Monday, March 14, 2011

A Bereaved Mother in History

One thing I have been avoiding since Ellie died is cemeteries (even though she was cremated). I have been to a lot and have visited them as part of my job. I know there are children in them, and babies—in a much higher frequency than today. I couldn't avoid it a few months ago and broke down at the site of a child's grave. Well, I was reading a report at work today and some small, historic, family cemeteries were found. This is very typical of the time period, but here is what got me.

- Ms. Elizabeth Barnard had her first child in 1873 at the age of 17. He died at 20 years old (before she died).
- Next child, she was 20; a girl. The girl died at 26 along with her only child, a 2 year old (before Elizabeth died).
- Next child, she was 22; a boy that died at 7.
- Next child, she was 28; a boy that died at 4.
- Next child, she was 32, a boy that died at 8.
- Her husband died 14 years before her. So she suffered the loss of three children alone.
- She was just 52 when she died. She lost all five children, at least one grandchild and a husband before her death.

Her third child's grave site is the largest monument in the cemetery and has his age down to the day. Typically the largest is reserved for the patriarch, but not this time. It makes me think of how poor Ms. Elizabeth handled her grief in the 1800s. I doubt there was much support in the way there is now. As annoying as the self-help revolution has been, I think it has allowed people to publicly grieve…or at least people are less likely to be attacked for it now.

I've read historical accounts of women loosing children and they are in as much pain as I am today. I thought they would be ‘used’ to it since it was such an unfortunate, frequent occurrence. When Eleanor died, someone said, “Imagine how women felt a hundred years ago. They probably lost many children, if not their own lives during childbirth!” But I don’t think it was easier because it was more common then. In fact, I think it was probably harder on the mother. Everyone probably knew someone who had lost an infant or young child. Society would mourn, but would quickly move on because infant and child death happened…a lot. Stiff upper lip, right? But I cannot believe the bereaved mother would move on so quickly. Sure, people tended to keep their emotions more private then. But in my research of women’s writings in historical times, they suffered the same pain, grief, anger, guilt, and sadness that we bereaved mothers do today. They just suffered in silence.

Although it may have been taboo to continue to talk about a child that has passed back then (as it still is today in some circles), I think I will light a candle for Ms. Elizabeth Barnard and her children and grandchild tonight. I will remember them.

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