Binders, death, Grief, Guest Posts

How to Have a Dead Child, The First Five Years

August 20, 2015

By Adina Giannelli

Live in a state of fog, half-submerged in water. Everything is fuzzy, cloudy, gray. Feel as though you’ve been anesthetized, but badly. Quickly you realize that what you thought was a general anesthetic turned out to be a local; the pain comes through the haze in sharp shards, and there’s no one you can sue for malpractice.

Cry, seemingly at random, at strollers and strawberries and the number 23. Living after death is not rational. Even through the anesthesia you see that. Exist as unhealed wound, sore and open, vulnerable to everything, yet somehow impenetrable. Scar tissue forms keloids around your head and heart; refuse to be moved.

Stare coldly at strangers who ask questions; stay angry. Exercise until you’ve lost all discernible body fat and rip your hair out at the root. Cry in your bed, in your car, in your office, at the gym. Wear age-inappropriate clothing that hangs on your gaunt frame like a signal light, a warning sign, a red flag.

Imagine yourself pregnant, feel phantom kicks; dream, occasionally, that your dead child is reincarnated as younger sibling. Become pregnant, accidentally but essentially on purpose, by your dead child’s father—a man you once loved and now hate.

Go to Russia where you sleep for fourteen hours a night and cry silently into your cheese grater cot at night, hoping for another day to pass, willing yourself to forget all you’ve left behind. A voice so small it is nearly inaudible whispers in your ear: remember, remember.


 Move to a beautiful apartment in an idyllic little village an hour from where you work, where none of the faces are familiar and no one knows your troubles or your story or your name. Strangers stare, no one bothers to ask. Walk the streets in the day, to the library and the cooperative market and the village’s flower-covered bridge in rainy mornings, sit in your living room chair late into the evening, staring out the window and wondering why.

Your water breaks in the living room late one evening on the precipice of winter. A fierce cherub is born in the bedroom shortly thereafter, apparently healthy and squealing. Your midwife Kirsten catches the baby and places him on your swollen breasts; silently, in a manner discordant with your tradition, you pray.

Do not name the baby for eight days, less for religious reasons, more because you’re scared he won’t survive. His father, if you can call him that, wants to name the baby Uzi. You want to name the baby Ariel. His father is nowhere to be found for most of that first year, visiting occasionally as you monitor your second child’s breathing and anticipate the moment at which it might cease

Cry sparingly, for tears do no good. Winter births spring as you birthed your December baby, who passes through the five-week mark easily and without fanfare and tell yourself that if you don’t get too attached to the idea of his permanence, there is a very small chance he might survive.

Give strangers death stares when they ask about your husband, how many children you have, if he is your first. It is just you and this small infant this first year. Wake every fifteen minutes, checking his breathing, which steadies your own. You call this baby Samuel, a Hebrew name meaning God has heard. You are not so sure.


Exhaust yourself with work and the task of raising a needy infant alone. Stress yourself with thoughts of your own poverty, the loneliness of a solitary future, the uncertainty of how you will survive. Realize you have no idea how to parent this beautiful baby when no one parented you, when you exist in a state of fog, when half of your heart is buried miles away, encased within a tiny white casket in a verdant cemetery plot, left to earth beneath the shade of ancient maple and pine trees.

Visit the cemetery and the other half of your heart as frequently as possible. Watch as your second baby is reborn a toddler through a sort of fog which offers a strange clarity, even in a haze of grief.

Repeat, as a mantra to guide you:

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Your daughter is dead but your son is still here.

Sometimes it will work and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes your days are better than others, even good. See that life is extraordinarily beautiful, at times; feel happy. See that life is extraordinarily blessed, at times; feel grateful. See that life is extraordinarily difficult, at times; feel angry. Your daughter did not deserve to die. Your son did not deserve a dead sister, an absent father, a mother teetering on the edge. Resign yourself to the fog, lean into it and hope that like all other weather patterns, it will one day lift. Some mornings it is a challenge to lure your body from bed, the fog is so heavy, but you rise. Even on the worst days, you find yourself lifted.


Struggle. Become so busy with teaching and work and the labor of parenting a toddler that you have to remind yourself daily of your reality. You don’t feel sad, most of the time, you feel so overextended and exhausted by the activities of daily living that you nearly forget you have a dead child. Cease speaking about her, as a means of self-preservation.

Listen as people ask if Samuel is your only child. Tell people you had a daughter but she died; comfort them as they work through imagined grief. Learn to lie when people ask if you have other children, so as to maximize everyone’s comfort. Think of her daily; cry less frequently; try to move forward and upward and on. Feel guilty, as if by approximating a life you have betrayed your dead child, your buried half heart.

Realize that the fog very nearly overtook you, but it was merely an overture: a necessary beginning, but a temporary one. Recognize that even if you don’t know how to get it, you and everyone around you deserve something else.


Decide you really have to get it together, to get off the treadmill of stagnant, unspent grief where you’ve stationed yourself in the years since your daughter’s death. See that every bad decision you’ve made in the last half-decade has been a function of indecision, a failure, driven by fear, to make a move, to take your life by its own balls and do the thing you were initially driven to do.

Realize that though your daughter is dead, you are not. Recognize that though you have tried desperately for the better part of the last five years to match her in her death state, it is physically impossible. You cannot be dead while you are still alive. The realization is shocking in its simplicity, and somehow profound, if only for the fact that you’d never considered it before.

Recognize your process was blocked, and you need to get unstuck. Act accordingly. Throw yourself into exercise, and friendship, and work. Help everyone who asks. Be kind to everyone who crosses your path. Write and read and teach with fire burning beneath you, from the place where for five years, half your heart’s been buried.

Pitch stories to editors and proposals to agents, knowing that many of them won’t be accepted. Eat ice cream after you go to the gym and have three drinks at dinner with your beautiful cousin and her wonderful husband, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. Wrap your arms completely around the broad body of the man you’re casually dating but beginning to love, even if you don’t know where things are going, even if it means your heart will be broken and badly. Your heart’s already broken, and if you’re very lucky, it will break again, and again, and again, anyway.

Go to the cemetery at dusk on the evening of your daughter’s fifth birthday, and cry into the grass while your son runs circles around you. Walk down the hill to the nearby playground with your preschool aged son. Stay there until well after dark, blowing bubbles on park benches and chasing your boy on the pavement, summer fireflies lighting the night around you, long after he should be sleeping. When you arrive home, read him seven books in bed rather than the requisite three. But I’m three, Mama, he will protest, conflating his nightly reading load with his chronological age. Yes, but you’ll be seven someday! you will tell him, and you will mean it.

Maybe it is G-d working in and through and for you and this revelation is holy. And maybe it is for your daughter and maybe it is for your son, maybe it’s for your favorite cousin or that man you are only casually dating but find you’re beginning to love. Mostly it is for yourself, but it isn’t selfish. Your child has been dead for five years, but you have walked among the living, even if half your heart’s been buried since. If you are going to have a dead child you must find a way to be alive. You start by choosing to live.




A writer and teacher whose essays has appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post, Adina Giannelli lives and works in Western Massachusetts with her son Samuel. She is currently at work on her first book.
Ring in New Years 2016 with Jen Pastiloff at her Vancouver, BC workshop Jan 23. The workshops are magic! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Click photo to book. NO yoga experience needed. Just be a human being

Visit Tuscany with Jen Pastiloff at her annual Italy retreat! It sells out quickly so book early. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. With a sense of humor. Click photo to book.. Just be a human being. June 17-24, 2017, Siena, Italy. Email with questions.





Featured image by Barbara Potter.

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  • Reply Barbara Potter August 20, 2015 at 10:38 am

    There are no words to describe how this has touched my heart.

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 24, 2015 at 4:38 am

      Thank you for your kind and generous words, Barbara. I am moved that the piece touched you as it did.

  • Reply Mandy Hitchcock August 20, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Adina. I can barely begin, let alone end, my thoughts about this essay. We marked the fifth anniversary of our daughter’s death in May. Thank you for giving words to so much of what it has felt like over these five years, so much of what it feels like now. Every day, it seems, even though subconsciously, every day I have to choose again to live. Thank you for this. I am so deeply sorry.

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 24, 2015 at 4:39 am

      Thank you for your comments, Anna. The struggle is daily, isn’t it. My deepest condolences on your the loss of your daughter.

  • Reply anna whiston-donaldson August 20, 2015 at 11:26 am

    This is beautiful, Adina.

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 24, 2015 at 10:29 am

      Thank you, Anna.

  • Reply Burns the Fire August 20, 2015 at 11:34 am

    My best friend’s partner dropped dead in front of her because of a medical mistake relating to a broken arm. I will never forget sitting beside a lake with her a year later and how she drew a jagged line over her heart with her finger to describe her grief. She cupped her wound with her open hands and said it made room for more love to come in.

    More love to you!

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 24, 2015 at 10:33 am

      What a beautiful sentiment, thank you for sharing that story. xo

    • Reply Jennifer Pastiloff August 27, 2015 at 10:33 am


  • Reply Robin Gaphni August 20, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Beautiful, honest writing, Adina. We are walking towards the fifth anniversary of my son Matthew’s death and we walk in solidarity with you. Thank you.

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 25, 2015 at 9:05 am

      Thank you, Robin. I am so sorry for your loss, and thinking of you and your family.

  • Reply Aine Greaney August 20, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Such beautiful writing. Warm thoughts to you, Adina.

  • Reply Elizabeth Hendricks August 20, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    This is absolutely beautiful, and so relatable. My sweet son died April 27th of this year. I’m not even to the half way point of one year, but I feel all of these emotions. My Jeremiah was two years old, and he left his five year old sister, and best friend, behind. This is the most unfathomable pain, and a pain a mother should never have to face, but it happens daily. When others would turn to drugs, alcohol, and self destruction, there are those, like you, that turn to self healing. You write and teach others about the pain they will face, and I do the same. What better way to release pain and anger then to help those facing the same feelings? Thank you so much for this beautiful post, and giving life to the emotions grieving mothers face. It’s a daily battle, and not all win, but with posts such as this, they at least have a fighting chance.

    • Reply Jennifer Pastiloff August 20, 2015 at 9:20 pm

      I am so sorry. Hugging you close.

    • Reply Adina Giannelli August 26, 2015 at 5:53 am

      Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for your beautiful, resonant words. I am most grateful. Sending my deepest condolences and love to you and your family on the loss of your Jeremiah. Please feel free to contact me at any time if you’d ever like to talk.

      • Reply Elizabeth Hendricks August 27, 2015 at 10:40 am

        Thank you so much. We celebrate his birthday tomorrow, and it’s going to be so incredibly hard, but I know that he is right where he needs to be, and he’s beautiful. I would give anything to have him here for his third birthday, but God needed him more than I did. We will be sending balloons to Heaven for him.

  • Reply Jamie Duffy August 26, 2015 at 6:35 am

    Beautiful. My daughter would have been 5 this October but died at two months old. This was so real and honest. Thank you for writing something that feels like you looked inside my mind and heart these last 5 years. It truly is a daily uphill battle…Truly beautiful.

  • Reply Lacie Dickson August 26, 2015 at 6:39 am

    Thank you writing about the hard things in life. We found out at 17 weeks our baby no longer had a heartbeat and our baby was born two weeks later. It was the hardest thing my husband and I have ever been through. That was six months ago and it is a challenge every day to keep going. We also have a 5yr old girl and a 3yr old boy. Life has been so much harder since February but I have also learned more about compassion, empathy, and love in six months than most people learn in a lifetime.

  • Reply Janet SP August 26, 2015 at 10:04 am

    Thank you. My daughter died four years ago next month. Her twin brother is the most beautiful thing, but his mother has been periodically consumed by grief. Always helpful to feel not alone in that.

  • Reply Katie August 26, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Absolutely beautiful. So raw and describes the pain so well. Thank you for this. It’s been 2.5 years for us.

  • Reply Catie Laroche August 26, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Can’t even begin to tell you how this touched me and how similar our stories are! The number 23, a daughter that died, a son that came along “accidentally, but essentially on purpose”, by a “father” who wasn’t the man he should’ve been, next month will be 5 years… I could go on and on and on, but mostly I just want you, and anyone else, to know how real your words are. How, even though our stories have unique details, there are so many of us that share this story. How so many of us live with pieces of our hearts missing. How important it is to choose to live, not just exist. Thank you for this. Thank you for sharing your story. Just simply thank you!

  • Reply Faith Wilt August 27, 2015 at 8:19 am

    Such a beautiful yet sad & inspiring story, thank you for sharing. It’s been 4 months since we lost my 24yr old stepson & just under 2 months since my 8yr old son passed away in a car accident. It has been a huge struggle to say the least for both my husband & I & to add my injuries have not helped. We have 2 other children, 12yr old son & 2 yr old daughter, so that has been what pushes me to move on but I feel I just want to be alone to grieve & morn his loss though it seems impossible with others around day & night to help since with my injuries I temporarily cannot care for our little one alone. I feel I’m cheating him for not giving the grieving time then I feel I am shorting the living 2 if I take time away from them to grieve. I breakdown almost daily at random things that trigger memories but only for a few moments & only letting them see the mild ones occasionally. I hear as time goes on this will get easier to live with or at least learn to handle but I’m still trying to convince myself of that.

    • Reply Jennifer Pastiloff August 27, 2015 at 10:35 am

      Wow, Faith. So much loss. Holding you in my heart.

    • Reply Paula August 28, 2015 at 11:45 am

      WOW… Moved to tears reading so much of what I have felt in the last 5 years. My oldest son passed away very unexpectedly while home on leave from the Army. Grateful he was home and not in Afghanistan (or somewhere else). My mantra has become I want to live in the sunshine of my son’s life not in the shadow of his death. He was an incredible young man, just as your daughter was a gorgeous young lady, and the only way to continue to let his light shine is through my own actions. I’m grateful for parents like you that won’t also live in the sunshine…. not easy, but sacred work! <3 *hugs* to you mamma!

  • Reply Essay Winner of Scholarship to Emily Rapp/Jen Pastiloff Retreat. - The Manifest-Station September 15, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    […] in publications including Salon, the Washington Post, and (of course) The Manifest-Station (“How to Have a Dead Child, The First Five Years” and “How to Love a Stranger”). Again, I’m blown away by the work of Emily and Jen […]

  • Reply SAHMmelier October 5, 2015 at 8:27 pm

    Wrenching. Beautiful prose, painfully descriptive. I can only imagine that desperate loss. Lifting you and Samuel up…

  • Reply Cristiane December 22, 2016 at 10:47 am

    Loved the essay. I could not believe how much I could relate to it, having lost my own baby at 5 weeks old myself. Relieved to see there is still hope for a future.

  • Reply Katie Colt February 22, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Adina, thank you for writing this. This type of honesty about the grief of child/infant loss is so necessary and not often spoken nearly so eloquently as you have here. Looking forward to reading more of your work.

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