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Generational trauma in baby loss - What have we learned?

Updated: Sep 6, 2021

By: Kristen Samuelson, Three Little Birds Pregnancy & Infant Loss Founder and Executive Director

This month, Three Little Birds' focus is on education. The past five years of advocacy for families in the Philadelphia and South Jersey region has provided our organization a unique opportunity to connect with others at a deeper level. Families that have shared their own, unexpected experience with the horror of losing a baby. So much of this traumatizing experience is influenced by things we don't even realize - our religious upbringing, the cultures that influence the fabric of our family, our lifestyles and generational influences.

As a genealogy nerd, I have spent extensive time researching my lineage and the branches of my family tree that brought all of my ancestors to the Philadelphia region. I am deeply rooted to Philadelphia on both sides, but maternally, my family came from the Bridesburg section of the City of Brotherly Love. I found out that's where generations of my family lived, worked and played. The majority of my family was interred by Al Roses' Funeral Home. So much so, it has become a bit of a dark family joke that the next to go hopefully will get the "friends and family discount"!

This blog is a bit of a personal one, as it begins 93 years ago in the City of Philadelphia, PA. Two blue collar kids - my great grandparents, Joseph and Hilda Burger, welcomed their second child, a baby girl, named Hilda to their home. Six weeks later, the day after Christmas 1928, baby Hilda passed away. Family tales passed down explained SIDS (aka at the time as "crib death") as the culprit. Not much else is known - the only other thing I heard about the situation was that my great grandmother once said, "God be damned if I ever bring another one of his children to this earth!". After losing Hilda, she and my great grandfather never had any other children. She was described as a loving woman, who had an edge, and held many resentments throughout her life towards anyone who crossed her.

I remember meeting my great grandmother once when I was around 8 years old. She was living in a nursing home, wheelchair ridden, unkempt and blind from diabetes. I don't remember much else than her not being super warm towards us. I remember taking a photo with her and I was terrified. This was before I knew of her traumatic journey to parenthood.

I don't specifically remember when I was told the story of my great-aunt's brief life, but I was most likely a young adult, who was not thinking about parenthood at the time. I remember thinking of the old lady I met as a young child and my heart immediately softened towards my memory of her. "Ah", I remember thinking, "I can't imagine having to live decades with that kind of pain."

And here I am, just over half a decade in. Another generation of passed down trauma, statistics and society-induced shame.

During a recent weekend of falling down the genealogy rabbit hole, I noticed the little notification leaf on notifying me of an update. I noticed it was for Hilda. Curious, I clicked the link and found it wasn't for my great grandmother, but my late, infant great aunt. And after hours into a bigger rabbit hole, I emerged with so many questions.

I was able to find her death certificate which confirms her passing the day after Christmas in 1928, but lists her cause of death as "convulsions following Enterocolitis" aka seizures following a bacterial infection of the digestive system, a common condition in children during the time in the region.

How heartbreaking. I wonder if my great-grandmother knew or if she simply assumed "crib death". Was it easier to just tell people that so that she didn't have to answer other questions? Was she told crib death as a means to protect her from reality? How did all of this effect her physical and emotional healing? How much of the resentments she carried was guilt? Could Hilda's death ultimately have been prevented? At barely 18 years old, was my great grandmother even emotionally mature enough to understand what was happening to her?

I am not the only woman in my family who has unwillingly walked the journey of bereaved parenthood, but I am the most vocal about it. Miscarriages and infertility were all skeletons in the closet within my immediate and extended family; not really discussed and still danced around when addressed. For me, my healing is found in sharing our story and our babies' lives as often as I can. I wear my pride for them like a scarlet letter but with the intention of shattering the stigma and removing the shame. Some may consider me and other mothers like me as "radical".

Imagine how radical I (we) would have been if we had our experience nearly 100 years ago....

I'm sure my great grandparents entered and left through the back door, so as the close-knit community was shielded from their experience and shame. I doubt she was offered a support group for bereaved mothers, let alone a pamphlet of what to do as they head home to an empty nursery and a home with gifts for a baby who no longer lived there. Were there ever any photographs of her? If so, were they buried in a box, passed down or destroyed in a fit of grief? I wonder how this loss, how it was handled and what came after effected the trajectory of our family - its growth and it's healing.

How did this impact their faith? Did she know anyone else who has lost a baby? Did she feel brave enough to share with anyone? Did someone, anyone, reach out to her to say, "Hilda, I'm so sorry for the loss of your precious baby. I'm here for you."?

What kind of unexpected financial burden this placed on the family especially after a large holiday? How many years were their lives impacted by this burden financially? How many Christmases to follow were marred with the memory of who is not present to open their gifts? Did they continue to to hang her stocking?

As I dug deeper, I was able to find another interesting piece of information: the tally of funeral expenses from Al Roses' Funeral Home. A snapshot in time, nearly 100 years ago of the additional stress placed on a family during the loss of a child. Something, no one should ever have to face. According to an inflation calculator, $61.25 (total cost below) equals nearly $1,000 in today's economy. According to this document, my great-grandparents paid about a third of the expenses up front (roughly $350). I wonder how long it took them to pay off the other two thirds of Hilda's final expenses? There were no charities to help offset these costs then, like there are now.

An expense that I noticed is missing from this bill is the cost of the headstone. I was able to find a photo of her grave marker, a shared monument with her paternal uncle and his wife who passed in 1955 and 1966, which is when it is most likely the first time any formal marker was on their plot identifying her remains were laid to rest there. (Philip and his wife didn't marry until 1943, therefore, Sarah never even met Hilda.) That means, her grave went unmarked for about 27 years, most likely because the headstone was not affordable to the average family, let alone two struggling kids from Northeast Philadelphia.

That is still true to this day. Headstones are generally the last piece purchased because it take years to save up to cover the expense. Imagine going to your child's grave and there be no identifying marker there. No validation that their life existed. A dismissal of grief. The average headstone for a baby in 2021 costs roughly $1,000.

When I think back to meeting my great grandmother as a young child, I remember seeing one person with my eyes. But as I look at the photograph of her in my mind, my heart now sees a different person. I may not have known her long in the physical world, but feel so connected to her in an emotional and spiritual sense as an adult walking a similar journey. How much of my personal experience and healing is connected to hers through DNA? What lessons can be learned from it all and the other millions of mamas walking this earth with a piece of their heart missing?

"You never truly know the grief and burden another person carries"

The first is - you never truly know the grief and burden another person carries. I imagine each decade of her life being more and more difficult as my grandfather met all the milestones of childhood and young adulthood, joining the Navy and returning home to marry and start a family with his childhood sweetheart in the same neighborhood he grew up in. Each and every family celebration continued, but marred in her heart and mind because, someone will always be missing from the fold and the memories she would begrudgingly have to keep in her mind. I don't know how she got through each day. Sometimes, I don't know how I make it though some days. But, somehow, we do.

"Generational trauma is a real thing"

The second is - generational trauma is a real thing. There is a saying - what doesn't get healed gets passed down. And having seen generations of grieving grandparents and parents struggle to cope with this tremendous life altering event, it is true. The need for varied and comprehensive support is paramount. Carrying a heart yearning to mother, angry by separation and confused physically, emotionally and mentally is something that becomes imprinted on our DNA. We can break these patterns by bravely saying, this happened to me. And I need support.

"We still have a long arduous way to go in shattering the stigma and burdens of losing a baby"

The third is - while trends, research and validation for families like mine/ours has grown tremendously over the past few decades, we still have a long arduous way to go in shattering the stigma and burdens of losing a pregnancy/baby. We understand that while it is not something you can truly understand until you experience it yourself, it is also not something we would wish on anyone else. It is a huge burden to carry and is life long. What we need is to be seen...supported...questioned and validated. The journey to parenthood for a quarter of women/families extends beyond the carefully curated family photos posted to social media. Most family photos are incomplete. There is always someone visibly missing from each picture that is carried in our hearts.

Keeping the memories of our loved ones alive, especially children, helps the global healing of families including those who came before and those who are yet to come connected and moving towards positive healing.

Thank you for allowing me to share my personal family story and keep my great-aunt Hilda's memory alive.

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