Experts: Rick Santorum Grief Is Typical, But Taking Body Home, Unusual

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, second from left, takes a hay ride with his wife Karen, left, his daughter Sarah Maria, his son Daniel, respectively third and forth form left, and other patrons in Candia, N.H., Nov. 26, 2011.
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Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has evoked squeamishness and ridicule for retelling the story of the death of his son, Gabriel, at 20 weeks gestation and the family's unconventional response -- taking the body home from the hospital and allowing their other children to cuddle the corpse and say goodbye.

The Internet lit up with comments this week after Santorum's meteoric rise to second-place in the Iowa caucuses, nearly tying him with presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Some described Santorum's story as "weird" or "horrifying."

Gabriel was the couple's eighth pregnancy and he survived only two hours. In her book, Karen Santorum wrote about bringing the body home to their other children.

''Elizabeth and Johnny held you with so much love and tenderness," she wrote. "Elizabeth proudly announced to everyone as she cuddled you, 'This is my baby brother, Gabriel; he is an angel.'''

But some mental health experts believe the Santorums may have been ahead of their time by ritualizing their son's death in order to exorcize their grief, though they say taking a body home is unusual and not recommended.

In the context of the times -- the year was 1996 when the family buried Gabriel -- their behavior was understandable, according to Dr. David Diamond, a psychologist and co-author of the 2005 book "Unsung Lullabies."

Helen Coons, a clinical psychologist and president of Women's Mental Health Associates in Philadelphia, said couples are not encouraged to bring a deceased fetus home.

"If a couple chooses to do a burial or memorial service for a third-trimester loss, funeral homes will assist in a caring manner," she said.

Radio host Alan Colmes criticized the conservative candidate, who is Catholic, for "playing" with a dead baby. In an interview, Fox News reporter Rick Lowry responded, "You are mocking him."

"I think it is showing a certain unusual attitude toward taking a two-hour baby home who died to play with his other children," said Colmes, who later called the Santorums and apologized, according to his Twitter feed.

Of the nearly 6 million pregnancies each year in the United States, about 15 percent end in miscarriage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In about half the cases, a cause cannot be determined. Among the conditions usually linked to miscarriage are a woman's age, chromosomal abnormalities, structural problems, infections, autoimmune disorders or a condition that causes the blood to clot in the placenta, known as thrombophilia.

Technically, because it occurred after the 20th week in the second trimester, the Santorums' loss was a pre-term delivery, which is less common than a first trimester miscarriage.

Medical experts regard it as a fetus, because it was born before the third trimester, when it is viable. But medical experts say the loss is still emotionally devastating.

Couples have different ways of coping, and grief experts say that rituals are often important in healing.

"There are some who choose to move very quickly from the loss and others who find holding a third-trimester baby in the hospital very helpful," said Coons. "Some find it helpful having a ritual on an annual basis, making a contribution or saying a prayer or planting a tree or flowers. Others have a need for private ways to remember the loss."

Washington Post columnist Charles Lane described today his own experience nine years ago with his stillborn son, Jonathan, chastising critics who called the Santorum's response to Gabriel's death as "weird."

The baby's heart stopped in utero just prior to a scheduled Caesarian at 33 weeks.

"Next came hours of induced labor so that my wife could produce a lifeless child," Lane writes. "I cannot describe the anxiety, emotional pain and physical horror."

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