real life

The story behind Oprah naming her lost baby. And why I had to name mine too.

This morning my friend Caroline Overington texted me from LA:

“Did you know Oprah named her baby? This is huge. Such an important step.”

I was just getting out of the shower and I got water all over my phone in my frantic rush to text her back:

“Wait, what baby?!?!?!”

Oprah had a baby? She adopted a baby? But isn’t she here in Australia? How did I miss this?

'Oprah named her baby. I had to name mine too.'
Oprah is in the country for her Evening with Oprah Tour. (Image via Getty)

A reply from Caroline:

“The baby she lost when she was a teenager”

Ohhhhhh. I knew Oprah had been pregnant as a teenager. Vaguely. I knew she didn’t have a child now. Had she adopted it out? No. She’d been raped as a teenager, fallen pregnant at 14 and given birth to a son prematurely. He died in hospital within a couple of weeks and the whole traumatic experience had become her shameful secret until she spoke about it a few years ago.

Naming him was something even more recent.

At the first live event of her current Australian tour last night, Oprah told the audience of 15,000 people, “I did an interview with a reporter before I came to Australia and she said you should name the baby son who died.”

“So I have named him, I had a little boy named Canaan. I did have a son. And I named him Canaan because Canaan means new land, new life.”

That reporter was Caroline, who interviewed Oprah for the Womens Weekly just a couple of months ago and gave her that piece of life-changing advice.

Caroline Overington and Oprah. (Image via Facebook)

Caroline was just the right person to deliver this message. Caroline’s daughter Katie was stillborn almost 20 years ago. I know Katie’s name because her mum has told me about her. An author of a dozen best-selling books, Caroline often dedicates them to Katie and I once commented to her how lovely that was. “I do it so people ask me, ‘Who is Katie’ and then I get to talk about her.”

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Many people mistakenly assume you don’t want to talk about a lost baby but in my experience, mothers do. We want to talk. We want to be able to speak about the sons and daughters we never knew, who never knew us. And a name helps you do that. It’s pretty crucial actually.

Caroline gave that gift to Oprah and now, like everything Oprah does, this is a big deal. Not just for her but for every woman who has lost a baby during pregnancy or soon afterwards. I am one of those women and naming the baby I lost was incredibly important back in 1999 when she died almost halfway through my pregnancy.

My husband didn’t really want to name her. Now I can say this without judgement but at the time, I judged him hard. I judged everyone hard. For everything they did and didn’t do. Nobody could do or say or feel the right things when it came to helping me process my very strange, lonely, visceral grief.

Of course, grief is not prescriptive. There’s no right or wrong way to mourn someone you never got to meet. You have to forge your own path through the murk of it and just because my husband’s path looked different to mine didn’t mean he wasn’t grieving too.

Mia discusses her miscarriage and grief with Show and Tell:

But naming our daughter was a deal breaker for me, with or without him because for me, it was the only possible way to manifest her into being.

Admittedly it was a fairly abstract being. I had no photos (other than a blurry ultrasound image), no memories of her face or things she’d done or experiences we’d had together. And yet she had been such a presence in my life and my body and in my imagined future. Without anything to prove she had existed to anyone but me, I needed some kind of scaffolding to shape my sorrow around.

A name. A name is what I needed. How can you be a person without a name? And to me she was a person, a person I missed with a gut-wrenching physicality I could barely describe. I can barely describe it now, even all these years in hindsight.

My husband and I tend to name our children at the very last minute so we hadn’t chosen one during the pregnancy. We’d only learned we were having a girl after we found out that we weren’t actually having a baby at all.

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So we had no list of names although we had a few girls names we liked from when our son was born a couple of years earlier.

I didn’t want to use those. And I didn’t want to use any of my favourite girls names because, I secretly admitted to nobody but myself, I didn’t want to ‘waste’ them in case I had another daughter, one I’d get to hold and watch grow up. I immediately felt guilty about this but I pushed it down into the mire of guilt I was already swimming in. Guilt that I had somehow failed to bring my lost daughter safely into the world. Guilt that I hadn’t realised the moment her heart had stopped beating inside me.

Back to her name. The name I chose was a cop-out really. It was May, because she had been due to be born on May 1st.

I didn’t feel like I could give her a proper name of my choosing. Nobody encouraged me to. Nobody said anything about naming her. And apart from my husband, nobody even knew her name for more than a decade afterwards. I felt sheepish even saying it. Like I had to apologise for thinking of her as a person, giving her a name.

It wasn’t until many years later when I met my beloved friend Bec Sparrow (also an author) that I secretly confessed the name of my little lost girl. It was just a few weeks after Bec lost her daughter Georgie who was stillborn in 2010 and our bond was forged in the fire of a shared experience, a decade apart.

In one of the myriad ways Bec helped me process my long buried grief, she encouraged me to speak about May and use her name. She sent me a Christmas star for my tree with “May” inscribed on it.

Two years later, it fell off my tree and smashed. I was mortified. “What do you think it means?” I texted Bec on the verge of tears, broken pieces of ornament in my hand. “Do you think I’m not grieving her enough anymore and this symbolises my disconnection from her? Am I failing her memory?”

Bec paused before texting me back. Probably to take a deep breath.

“No. I don’t think any of that. I think it was a Christmas ornament that fell and broke and I will order you a new one today. Shut up.”

That made me laugh. Bec and I laugh a lot about our lost daughters which sounds strange but is actually incredibly healing. Black humour can be cathartic. So can speaking someone’s name out loud. Or writing it down. It’s a way of remembering and honouring them.

So here’s what I’ve done. I can’t show you a photo of May but I can show you her name. Perhaps, if you have a son or daughter you never got to see grow up, you might like to share their name too, to write it down. Email it to me here at [email protected] and we will make all our little lost souls into a gallery of some kind. Because they mattered. They were here. Even if only for the shortest time.

And here is Bec with her Christmas ornament with her daughter’s name (memo to Bec: WHERE IS MY REPLACEMENT ORNAMENT?)

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