Just finished reading a fine little book entitled An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination: A Memoir, by Elizabeth McCracken. It’s a thoughtful exploration of McCraken’s life and experience in relation to the stillbirth of her full term baby – affectionately named Pudding prior to his death in utero. The narrative also works toward the birth of her second son, Gus, approximately one year after the death of her first.
There are a number of levels at which I find the book compelling, but I would simply say here that it would be a helpful book for those who are training for ministry – particularly for getting a grip on the task of patoral care. It’s not that McCracken writes from such a perspective (indeed, she describes herself as decidedly agnostic), but that she ably brings the reader inside her own narrative, honestly told.
Here’s a quotation that shows how the book might be helpful. Putting the quote in context, she is writing of our tendency to become uncomfortable with the discomfort of others – that is, our tendency to become uncomfortable when relating to, or speaking with, someone who has suffered a loss. At this point in her story, McCracken is describing a meal with friends, very shortly after the birth of her first son – a meal at which everyone sat uncomfortably, trying to have a normal conversation, studiously avoiding the fact of the child’s death. All the while, all she could think was “Dead baby dead baby dead baby.”
And I know everyone around that table was thinking the same thing, every single person.
I’ve never gotten over my discomfort at other people’s discomfort. When people say, What have you been up to, I hesitate. I will tell myself, Now, if this were a husband or father or sister who died, you wouldn’t simply omit the fact. If I say anything, people mostly change the subject anyway, and I can’t say that I blame them.
I’ve done it myself, when meeting the grief-struck. It’s as though the sad news is Rumpelstiltskin in reverse. To mention it by name is to conjure it up, not the grief but the experience itself: the mother’s suicide, the brother’s overdose, the multiple miscarriages. The sadder the news, the less likely people are to mention it. The moment I lost my innocence about such things, I saw how careless I’d been myself.
I don’t even know what I would have wanted someone to say. Not: It will be better. Not: You don’t think you’ll live through this, but you will. Maybe: Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust. Tomorrow, finally, your misery will turn to wax and heat and you will burn and melt till nothing is left in your chair but a greasy, childless smudge. That might have comforted me.
McCracken here opens a window onto a way of openess and honesty and confidence that might characterize anyone who would accompany others through seasons of grief. No dancing around the subject. No cloying words of concern.