Six months ago this weekend, we lost our daughter Ida at birth. These have been the hardest months of our lives, but part of what’s gotten us through them is the support from people who have experienced similar tragedies.

This isn’t limited to people we know or have met recently either. Some time ago, in listening to an episode of the wonderful history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, I cam across reference to a letter written by John Adams to his wife Abigail after the stillbirth of their daughter Elizabeth. John was notified of the tragedy by letter, as he served in the Continental Congress during the early years of the American Revolution.

Here is part of Abigail’s letter, dated July 16, 1777:

Join with me my dearest Friend in Gratitude to Heaven, that a life I know you value, has been spaired and carried thro Distress and danger altho the dear Infant is numberd with its ancestors.

My apprehensions with regard to it were well founded. Tho my Friends would have fain perswaded me that the Spleen [or] the Vapours had taken hold of me I was as perfectly sensible of its discease as I ever before was of its existance. I was also aware of the danger which awaited me; and which tho my suffering[s] were great thanks be to Heaven I have been supported through, and would silently submit to its dispensations in the loss of a sweet daughter; it appeard to be a very fine Babe, and as it never opened its Eyes in this world it lookd as tho they were only closed for sleep. The circumstance which put an end to its existance, was evident upon its birth, but at this distance and in a Letter which may possibly fall into the Hands of some unfealing Ruffian I must omit particuliars. Suffice it to say that it was not oweing to any injury which I had sustaind, nor could any care of mine have prevented it.

My Heart was much set upon a Daughter. I had had a strong perswasion that my desire would be granted me. It was—but to shew me the uncertanty of all sublinary enjoyments cut of e’er I could call it mine. { 283 } No one was so much affected with the loss of it as its Sister who mournd in tears for Hours. I have so much cause for thankfullness amidst my sorrow, that I would not entertain a repineing thought. So short sighted and so little a way can we look into futurity that we ought patiently to submit to the dispensation of Heaven.

And John’s reply, from July 28:

Is it not unaccountable, that one should feel so strong an Affection for an Infant, that one has never seen, nor shall see? Yet I must confess to you, the Loss of this sweet little Girl, has most tenderly and sensibly affected me. I feel a Grief and Mortification, that is heightened tho it is not wholly occasioned, by my Sympathy with the Mother. My dear little Nabbys Tears are sweetly becoming her generous Tenderness and sensibility of Nature. They are Arguments too of her good sense and Discretion.

I was there when we learned Ida was dead, with all the supports of home, with my wife and our son and our families. I can’t imagine learning, as John Adams did, of the death of an anticipated child through a letter, and being so far from home and unable to join one’s family to mourn.

I’m struck in these letters by their incredible strength; perhaps that comes from being forced to put grief into the written word. Perhaps it comes from the Calvinist rigidity of New England society as well. But there is vulnerability as well – in Abigail’s cold ironic discussion of how much she’d wanted a girl, and how one was given to her and taken at the same moment (a feeling I know well), or John’s ability to philosophically sum up in that one line – “Is it not unaccountable, that one should feel so strong an Affection for an Infant, that one has never seen, nor shall see?” the emotional contradictions of stillbirth.

I’m also struck by Abigail’s use of the pronoun ‘it’ instead of ‘she,’ which suggests a level of emotional detachment from the baby. Stillbirths used to be far more common than they are today, though as we’ve since learned they are far from rare. Still, it’s interesting to see some of the differences.

I don’t know where little Elizabeth is buried. The photo at top is from the Adams family plot in Hancock Cemetery in Quincy; John, Abigail, and John Quincy’s bodies have since been moved from here to tombs in the First United Parish Church across the street. Stillbirth markers are fairly common sights especially in older cemeteries, and I’m a bit surprised not to see one here, but it is possible she was buried elsewhere, or placed inside a family crypt. Regardless, I’m glad we have these letters to remember her, and to remind us of the quiet grief, not often public but not less deeply felt, that attends a loss like this one.


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