The Boy Who Lived: Stillbirth and Life after Death

Ghostbelly: A Memoir.
By Elizabeth Heineman. (New York: The Feminist Press, 2014. 320 pp. $16.95.)

How do you grieve for a stillborn child? How do you ensure your child is remembered for having lived, not just for having died? These are the questions that Elizabeth Heineman explores in the unflinching, yet deeply intimate, Ghostbelly: A Memoir. Through Heineman’s prose it becomes clear that there is no script for stillbirth, no one way to grieve, to remember, to heal.

Ghostbelly is the story of Heineman’s stillbirth, but it is so much more. It is also the story of a person trying to make sense of how a healthy and vibrant pregnancy ended in the death of a full-term fetus. It is the story of a home birth and a midwife estranged from the medical establishment, a midwife who made an error in judgment. It is the story of a mother and father who brought their dead baby home to bond before they buried him. But most of all, Ghostbelly is the story of a baby called Thor. It is the story of a baby who died an hour before he was born and his mother’s commitment to make sure the world knew that he existed, that he was “not nothing.”

Elizabeth Heineman’s book takes place in the present, though as a historian of modern Germany and Europe, she frames her story using terminology relating to pre- and post-World War I. There is the Belle Époque, the period of joyful optimism during which she, at the age of 45, becomes pregnant with her second child, a child who tests negative for chromosomal abnormalities, a child whom she carries without incident to term. Her Belle Époque, however, bleeds into Verdun, a silent battle of attrition waged both within her body and between the politics that keep out-of-hospital midwives ostracized from the medical profession. Heineman must accept the War Guilt from those around her who wanted to distill blame down to home birth and, therefore, her choice to have it. She then enters an Age of Anxiety where she is expected to move on, discovering that she now had to figure out “when and with whom it was still OK to talk about Thor” because her grief often made others uncomfortable.

Heineman takes a historian’s eye to her book, and uses historical moments and phrases as the scaffolding to tell her story, but this is not a history in the conventional sense: it is the history of a moment in her own life. Framing the book through war, however, serves to highlight the battle between the medical profession and out-of-hospital midwives. In Heineman’s case, a midwife made a mistake — but the likelihood of error was heightened by the political warfare between the medical profession and out-of-hospital midwives, midwives who may be eager to demonstrate the excesses of intervention when there is no sign of trouble, but who miss out on the collaborative sharing of knowledge experienced by other medical practitioners. Heineman believes that a midwife made the mistake that resulted in Thor’s death. But she argues that politics killed her baby.

Ghostbelly is beautiful, difficult, and jarring. It is at times lyrical and reflective, other times list-like and train of thought, and there is no real beginning, middle, or end to this story. Instead, the stillbirth looms throughout, punctuated by vignettes of life before, during, and after this one moment in time, demonstrating that grief has no narrative. The book was clearly meant to be cathartic to Heineman — writing about Thor made him more real to her, and it forced the world to acknowledge that his short life meant something. But the book has wider importance as well. Ghostbelly looks into the veiled world of fetal death, a world that is often kept as far away from the living as possible. Heineman pulls back the shroud that surrounds stillbirth and the result is a glimpse into the complex world of life after death — a world inhabited by the living and the dead alike.

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Carrie Adkins

Reblogged this on and commented:

What happens when a historian examines her own experiences? In Ghostbelly: A Memoir, Elizabeth Heineman tells an intimate story about her stillborn child, and about the grief that followed his birth. Read Meggan Woodbury Bilotte’s excellent review on Nursing Clio.

Joanne Kyouji Cacciatore

Really Meggan? “Fullterm fetus”? You don’t find that language particularly insensitive to mothers and fathers and their babies who die? When was the last time you walked up to an obviously pregnant woman and asked, “When’s the fetus shower?” Or “What are you going to name your fetus?” Offensive at best.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Joanne Kyouji Cacciatore,

Politics surrounding the language relating to fetal life and death are difficult, but important. Thanks for your comment.

My decision to use the term “fetus” stems from the medical and historiographical practice of referring to human beings still en utero as fetuses, as well as the author’s own use of the term fetus within her prose. Add to this that Heineman was ten days past her due date, and you indeed have a full-term fetus.

Again, thanks for reading.

Joanne Kyouji Cacciatore

Actually Meggan this is an unsatisfying and non-egalitarian response. How about if we let women define their own experiences rather than sociolegal definitions. It’s time to academics to defer to those who are the real experts in terms of language and legislation rather than “historiographical” practices. Historigraphically, many offensive terms have been revisioned and hegemony altered because of in-group movement against out group oppression. And this, to many mothers, is oppressive and diminishing language. I invite you to the literature critiquing this position. More importantly, I’d invite you to come to a support group filled with these mothers, these women, the ones who should be empowered to tell “us” as a culture what language is appropriate to capture their experience.

Aurelia Bradley

I also respectfully disagree with your language choice. You vascillate in your review from honoring Thor as the precious baby he was to reducing him to a medical term. No amount of medicalization or insensitivity should reduce anyone’s story to a difficult politically charged ill chosen word. Shame on you Meggan.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Joanne Kyouji Cacciatore,

I agree–those who have experienced grief know best how to represent themselves. Heineman refers to Thor both as a fetus and a child in the book, and I have done the same in my review.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Aurelia Bradley,

I agree that “no amount of medicalization or insensitivity should reduce anyone’s story,” which is why I have used language that Heineman also uses in her book. The word fetus is only political if you make it so, and that is clearly not what I am doing with this particular book review, nor, I would argue, what Heineman is doing with the book.

Sarah Bain

What? Fetus? Oh my god. Way to gut-punch mothers whose children have died. How absolutely horrid. My baby died. Yes. My fetus is a grossly inaccurate description that can only be used by someone who has never had a child that died or is so incredibly insensitive and misled by PhD’d spouting academics who are so far out of touch with life and the world around them. Way to shove grossly inappropriate language into a description of a book that I will now never buy or read. Way to create such frustration and fuel the realization of how out of touch some people really still are. Ugh Just ugh.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Sarah Bain,

I’m so sorry for your loss.

Please see above responses to the use of the word “fetus” in my review.

Carrie Adkins

Great review, Meggan. And I just want to add my support for your choice of language, which is both accurate AND reflective of Heineman’s own choice of language.


I also want to chime in about what a great review this is, Meggan, and to support your choice of language, which of course reflect this one mother’s usage. What I think this discussion really reveals is the cultural anxieties about the way these terms are politicized and that way that that politicization works to delegitimize and minimize feelings and emotions that real people have on all sides of the spectrum. Personally, as someone who has had a stillborn son, referring to him as a “fetus” is a medically and scientifically correct term, just as saying he had Trisomy 18, or spina bifida, or an omphalocele, or any other medical term is. That doesn’t preclude me from also referring to him as my baby or my son, as Heineman does with her son Thor. I can both recognize that there is a medical and scientific term that aptly describes his developmental stage and also recognize and value his life as my son.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Thanks for sharing your story, Ginny. I think your comment on the cultural anxieties surrounding the politicization of these terms is spot on.


By honoring Heineman’s own language and interpretation, Meggan gives the potential reader both insight and fair warning. This book may feel insightful and reassuring to some, but painful and upsetting to others. If we feel that it is important to accept each woman’s interpretation of her experience, we can’t tell Heineman that she felt wrongly, or censor her mix of the language of “fetus” and “baby” and “Thor.” And if Meggan’s language reflects Heineman’s, she is giving an honest and helpful review. But at the same time, anyone who has been through a similar experience is likely to compare her feelings and interpretations to Heineman’s, and that process of comparison may or may not be productive or comforting. I would hope that this review helps women know whether this book is something they really want to engage with, and that no one feels they are required to do so.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Thank you for your comment, Lara. I think you’re making a really good point here–that the book, while an honest exploration of grief for one, may also prove unsettling to another. It’s important for people to know that Heineman very deliberately wants to avoid over sentimentalizing her own experience in her book, and nether eschews medically accurate terminology nor blindly accepts “medical science.” The book indeed may not be useful for all readers, and may even be triggering for some, but I think many will find the book to be honest, heartfelt, and refreshing.

Elizabeth Heineman

Book author here! Thanks, everyone, for taking part in this conversation. I’m learning a lot from it. I appreciate Meggan’s sensitive review, and I appreciate equally the discussion about terminology sparked by several readers. In general, I avoid commenting on threads about my own work, because once I’ve sent it out into the world, I think it’s better for people to decide for themselves how to interpret it – but in this case I feel I have something to offer.

This exchange prompted me to check my choice of words in the book. I was reminded that indeed I used the terms “child,” “baby,” and “fetus” – but I used them in very different contexts. Basically, I used “fetus” when I was channeling medical-speak (and confronting medical-speak is part of every bereaved mother’s experience), and “baby” or “child” when I was using a more personal voice reflecting my own experience of events.

This reflects the critique that Joanne, Aurelia, and Sarah offer: that a bereaved parent’s subjective experience is at odds with the ways much of the medical establishment describes stillbirth. But in order to portray that tension, I presented both types of voices – the medical and the parental – meaning that, as Meggan correctly notes, the book at times refers to Thor as a “fetus,” and it does so precisely at moments where the medical profession’s claim to the authority to label and define matters a great deal.

In other words, while I think there’s a risk of drawing too many conclusions from the use of a word (without considering context or potentially subversive uses of the word), I also think there’s a lot of really rich stuff going on in this thread. These discussions matter, even if they’re difficult at times, and I’m glad to see them engaged on Nursing Clio.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Thank you so much for commenting, Lisa.


So sorry to everyone here for the loss of their babies. My own son, Toren, was stillborn at term due to an umbilical cord accident. He weighed almost 7 lbs. I’ve spent the last two and a half years trying to get people to acknowledge that he was a BABY, my son. If he had died in a car accident on the ride home from the hospital instead of a day before from a cord accident, he would be called what he was – a baby. It adds to this incredible burden of grief to have people minimize his life by calling him anything else. At every appointment, we listened to “the baby’s” heartbeat, not the fetus’ heartbeat. Then he dies and all of a sudden he’s not allowed to be a baby anymore. NO. I will never, ever accept this disgusting way of referring to my beloved baby, nor all the excuses rolled out to justify it. Anyone else who has not been through this type of child loss should show some respect and compassion. Condolences, then shut up and LISTEN to what bereaved parents are saying about their own experience. Stop adding to the work that bereaved parents are doing to grieve their child.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Thank you for sharing your story, Andrea.

Brown Feminist Mama

Language is so important because it reveals the dominant discourse. In the case of stillbirth the dominant language distances and medicalizes. We have to listen very closely to the often silenced voices of women who are fighting to claim their lived experiences as mothers–it would be important to note that 98% of the 3 million babies who are stillborn worldwide each year occur in low- and middle-income countries. Elizabeth Heineman’s book brings voice to the lived experience of women whose babies die before birth. But, as you can see the dominant medical discourse is still ever-present. Rather than suggesting that all sides have to be considered equally (a rather *First World* armchair liberal, non-equitable and privileged theoretical perspective), my suggestion to the reviewer is to critically look at the dominance of medicalizing language from the perspective of race, class, gender and sexuality and how this perpetuates the silence of women. Elizabeth Heineman’s comments about context speaks volumes about the dominant culture–thank you for adding your thoughts.

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte

Thank you for your comments, Brown Feminist Mama.


I think that the use of “fetus” was a good choice. The author was writing about a personal experience, and used “baby” because of an emotional attachment to a fetus. Dr. Bilotte used the word fetus properly, as her review was conducted objectively, just as it should have been. There is NO right way to write about this topic. It is difficult and overwhelmingly emotional.

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