Mrs. Nellie Grant Sartoris with baby. This baby–Princess Cantacuzene–unveiled the Grant Memorial in the Mall, Wash. DC in April 1922. This baby’s daughter, “Princess Ida,” assisted her mother in the unveiling. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
As a person delves into family genealogy, they run a high likelihood of stumbling across instances of childhood and infant death. Poor health, disease, questionable living conditions and limited access to medical care frequently plagued our ancestors. Those who made it through were the lucky ones.
I have written in the past about my Great-grandmother, Sylvia Freeman Combs, who lost 4 children in 10 years. All of the children were less than a year old, and most likely died due to starvation. Breast milk is important, but if the mother can’t feed herself then it is not nearly as good. Recently I read an account of a 3rd Great-grand uncle who was killed at 9 years old when a wagon overturned on him. Periodically I think about how lucky my parents were risking it all with one kid. That’s the geneticist in me talking.
Every generation I examine has lost at least one child. Some through accidents, some thorough illness, some through other unknown causes. Because I have an interest in biology and genetics, I look at these deaths from a different perspective. Not only do I see a loss of genetic information and diversity that was not passed on (particularly when lines die out), I also think about the opportunities they missed. In addition, I’m able to channel the grief each of these mothers felt at the loss of a child.
In 2006, my husband and I lost a baby girl. It was heart wrenching, and a part of me relives that anguish every time I read about a case of a baby dying. Our daughter was a 23-week-old stillborn, and while I was never able to carry her in my arms, a loss is a loss. Due to her size (she may have survived if born alive) the State of Indiana issued a fetal death certificate for her. We put it away with all of our other important papers and left it alone.
As I research my family more and more, I uncover many vital records. Birth, death and marriage certificates are important records for all genealogy research. I entered ours, and our children’s, vital records into my software when I first started my genealogy research, but struggled with whether or not I should enter our daughter’s. Many people didn’t know that we had lost a baby. Many people barely consider it a birth, let alone a death. And there are others who think that this is one of those family secrets that should be kept private. I’ve heard it all, and won’t go into my personal philosophical opinions here, but I felt the need to do something with this information. There was documentation for goodness sake!
I decided to put her in the family tree. If I didn’t, then one of my nosey descendants would just find her anyway, which would just lead to more questions. Many states do this, not just Indiana. While it is a relatively recent development, it means that there is a new paper trail for future researchers. Check with your local vital records office to find out how your state handles a stillbirth and if they issue fetal death certificates, death certificates, or in some states, fetal birth certificates. I also wanted to put her in there because of of why she died. My future generations need to know about my medical history and how it played a part. Someday it could affect them and they might need to have this information.
October is not only Family History Month, but also Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Month, as dedicated by President Regan in October 1988. Specifically, October 15 is dedicated to these lost children. The October 15th campaign started in 2002. A petition reached the federal government to create a memorial day, and on September 28, 2006, House Concurrent Resolution 222 proclaimed this day each year as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day in the United States. Remember and celebrate all your ancestors this month, even the ones who were too little to be remembered by many.
Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Shannon Bennett of Locust Grove, Va.
Learn more about how to handle vital records in the course First Steps: Using Birth Records. Get 20% off the listed price with coupon code FTU1012.