In 1988, Elizabeth Mehren and Fox Butterfield went through the worst experience of their lives.

Mehren gave birth to their daughter, Emily, three months prematurely. The tiny (1 pound, 11 ounces) child struggled for life for 53 days before losing that struggle."You never get over the loss of a child," Mehren said. "There's not a day of my life when I don't miss Emily, and very seldom an hour."

A reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Mehren turned their experiences into the book "Born Too Soon." And that book has been turned into an NBC movie of the same title, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 2.

Mehren rejects any suggestion that she turned her private pain and tragedy into a public spectacle.

"I wrote this book as a tribute to my daughter. I promised her on her deathbed that her life would mean something," Mehren said.

She pointed out that there are nearly half a million premature births nationwide every year.

"When Fox and I and Emily went through this experience, there was no manual," Mehren said. "There was nothing to help us understand the process.

"I felt that Emily's story needed to be told. It was by no means attempting to turn it into a public spectacle. When the possibility of seeing it made into a movie came up, it seemed to me that this was a way to broaden the audience and to help in some way educate people about an issue that people don't know much about, both those who go through it directly and those who experience it through other people."

Both of Emily's parents said they hope that even those who aren't directly involved in such an experience can learn something.

"Although a lot of our friends were very well-meaning, they really didn't understand," Butterfield said.

"I'm also here to tell you that there's a kind of general perception that it was a small child, it was a small loss, you'll get over it," Mehren said. " `Well, that's OK, you'll have another one' - we heard that over and over."

The movie, like the book, also explores the strain that such an experience puts on a marriage. While Mehren became obsessed with her daughter, her husband, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York times, feared getting too close.

"The doctors warned us that there was no certainty about what would happen, that it would be day-to-day, and we could not be sure when we would bring Emily home or if we would bring Emily home," Butterfield said. "And they suggested we not get too attached. And I took them literally.

"Elizabeth, on the other hand . . . wanted to get as close to Emily as possible and became very attached. And this, I think, in part is a distinction of our gender. And it caused us to have different reactions and end up having fights, as you see in the movie."

As to the movie, the couple admits they entered into the deal with a good deal of trepidation.

"We are now known as `real-life counterparts,' " Mehren said with a laugh. "We had kitchen-table discussions about, you know, would we be selling ourselves down the river? Would we be selling our souls? Our standing joke was that we'd be turned into a trendy, upscale minority couple, and the baby would live. Blessedly, that did not happen."

As a matter of fact, Mehren goes so far as to call the "Born Too Soon" script "extraordinary."

And with broadcast television's inclination toward happy endings, it's somewhat surprising that the story could be translated so well from book to screen.

It's a very good TV movie. Pamela Reed plays Mehren, Michael Moriarty plays Butterfield, and both do excellent work.

Mehren and Butterfield are happy with the film. And Emily would be proud.