Child Death
Miscarriage > The Not Named

By Sharon Winn

How many women carry grief from loss of a child? One in five mothers has experienced the death of a child through miscarriage, illness, accident or stillbirth. The percentage of mothers who grieve over a lost child is much higher, perhaps one in three, including those who have lost a child though adopting out, estrangement or abortion.

Samara came as a surprise to us. After three years of trying, at 37 I became pregnant. When the amniocentesis showed she was a girl, we named her Samara. Three months along, our doctor announced that leaking fluid meant complete bed rest for six months. I stayed home for two weeks and then abandoned this enforced solitude. I knew I’d hate this child if her birth required my “death”—giving up career and time outdoors.

Our daughter—the size of a man’s open hand— died in the operating room moments after her premature birth. My husband watched. Samara and I had shared over six months before her birth—plus six hours of labor. In the operating room, when I heard the doctor ask if I wanted to hold my child, I did not hesitate. Firmly I said, “No.”

So Samara disappeared. I didn’t touch her. I didn’t see her. No picture. No funeral. The hospital staff kept me overnight in the medical-surgical ward for observation. No visitors. No flowers. I was discharged the next day.

That same day, I went to work wearing an old maternity outfit, a stone gray sack-like jumper that hid my girth and loss. Within the week, 15 women in business suits sat around a stone brown table, a meeting of our professional association. I don’t know how many knew about Samara’s death, but I do know that no one turned to me and said, “ I’m sorry.” Few sent cards.

I thought I had killed her, our first and only child. Complete bed rest might have saved her. I think that’s when my husband and I started to end every day with a bottle rather than a glass of wine—red or white it didn’t matter—to numb the horror of the unasked question— what right did I have to kill this child?

No one told me how important it might be to join a support group of bereaved parents. Without place for honor and expression, this loss of Samara burrowed deeper and deeper. My husband and I stopped drinking long before I stopped grieving. Twenty years later, I heard anger in my voice as I told a friend of an upcoming funeral for a 70-year-old man. The funeral Samara never had.

Around and around we circled on a gravel path close to playgrounds and play fields—empty of the children who were in school. My friend Beu listened as I explored the source of my anger. She then shared the story of her two miscarriages. Two women walking and talking. Our stories are the stories of many.

We call ourselves the not named. There is no word in the English language for parents who lose children. Children without parents are orphans. Spouses who survive each other are widows and widowers. But this horror of losing a child runs so deep that we name it not. Many bereaved parents bear two burdens. First, loss of a child. Then isolation if they bear that grief alone without funeral or memorial service.

So, 20 years after my loss, Beu and I decided to create a memorial service for our dead children. We invited other grieving mothers to join us. I called a woman whose story was well known in our community. Linda had lost two grown sons in three years —one through suicide and one through drowning. She willingly joined us. At the first gathering, we three sat on overstuffed chairs in front of a large flip chart covered with my writing. Scared of my feelings, I provided way more structure than needed, but they forgave me. Next we sent an email to Molly, an artist who works in stone, asking her to become the fourth member of our team. She had lost her infant son Peter in a car accident. Although it was scary to email an invitation for such an intimate venture, Molly’s response was one of deep sharing. Another woman, Jean, heard of our ceremony, and called to offer her services. She wanted to use her art to honor her grown daughter’s death. So she became member number five.

At the first meeting of this group of five, we decided to hold the ceremony on the day before Mother’s Day. We agreed to invite mothers who had lost children through any means: abortion, stillbirth, miscarriage, accident, war, suicide, and estrangement. We knew that some wouldn’t be ready to come, but might find solace in knowing such a ceremony existed.

We rented space in an old woodframe community hall, once home—many years ago— to a family that had lost house and children to a fire. We did not want to ask for donations. So the five of us together paid $150 for room rental, decorations, posters and mailings.

At the next monthly meeting we decided on a simple nondenominational service. The third month, the month before Mother’s Day, we mailed typewritten letters to local pastors for use in their church bulletins and personalized invitations to mothers we knew who grieved lost children. We arranged for a pianist and violinist and placed a notice in our community newspaper. Seeing that notice, a reporter called from our local cable TV station to interview us.

Beu, Molly, and I gathered and cleaned multi-colored stones from a beach on Bainbridge Island, where Indians had held their sacred sweat lodges. Molly brought forget-me-nots and a stone-encased candle to mark the center of the circle. Linda came armed with bouquets of flowers— daisies, lilies, larkspur, and roses— that poured over and perfumed each window ledge. Beu covered the round table at the center with a purple and red bordered Ethiopian cloth , a “gabi,” a memory of her eight years there with her husband and mother. Jean’s delicate photograph of a rose-colored rhododendron hung at the entry.

Just before 3 p.m. on a warm cloudy spring Saturday before Mother’s Day, 20 other women appeared. Some came dressed in long flowing skirts with gauzy shawls, two in jeans. Beu and Molly welcomed these mothers as tentatively they climbed the stone gray stairs to the entry hall. Each bent over the beach stones on the table by the door, and searched for the one that best captured her own particular loss. One young woman took five stones—four children lost to miscarriage and one shortly after birth. Although we had practiced twice, I stood immobile in that wood hall. But it didn’t matter. Molly walked over and greeted new arrivals. Beu and Linda did the same. Surrounded by these women—the not named— there was plenty of room to be vulnerable.

We started with a brief meditation. Then, one by one we stepped forward and named our loss. Some shed the quiet tears we all held inside. We told no more of our story than each child’s name—if there was one— and the date. More was to invite a very long ceremony. Less was to say and do nothing. A musician rang a delicate chime as each mother returned to the circle.

It was done. Linda offered the closing meditation. We walked out of the hall single file, back down those stone gray steps, each holding our stones as tightly as our memories. Then, as if held in a common hand, we stood on the gravel drive and talked quietly for an hour under gray clouds. No coffee. We stayed, clusters of three or four women sharing our stories, breaking apart, then joining another group to tell our stories again. One woman knew two of the other mothers. But never before had they spoken of their loss. Few chairs. It didn’t matter. What mattered was we were together. In this way we prepared for Mother’s Day. Many wrote in our guest book:

  • This was the first ceremony I had in which to grieve.
  • Thank you for coming together in circle with stones—close to my son’s heart as a lover of nature, and a collector of rocks and crystals.
  • It feels like my heart will never mend…being with other mothers who have lost a child makes the sadness less lonely.
  • Perfect timing…just before Mother’s Day.

Today, nearly a year later, Samara’s small smooth white stone sits on the window sill above our kitchen sink. Seeing it there reminds me that she died and that there was honor in her death. And that she lives.

Afterward: Afraid to commit to more, we did not offer follow-up after the circle. I wish now we had offered a list of local resources for women who grieve the loss of a child.

About the Author

Sharon Winn has also published a book In Service to the Soul: 100 Ideas for Women in Transition: Lionhearted Publications, 1999. For questions about the healing circle or to order a copy of her book, email

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