Framing a Loss

How Victorian death photography helped me process my own miscarriages.

A woman with a tattoo on her shoulder of seven blackbirds.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Valentin Lacoste on Unsplash.

The photographs transfixed me, though I don’t remember now how I found those hundred-year-old images of mothers holding their deceased children. There were women who studied the faces of their tiny dead with tender expressions, and others who appeared so shellshocked that they did not know where to look. A fair number of women stared directly into the camera, as if confronting the photographer, or the series of events that had led them to that moment.

Today, the words most commonly used to describe Victorian death photography are creepy, morbid, and macabre, but it was uncanny how those long-dead subjects spoke to me, a grieving woman with a 21st-century internet connection.

Victorian death photos: A mother holds two children at left, a baby is pictured at right.
Jack Mord/The Thanatos Archive

The pictures of my not-to-be progeny were in a different kind of black-and-white, a dozen ultrasound pictures that spanned the first trimester. Four first trimesters, in fact. Taken altogether, nearly nine months of morning sickness, a superhuman sense of smell, and thwarted plans. I’d kept the pregnancy tests, too, with their parallel pink lines and blue crosses. But I had no living baby to show for them. And other than the ultrasound pictures and pee sticks, no physical evidence of those months in which hope had alternated with despair.

Most friends and colleagues did not know about my recurrent losses; this was how I wanted it. But it was also endlessly strange to live in those disconnected realities. Pregnancy is a physical endeavor, even from the beginning, but one that takes months to become recognizable to outside observers. Miscarriage, more physical still, is usually experienced in silence.

There is an element of shame to miscarriage, in not being able to carry out one’s biological imperative. Most women only realize how common it is when they confide in a friend or relative who has also experienced one, or who knows someone who has. And while it has recently entered the mainstream consciousness through television and popular fiction, it appears there most often as a plot twist. Or as a device to show characterization. A heroine might bleed a little and shed pretty tears, but there is dignity in her suffering. The miscarriage is a setback that nonetheless propels her to her rightful destination.

But my miscarriages felt far from dignified, and I had no idea of my destination. My second was a “missed” miscarriage in which my body refused to relinquish the now heartbeat-less fetus, necessitating a dilation and curettage. I bled heavily for more than four weeks. The third was worse. I had wanted to miscarry in the comfort of home, seated on the couch between my husband and dog. But I had not expected to become so violently ill from the misoprostol, to pass clots the size of baseballs, to have the pregnancy sac pop out intact into my hand, to my surprise and after an agony of hours.

Postmortem photography of the 19th and early 20th century is often viewed within the context of memento mori, the grim directive to remember death as our inevitable end. But I adhere to a simpler explanation: that the advent of photography made it possible to record the likeness of a loved one more precisely, protecting face and form from the ravages of memory. For many women—particularly mothers of infants—the portraits may have been the sole visual representations of their children. And of themselves as mothers to those children.

Those women were entirely unlike me. They had contended with cholera, tuberculosis, and mysterious fevers that stole their children in the night. They could not vote, had few legal rights over their offspring, and were lucky not to have died during childbirth.

Further, they had given birth to actual children, a state of affairs very unlike my first-trimester losses. I had never gazed upon my baby’s face, nor felt her weight in my arms. My forays into maternity were confined to the first few months, when all is uncertainty and nausea.

Still, though, I found myself prowling online archives of those portraits, realizing that it was not the children who drew me but the mothers. The ones who held their children close, and gently. The ones who stared into the camera as if to say, look what has been taken from me.

And it occurred to me that I had never been offered an ultrasound picture of a lost pregnancy, or of a doomed one. All the black-and-whites in my file folders were from stages when the pregnancies had appeared healthy. It was only when a fetus stopped growing, or a heartbeat stopped, that I left empty-handed, without photographic evidence of those tiny passengers.

In “Mourning My Miscarriage” Peggy Orenstein observes, “There’s little acknowledgment in Western culture of miscarriage, no ritual to cleanse the grief.” Americans are deeply discomfited by death and, as Orenstein points out, we “don’t like unhappy endings.” The only acceptable pregnancy narrative is the one that ends with onesies and card-stock baby announcements.

Recurrent loss alienates one still further from this preferred narrative. I would miscarry seven pregnancies before I was done, a number that caused even doctors to grow tongue-tied in my presence. I was convinced that there was something irreparably broken inside me, and at various points I blamed my genetics, my age, the trauma of my familial history, my fondness for pomegranate juice, and the pipes in the New York City apartment building where I lived.

The miscarriages were seldom straightforward and often physically painful. Some took weeks to resolve. But far worse was the emptiness that followed each one, and the way I did not know where to park my grief. One day I would get a tattoo of seven blackbirds, I thought. One day I would plant a tree for each pregnancy I’d lost. But there was no outlet in the present.

Our culture insists that women in these situations move on. Worse, we ask them to be complicit in their own forgetting. We tell them that a miscarriage was likely for the best, or that it wasn’t meant to be. We tell them they can always try again and that at least they know they can get pregnant. We are unsettled when a woman lingers in her grief. We find it creepy. Macabre, even. We render the pregnancy smaller and smaller, and by doing so we diminish the woman.

My fifth and ninth pregnancies resulted in healthy children. Their faces smile from my walls and mantelpiece, from my desk and smartphone. I was lucky. It turns out that they were my destination.

But I keep the ultrasound pictures of the pregnancies I miscarried. I’ll come across that folder while I’m looking for a utility bill or the instructions to some piece of kitchen gadgetry in my filing cabinet. It’s OK that I’ve held onto them. It’s OK that I sometimes forget that they are there.

I hold onto them because they are more than images of doomed pregnancies or babies who would never be. They are photographic evidence of something that is as much a part of me today as my hands and face. And it took women who had mourned much greater losses than my own, more than a century ago, to teach me that I did not have to deny this part of me, even as my culture told me to forget.