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Family & Relationships Death, Grief, Bereavement

Shadow Child

A Woman's Journey Through Childbirth Loss

by (author) Beth Powning

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Mar 2005
Death, Grief, Bereavement, Motherhood, Personal Memoirs
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Mar 2005
    List Price

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National Bestseller

Like many young women, Beth Powning faced decisions of whether and when to start a family. Ambivalence gave way to dreams for a baby, and at age twenty-four she became pregnant. But eleven days past her due date, she delivered a perfect, stillborn son. In this beautifully wrought exploration of motherhood and loss, the acclaimed New Brunswick writer takes us on a powerful journey into the heart of grief and renewal.

About the author

Beth Powning grew up in a small New England town, where her family has lived since the 1790s. In 1972, she and her husband Peter Powning moved to Canada and bought an 1870s farm in New Brunswick, where they established a pottery business.

In 1995, Beth Powning published a book of photography, Roses For Canadian Gardens (written by childhood friend Bob Osborne). She later found her voice in Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. Over the next fifteen yaers, five books followed: another book of photographs, Northern Trees and Shrubs; two works of non-fiction, Shadow Child and Edge Seasons; and two bestselling novels, The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain's Wife.

Beth Powning's profile page

Excerpt: Shadow Child: A Woman's Journey Through Childbirth Loss (by (author) Beth Powning)


As I surface from sleep, sounds clarify and become simple. Peter lies on his side with his back to me; I can hear his slow, deep sleep-breathing. The window is cracked open just far enough to bring the April night into our bedroom. The brook is swollen with snow-melt; it breaks loose from the forested hills, coils through the greening pasture, splits around our house and barns, and is gathered by the Hammond River. The rush of waters, darker than wind and steadier, is the sound of northern spring, when what has been stilled runs free.

Something else, though, has awakened me. I lift my head from the pillow. The sound is regular and insistent, like a child calling. A mother instinct sharpens me.

It’s an owl. I wait, listening for its deep, wild voice, but I hear only the brook waters. The owl calls again, and then there’s an answer. It comes from the copse in the hill pasture, on the west side of the brook. The answering call is higher. I think of it as a female voice, tough, smaller, more remote. The deep one calls again, and then the voices overlap, and they call together, continuously.

I listen, propped on one elbow. I think how the owls are like me and Peter. We lie in bed, back to back, and talk to one another in the darkness without seeing each other’s faces. We need to know only that the other one is there; that the other one wants to listen, wants to respond. After thirty years of marriage, we need only the brush of a finger on skin to feel less alone, reassured of our primacy in someone else’s heart. We’ve each disentangled ourselves, bit by bit, from the thicket of couplehood, and have emerged scarred after plucking out thorns of need, resentment, jealousy, and feel equal, and distinct, and secure in ourselves. Still, increasingly, we realize that it’s our love for one another that feeds our separate strengths.

The maple bed we’re lying in belonged to my grandparents, who in turn inherited it from my great-grandparents. Its four posts are shaped like pawns in a chess set, pear shapes set on thick, round discs, ending in fluted legs and topped by knobs worn smooth by sleepy hands; its glossy footboard curls at the lip, like a wave. I imagine the bed as a ship carrying us through the night, keeping us safe, when the winds of February blizzards are so strong that we can feel the house shuddering as if alive, its mute timbers expanding like a ribcage.

I love thinking of Granny and Poppy sleeping in this bed, since we’re alone here. When we came to this place, in 1972, we never thought about whether we would miss the people we were leaving behind; we were like hawks, buoyant, circling on the updrafts of our imaginations. We didn’t think about how we would change, or be changed. Rather, we filled notebooks with plans; we made lists; we determined what we would do, and how. We imagined ourselves doing everything we wanted to do, saw ourselves as the people we thought we would make ourselves become.

I slide down onto my side and lie facing the window with my palms pressed together and propped beneath my cheek so my best ear will be able to hear the owls. The notes of their conversation are like amber beads: round, full, complete. Around me, the house, even in its shadowed stillness, feels alive and vital, like the heart of a lily.

We’ve always slept in this little north-facing room; it doesn’t get the morning sun, but from its window we can keep an eye on the barn, with its changing cast of animals (horse, pony, sometimes chickens, once ducks, cow, goats), and on Peter’s studio. I can see my gardens with their perennial flowers, raspberry canes and raised beds for vegetables. The things in this room that I brought from Connecticut have no intrinsic power, do not keep me moored to the past as I thought they would when I brought them here. I saw them, the morning after we immigrated, strewn randomly on the driveway — chairs tipped with their legs in snow patches, mirrors leaning against the house’s peeling paint — and I felt as I did when, as a child, I saw my parents in some strange place; I’d be shocked by their rumpled familiarity, and would want to put them back where they belonged. I sensed, that morning, that these things, like me and Peter, could never be put back; that they, like us, were patches on a quilt, and that time would fade them, soften their edges, make them part of the fabric until only close scrutiny could identify their careful stitches. Now these things surround me and Peter in the intimate familiarity of our bedroom. The furniture is exactly the same as it was the morning we arrived; the mirrors hang in the same places on the walls, the bed hasn’t moved for years. The rungs on the chair are still worn in the same places, from children’s feet. These things are no longer part of my past, but have become part of my present. They have their place within this fragile and fleeting composition that I call my life. But they are less changed than I am.

It’s me who has changed. I see these things differently. I don’t see my granny when I look at the bedpost dimly outlined against the wall, but I hear the sound of weeping as Peter and I cried in this room. I picture our son, Jacob, when he was two, industriously climbing over the headboard; I remember how I couldn’t fit between the bed and the wall when I was pregnant, but had to go sideways.

Time folds me into its bewildering layers.

Soon I’ll be fifty. I’m a mother, a daughter, a wife, a writer. I can state all of these things now without ambivalence. I can see myself almost clearly. I feel my own resignation, my own humility. Oddly, what I’ve learned is that the making of self is more a matter of yielding than forcing; it is like a gradual clarifying, and the slow, surprising emergence of an unexpected shape.

Editorial Reviews

"Shadow Child rings of the truth. Intimate, generous, but never confessional." —National Post

"Anyone who has experienced the loss of a child will relate to Powning’s painful and healing search for meaning in his death." —Publishers Weekly

"Tenacious, unsparing, in anguish sometimes, but mostly with moving lyricism, Beth Powning pursues and completes what she calls her ‘apprenticeship in love and loss’, a long and not easy journey that we all, women and men, in our way, try to carry through." —Ernest Hillen, author of Small Mercies: A Boy After War
"In this moving story, New Brunswick writer Beth Powning writes about her life, her loss and the lessons she painfully, and very slowly, learned…. An honest and intensely felt book." —Toronto Sun

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