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I nearly cried when I saw Charles Willson Peale's dead baby girl, and I think it was from happiness. The painting is called Rachel Weeping. It's on an easily missable side wall in a room crowded with paintings and silver and furniture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I visited in June. This painting is strange, and doesn't do any service to the museum—it doesn't try to put the museum on the right side of history (like the portraits of a black couple and two Native American chiefs at the entrance to the museum's American collection) or to celebrate a local boy done good (Thomas Eakins). It just is.

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The painting is like this: You see the baby first. She is life-sized, down front. She's wearing a dress, a bonnet with lace around the face, and her arms are tied down to her sides with a satin ribbon that comes to a bow at her waist. Maybe this is where she died—a ghostly bed, the smoke-gray sheets pulled down past her hands pinned at her sides. She and her bed take up fully half of the painting—the lower half, as if the painting is two paintings; mother and child inhabiting two different worlds already—and this lower half is painted in gray-scale, like a study for another painting. It's not a study, and in this case, the color can only be described as tired. Extremely tired.

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If the baby's body laid out on the bed forms a straight line across the painting, then the way that Rachel sits above her, leaning on her elbows, completes a triangle-shaped composition that points up to Rachel's crying eyes. The tears are odd: shapely and prominent, like the thick tears of the unforgettable Madonna by Dieric Bouts, painted in the 15th century. But this 18th-century American mother is not just a study in the mysterious mechanics of sorrow (exactly why we cry, how our tear ducts are connected to our emotions, remains a mystery to science, Chicago art teacher/lifelong art student James Elkins points out in his book Pictures and Tears, which focuses on the Bouts Madonna). Rachel is more complicated. Her eyes, cast upward, form the baseline of another, implied triangle, one with an absent god at its tip. In the intensity of her stare and the tightness of her lips, her fury and disgust are quiet but unmistakable. The artist may be adding his own pain to Rachel's: Rachel is his wife, and the two of them had eleven children. Five died.

In the hierarchy of pain, today we put the loss of children at the top. Is it harder to lose a child now than it used to be?

We don't have eleven babies and watch five die; we have one, two, maybe three, and expect them all to live. When they don't, it is a double tragedy: a child is dead, and the security and predictability of the modern world have collapsed. Then it becomes a triple threat, because nobody wants to look at it. The parents who have lost children in contemporary America are lepers. As medicine grew sophisticated, mourning grew limited and tidy.

Whereas 19th-century parents sat with their children for hours after they died, setting them in poses that made them look like they were sleeping—no tied arms!—in tiny daguerrotypes that many, many other parents could relate to, today there's no communal way to mourn a child. The community is scared shitless by what you've seen. (For this reason I'm forever grateful to JFK and Jackie for including large stones for their two dead infants—one named Patrick, the other unnamed—in their grave site at Arlington National Cemetery, which I also visited in June.)

And it is fucking scary. It didn't happen to me, it happened to the best of my friends. Her son was diagnosed with a flu and was dead within 12 hours. Bacterial meningitis. He was seven months and four days old and had blue eyes and big ears; he smiled seemingly nonstop. When I got to the hospital, he was dead. Life-sized.

Since that happened—four years ago—I've looked hard for paintings and photographs of dead children, and there are plenty. But I haven't seen any—not one—that's life-sized, until now. And this one is not only life-sized, it's unapologetic. This death can't be mistaken for sleeping. She's tied up like an inert package ready to be hauled away. This is the last moment this mother will have with this child, the moment when the mother cannot move, when somebody will have to take the child away from her. This is a terrible moment, and the artist, best known for his commitment to clear-eyed science (he founded the first natural history museum in the country, and his most famous painting pictures him opening the curtain onto that early cabinet of curiosities), refuses to sugar-coat it. Rachel is the subject of the painting, but the perspective is his: she's pictured from a slight height, as if he is standing over her, on the other side of the bed. He can't move, either, and he won't look away: that's why he made this painting. The third and final triangle is the one formed by the three members of this family across this bed, and it is upside-down: the child is the tip, at the base. This triangle's sides are not the same length because of the raised perspective, which seems right, too. No mother and father lose in exactly the same way, which is its own layer of loss.

In the next moment, someone will take this baby. She'll be buried. This act of looking is the last time she'll ever be seen, but she'll never really leave, either. None of them leave, no matter how little other people want to face them. This is why I think this girl made me happy. The only solidarity in loss is in not looking away, and many people have no other choice. Speaking names, too: that's good. I'm lucky enough to be one step removed, but still, I like to say the name of my little friend, my late godson, to new people: His name was Phoenix Lind Anderson, and he was the son of Mike and Linda Anderson. He consoled me after a miscarriage of my own, which happened five years ago today. We didn't get to naming her but I have her picture in ultrasound, and I am keeping it.