'The Struggle Wasn't to Move On, but to Hold On': How 1 Couple Coped After Losing Their Child

daniel raeburn and family

In December 2004, Daniel and Rebekah Raeburn prepared for the birth of their first daughter. It should have been an exciting, joyous time. But Irene was stillborn. 


Many marriages are extinguished by the heavy, nearly impenetrable grief that follows the death of a child. Not Daniel and Rebekah's.

Daniel's written candidly about their experience -- first in a New Yorker essay, and now in a memoir, Vessels: A Love Story. Here, in an exclusive to CafeMom, he and Rebekah explain how their love and lives continued after losing Irene.

What was the lowest point your marriage hit after the loss of Irene?

Daniel: Even though Bekah and I went through her death together, ultimately we each had to survive it alone. We had twin experiences, but they were fraternal twins, not identical twins, so the differences between us were magnified.

Now I see those differences as vital and necessary, even beautiful. But it was tempting to see them as indicators of irreconcilable difference between us.

The lowest point of all came five years after that, after Bekah had given birth to two more girls, Willa [now 9] and Hazel [now 6]. Having both a toddler and a newborn was insanely stressful.

We were overwhelmed. Because we're children of the '70s, meaning children of divorce, we'd literally never seen a working marriage up close. We had no model for how to cooperate. How to turn toward one another, instead of against one another. Which we did for a while.

The latter part of the book is about that shock of realizing that we'd survived losing a child, but might not survive having them.

Many marriages end after the death of a child. What saved yours?

Daniel: Our kids saved us. I eventually realized that I didn't want to be free of Irene's death. That the long-term struggle wasn't to move on, but to hold on. To never forget.

I realized that Irene's death did define our marriage, and that that was a good thing. That's why I say that she married us. So did Willa and Hazel. They forced Bekah and me to do so many things -- change their diapers, bathe them, feed them, etc. -- that they essentially raised us too.

They made us grow up. By making us be better parents, our kids made us better people, and better partners.

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Rebekah: For me, things started to get better sometime after I started a desk job ... I was forced to get out of bed each day, get dressed, go through the motions. Dan was there every night with dinner cooked, to listen to me gripe about the job, and somehow those routines made for putting one foot in front of another, day after day, which was the only way I saw out of my grief.

I can't really say why our marriage pushed on from that point. I think mostly because the tragedy of it bound us together, even though we grieved in different ways.

He wrote. I went to a place where I could be anonymous and pretend that everything was normal, but at the end of the day we came together and listened to each other.

There's a misconception that grief is a synonym for sadness. What emotions did you find yourself going through? What surprised you?

Daniel: Gratitude. I'm grateful that Bekah gave birth to her. I'd go through it all over again, and I know that Bekah would too. Irene's life ended at zero, but it left us with more than nothing. Now I value life more. That's why at the end of the book I say that Irene gave me life.

Rebekah: The most surprising [emotion] was in the hospital before Irene was born, but after we knew she was dead. I had been given Pitocin and we were sitting around with our midwife, telling stories while we waited for labor to kick in.

Somehow we ended up telling funny stories and laughing. Even in the moment, it felt inappropriate, but it also felt wonderful. On the darker side, there was a lot of self-hatred that came after she died. I had a lot of anger and turned much of it on myself.

How did Dan's book affect your relationship? Were you reluctant for him to disclose such a difficult time in your life?

Rebekah: Yes, it was hard to have Dan write about a lot of private information. We had some testy days after I read it because I insisted that he change a bunch of passages that didn't conform to my memory of the time, and he wasn't happy about it.

But, I also understand that each person's memory will be different and that being married to a writer comes with the risk of ending up on the page.

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What advice can you pass on to other parents who are struggling with loss?

Daniel: None. My advice would be to not give anyone who's grieving or mourning any advice at all. Just listen to them. That's all you can do. Nothing can alleviate the death of a child. Nothing. So don't even try.

If the mourning parent senses that you realize this, they might feel like you understand. They might feel less alone.

Rebekah: There is no one way out of your grief. You have to find what works for you and do it, whether that's hiding under the covers for weeks or becoming a marathoner. I think reading about other people experiencing the same thing is powerful medicine, or attending a grief group, if that's possible.

It's important to know that you aren't the only one ... I would urge that parents not be too hard on themselves, and to not be afraid to talk about it.


Image courtesy of Daniel Raeburn

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