In her memoir, Ghostbelly, Elizabeth Heineman grieves unconventionally, and in doing so gives life to her stillborn son.
To accommodate for the vastness of death, we dedicate spaces and create rituals to grieve. These traditions make the most sense when the circumstances surrounding death fit neatly into our schemas. People are supposed to live significantly—then die. When we talk about someone as having lived, we expect that they were members of a community and culture, had an identity and experiences. But what about when death comes before one has even lived?
This is the space Elizabeth Heineman explores in Ghostbelly, a memoir about giving birth to a stillborn son, Thor, at age 45. Faced with a reality that doesn't fit neatly into either life or death, and the need to find an outlet for her grief, Heineman copes in an untraditional way: by spending time with Thor’s body the week before his burial.
Though unconventional, there are no rules or laws forbidding one from spending time with a corpse. It’s an option rarely explained or offered to mourners, but one Heineman is made aware of when the director of the funeral home offers to let her see Thor whenever she wants.
Heineman not only spends time with Thor, but goes so far as to take him home with her on several occasions in an effort to have him exist in the spaces he would have lived. She reads stories to him, takes him for walks, and shows him her garden.
“It was to create memories,” Heineman writes. “Because if we had no memories of Thor, maybe someday it would be as if he had never existed at all… By living with Thor, we could make him exist.”
Bringing Thor into the outside world allows him to exist in some way, but also validates Heineman’s identity, however brief, as a mother. “How could I be the mother of a baby if I’d never fallen asleep as he lay in the bassinet next to our bed?” she asks.
As unconventional as Heineman’s grieving process is, it’s neither a lack of acceptance nor an act of delusion. “I never confused Thor’s dead body with a living thing, but I also never confused it with something abhorrent,” she writes. “Why should the body that was Thor transmogrify from an intimate member of the family, from an intimate part of my own body, into a repellent object just because it had died?”
Heinman’s story isn’t about her inability to accept death, but rather a story of grieving that doesn’t fit neatly into the spaces we’ve created for it.