The Human Experience of Grief

by Karen L. Hayden

One of the things we have in common with our colonial ancestors is our joy at having healthy children. Back in their times, however, that did not guarantee that they would survive their parents. One of Abigail Adams' children, a girl named Susanna, was a tiny sickly baby who lasted just a year. The grief was overwhelming, but she had little time to dwell on it as she was already pregnant with her son Charles. In 1777, Abigail lost another daughter who was stillborn. What made this loss even more poignant was the fact that she and John were apart. She wrote to tell him of the loss: "My heart was much set upon a daughter. I had a strong perswasion that my desire would be granted me. It was—but to show me the uncertainty of all sublinary enjoyments cut of e'er I could call it mine.

John wrote back: "is it not accountable, 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." Judith Sargent Murray, pregnant with her first child at 38, nearly died delivering her stillborn son in 1789. It was months before she could express her grief on paper. "How many melancholy days, weeks, and months have passed since I last addressed, in this way, my best, my dearest friend--How exquisite have been my sufferings, and how are my maternal expectations buried in the grave with my firstborn son--yet let me not, by dwelling upon unavailing regrets still more deeply lacerate the bosom of him, from whose tearful eye, I would hide, by the interposing veil of tranquility..." She was a writer who published a poem entitled "LINES, occasioned by the DEATH of an INFANT." There were probably a lot of people who could identify with her feelings.

Judith's second child, daughter Julia Marie nearly died before her fourth birthday. Her panicked mother wrote: "Oh! My Sister! should I be called to part with this child, where shall I find the fortitude to submit with becoming resignation to a blow, which will at one stroke prostate all those maternal hopes..." We truly can not fathom the fear they felt when illness such as smallpox, diphtheria, or yellow fever started spreading through a town. Children and the sickly were always more susceptible to the danger. Ephraim Hartwell, proprietor of a tavern that has been preserved in the Minuteman National Historical Park, lost his first five children to illness within two weeks. He and his wife started their family anew and were blessed with grandchildren in their old age.

Copyright © 1999 Karen L. Hayden. All rights reserved.