking at photos of dead bodies is very disturbing and I don’t think Jane’s friends should have to do that to show that they care. Nor do I think they should avoid her when clearly she’s going through a difficult time and, as Enna said, might even be doing these things as a cry for help.

I don’t know what the answer is here, but I don’t think “just ignore her” is it.

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The Elf April 24, 2012 at 7:02 am

Calli Arcale, this is something I was trying to get to when I was talking about how our society deals with death. Rather, we don’t deal with death. Despite the fact that it is everywhere and will happen to everyone, we choose to hide it away after a suitable period of mourning. Even our tombstones have changed to incorporate fewer images that directly speak to death.

Post mortem photography and momenti mori can be quite beautiful and artistic, IMHO. But that practice belongs to a different culture. The cultural norms in America today would mean that many publically displayed pictures of a dead baby, no matter how touching or important to the parents, are likely to make people uncomfortable. While it is definitely their house to do with it as they want, it would be better for their guests to make the display less obvious.

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SV April 24, 2012 at 7:09 am

Unless the OP’s mother is also a family member ( which she clearly is not ) I feel she should not broach the subject in any way. Seeing such large pictures of a dead baby so prominently displayed would make most of us very uncomfortable, but it does not make the PARENTS uncomfortable. The reason they have pictures of the dead baby is because they did not have the gift of having pictures of a living baby – if they did, those would be the ones they hung up. These pictures provide some level of comfort, because it is all they have. In our society we tend to try to “forget” death or pretend it didn’t happen, especially death of a baby, but these parents clearly are not wanting to do that. Displaying the pictures allows them to talk about and remember their child. It is their house, and if this is what they need to do to deal with their grief then it is not up to the OP’s mother to tell them otherwise.

And Denise – beautiful way to remember your son. Beautiful.

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