Was Santorum 'Weird' for Bringing Home His Stillborn Baby? (Updated)

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There is much I don't like about Rick Santorum's ideas, but the story of how he and his wife dealt with the tragic death of their baby is not something that bothers me. Pete Wehner has an appropriately indignant post, quoted below, about the attacks on Santorum over this issue (and he summarizes the sad story as well), but it strikes me as indecent to criticize the loving, if discomfiting, behavior of people who have just suffered the worst possible tragedy known to humankind. In in a different context (while discussing this column, about a father who made the ultimate sacrifice for his child), Pete pointed me to a quote from Euripides in which he described the death of a child as "the grief surpassing all."

Here's Pete on the dispiriting controversy:

First it was Alan Colmes; now it is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, who went on MSNBC to mock Rick Santorum for how he and his wife Karen dealt with the death of their son Gabriel. (A severe prenatal development led to his very early delivery, and Gabriel died two hours after his birth.)

"He's not a little weird, it's that he's really weird," Robinson said of Santorum. "And some of his positions he's taken are just so weird, um, that I think that some Republicans are gonna be off-put. Um, not everybody is going to, going to be down, for example, with the story of how he and his wife handled the, the, the stillborn ah, ah, child, ah, um, whose body they took home to, to kind of sleep with it, introduce to the rest of the family. It's a very weird story."

On these comments I have three observations to make, the first of which is that spending time with a stillborn child (or one who died shortly after birth, as in the Santorum case) is commonly recommended. The matter of taking the child home for a few hours is less common, but they did it so that their other children could also spend a little time with the deceased child, and that is definitely recommended. For example, here's the official page of the American Pregnancy Association (an association of health-care providers that treat pregnant women) about stillbirth. It recommends that parents spend time with the child, as the Santorums did, and the APA writes:
With the loss of your baby, your family members will also grieve. Your baby is someone's granddaughter, brother, cousin, nephew or sister. It is important for your family members to spend time with the baby. This will help them come to terms with their loss. If you have other children, it is very important to be honest with them about what has happened by using simple and honest explanations. It is your decision whether you would like the children to see the baby. Ask for a Child Life Specialist at the hospital; these are trained professionals who can help you prepare your children for the heartbreaking news, and prepare them to see the baby if you wish.
This is basically what the Santorum family did. They also had a funeral, which is often done in these kinds of situations. It seems to be enormously helpful to people in a moment of terrible pain. So Robinson, like Colmes, was speaking out of a seemingly bottomless well of ignorance.

I would also point out that Rick Santorum makes strange bedfellows -- Pete's sometime nemesis, Joe Klein, once wrote an incredibly moving story about the Santorum family. He makes reference to that piece in a blog post today. Suffice it to say that liberal Joe Klein didn't find Santorum "weird" for the way in which he mourned the death of his child.

UPDATE: People write in with the strangest observations and questions. The following e-mail is representative of a few that I have just received:

Answer this question honestly, Mr. Goldberg, are you freakish enough to bring a dead body home to house to sit with it and show it to your children? That's what Santorum did. I just don't believe you would do this. I think you're just too sympathetic to the anti-abortionists.

I have no idea what I would do if, God forbid, we found ourselves in the situation the Santorums found themselves in. It doesn't strike me as particularly odd that he would bring home the stillborn baby. In my tradition, the body of a loved one is never supposed to be left alone, from death until burial, so the idea that the body should be surrounded by loved ones, in the hospital, home, or funeral home, is not strange to me at all. I also have no idea what the grief would do to me (I never want to find out, obviously), and I think, as a matter of decency and humility, that people who have just lost a child should be given, simultaneously,  a wide berth and unjudgmental support.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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