Deciding what to do with my son’s body

My eldest son, the first-born of a set of extremely premature triplets, died a few minutes after he was born. Defying the odds I remained pregnant with my other two boys for 24 days.

After holding him for some time in the delivery room, the same room where I myself had delivered hundred of babies and passed them on to families beaming with tears of joy, I was asked about his body.

His body? His body. Oh, his body.

How do you process that as a parent?

How do you process that when you have been a parent for all of three minutes?

Stronger, braver people than I, people forged of some unbreakable substance might be able to process and make arrangements (such an odd term, I mean one arranges flowers), although I suspect most parents in that terrible situation are like I was, bereft, adrift, and drowning in a river of lament.

I decided that I could not decide. I could not face removing my son’s body from the hospital until his brothers were born. The only thing I knew to be right was to keep my boys together in some way until they were all born. It was completely illogical, but there is no logic in loss or despair. I also knew my risks of delivering my other two boys before they could survive was very high and how could I make those kind of arrangements more than once. In rapid succession. Could anyone ever be strong enough to do that?

In the end, keeping his 1 lb. body in the morgue affected someone pushing papers who needed her desk cleared before vacation. One week after he was born and died some woman called my hospital room and in the most brusk, impersonal voice possible informed me that I must make a decision. Now. “We can’t keep his body forever, you know.” Eight words I will never, ever forget.

“But it won’t be forever,” I said. “Just a few weeks if I’m lucky.”

But no, in some twist right out of Dickens or Hardy I was told he would be sent to a communal, state burial site in 48 hours if I offered no alternative. That was the law.

I was still pregnant, still a few weeks from real viability, and thought the stress would quite literally doom us all. Fortunately, one phone call to my secretary, a few words barely intelligible between sobs, got her on the case and very important people intervened. After all, is keeping a tiny dead body in a morgue refrigerator long enough for a tragic pregnancy to come to fruition too much to ask? To one person it was.

Since I first heard of the Jahi McMath tragedy my thoughts have been with her family and have lingered more than usual on that terrible time for me. I understand the idea of not being able to let go. Not being able to process. Not being able to accept. I weep for them.

I understand people need time with a body before they can let go. If I’d known that July how I would feel today I would have asked for Aidan to be ventilated long enough so I could have held him just once while he was still warm. A chest moving, even artificially, knowing there was no hope of more would be a better memory than what I have.

I can’t understand someone else’s grieving, no one can. No one can tell you how to say goodbye, especially under such tragic circumstances. When death comes in such a horrific and unexpected way, in a hospital of all places, it might take longer to grieve and many parents might never be able to accept the tragedy or forgive themselves, no matter how misplaced the blame. Casually spoken cruel words from someone who “means well,” especially in a hospital, can also affect you in ways you never thought possible.

If no one had come to my rescue in the hospital I most certainly would have called a lawyer. I felt it was my right to keep my son with me while I was still hospitalized. It is easy to understand how a family drowning in a sea of despair might question the judgement of the specialists at the very hospital they most certainly blame for their daughter’s death. I can see how they would reach for any kind of life-preserver, especially if they felt pressured to let go. Wanting a specialist from another hospital to determine if their daughter is dead or might be, hope against hope, in a vegetative state or coma is completely understandable and really, should be standard practice in these situations.

But what I don’t understand is how a lawyer could take the clear medical facts, that someone is tragically dead and twist it into court orders and false hope under the guise of family rights. Not being able to accept that someone has died and needing more time to let go or needing an independent verification of death is very different from stoking a mistaken belief that death has not occurred. Intimating that a tracheostomy, a feeding tube, and transfer to another facility holds some kind of promise for life in this situation isn’t just unethical, it’s cruel.

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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