Sunday, August 28, 2011

question two: dealing with living children and grief

Kate: My question, something that's been troubling me since my son was stillborn last year, is how will I explain this to any future children we're lucky enough to have? I know you have young kids, so I'm wondering how do you explain Lucy's death to them? Drew was our first, so I'm just wondering how I will explain this to any brothers and sisters he may have.

I guess I'm just anticipating the worst in the sorts of things kids say. I worry that they're going to ask me why Drew didn't want to come live with us, or why God didn't let Drew come home with us... and I know that I can't get away with the "I don't know" "or just because" answer forever.

Like I said, I currently do not have any other children, but we hope to and this is something that troubles me. I'd love to hear how you discuss Lucy and her death with your living children.

Thank you for your time and for all you do.

Sarah: I have to repeat a question already asked multiple times. How do you explain Lucy's death to Beezus and Thor? My husband has 3 kids with his exwife. Parker was our first. Benjamin was born 49 weeks after his big brother was born/died. Benjamin knows about his brother, even though he's only 1 y/o. How do we explain it to him as he gets older and starts asking questions, and to their older brother and sisters when they see Parker's pictures and start asking?

Thank you for all that you do!

Kate and Sarah, thank you for these questions.

I worried about this part of my parenting from the moment I found out Lucy had died. Not only did I lose a child, but my daughter lost her sister. And now my son has lost a big sister too and I am in this position in a different way. I struggled with the questions of why this happened, because there was no medical reason for her death. I had no idea how I would answer such blunt questions from people who I suspected were looking at me to be strong. Beezus was twenty-one months. When I arrived back home from the hospital, I explained what happened. She didn't really seem to get it, though she never asked me about the baby after I told her Lucy died. It was like that was enough explanation for her at that time. I cried a lot in the early months and I talked about missing Lucy, because I just couldn't NOT talk about her, and so Lucy became part of our lives, because she is a part of our lives.

I wish I could say it was a very mindful process. It was and it wasn't. It was because I thought about it a great deal, but then the other part is that I also had to be very present with my grief. I worried about my crying and the association of Lucy with grief. I was so torn about it, because I was raised in a home where you just didn't see parents cry. I worried a lot about the effect of that on my children, and the other end of that is that I worried that they would be jealous of Lucy because her grief demanded all of my attention. One day, I asked Beezus if she knows who Lucy is, and she said, "Lucy is Mommy crying." Because all she knew of her sister is that I cried about her.

As she has gotten older, my grief changed and so has Beezus' understanding of Lucy. We have had more candid and deeper conversations about her. That didn't happen until she was three, so there was almost an entire year of virtually no mention of Lucy by Beezus. I think that developmentally between two and three, children begin to become less ego-centric. They start becoming more empathetic, and that is when their questions become more formed. That was my experience, at least.

I bought a few children's books that help when I feel out of my element. One is called When Dinosaurs Die, and it is a general book about death, not just about stillbirth or infant death. It talks about what people do when others die. When I was pregnant with Thomas, I bought it for Beezus, because she was asking me more about what dying meant and who died. And it just kind of does a good job of explaining that people die for lots of reasons, and death makes us feel all kinds of ways, like angry, sad, like we don't want to do anything. Another I bought when Lucy first died was called Something Happened, and it is specifically about stillbirth/infant death. I would suggest that to someone with living children at home who came home without the baby.

How did I bring Lucy up to them? I just do. I never had to have a sit-down conversation one day, because she comes up naturally throughout our day. I just bring her up when she occurs to me. When Beezus was younger, I found that talking to her while we were coloring was good. So, I would ask, "Do you know who Lucy is?" And then just briefly say that she was her sister who died. One way we have integrated Lucia into our lives organically is have some very regular rituals in our home around Lucia. We have, for lack of a better term, an altar. It is in our living room, and where we sit and talk in the evenings. Most people don't realize it is the place where we put things that are meaningful and connect us to Lucy. We call it Lucy's altar. I guess that is what I meant about bringing her up when I need. The kids don't need to be purposefully told about Lucy, because she is part of our daily life. "Let's light Lucy's candle." Sometimes I say, "I miss Lucy right now. I think I will light her candle and meditate a little." Lucy is so interwoven into our daily lives that it doesn't seem weird to talk about her.

The other day Beezus woke up in the morning and said, "I had a dream about our whole family going to a carnival. Well, everyone but Lucy and Jack, they stayed at home." And Thomas said "Luuuuz" the other day when we were talking about Lucy. Beezus is at a point where she includes Lucy in all of our family conversations, and she is starting to say that she misses her and having a sister.

I think the way you talk about Drew, Kate, and you talk about Parker, Sarah, and death in general will dictate how your children talk about death and their sibling. I try not to make Lucy be a big dramatic ordeal. I just talk about her, and so do the kids. When they bring her up, I usually don't cry. Sometimes my husband does, though, which is just where we are in terms of expression our grief. And to the questions about death, in our house, we sit with uncertainty, which also did not feel comfortable for me at first as a parent. I was raised in a Catholic home. Most of my theological questions were answered "Because that is how it is". I am raising Beezus and Thor with both a Christian and Buddhist understanding. I answer "I don't know" a lot. But I am comfortable with that answer as a parent. I can only teach them how I made sense of everything.

Honestly, I find it so much easier to talk to children, not just my own, about Lucy's death than to talk to adults, because children are so honest and not weighted with preconceived ideas of death and karma and all that stuff. I remember the first person who came to visit after Lucy died brought her four year old son. And he said to me, "Did you know that Lucy died? It is very sad. " And it made me cry, but also so grateful. How I wished adults would have said something like that to me.

I am just thinking about these questions you bring up. "Why didn't Drew want to come live with us," or "why didn't God let Drew come home with us?" They are profound spiritual questions, and even the most seasoned theologian, I think, would have a difficult time answering them without "I don't know". If Beezus asked me these questions, I think my answers would be, "I don't know, honey. But I think Lucy wanted to live with us. Something just happened. Something the doctors do not understand. Adults try to make sense of the world, but sometimes things are also hard for adults to understand too. My love, God cries with us about Lucy's death. God is sad with us. We loved her very much and she would have loved living with us. But she died."

But I think it is good to be as honest as I can with my children about this part. But part of what I found is that talking about Lucy has been much easier than I anticipated. I think the key is letting the kids lead the conversation based on their maturity level. You may never answer any questions about God and the baby's death. I never have, even though we talk about God and pray in our home. I bring Lucy up sometimes when Beezus says something about her. And I say, "If you ever have questions about Lucy and why she died, you can talk to me about it. Or if you want to look at pictures of her, you can." Beezus does ask me why Lucy died, physically why (Was she sick, mama? Was she hurt, mama?) and I answer all her questions as honestly as I can. I want to reassure her that Lucy died because people die, not because she or we had any control over that.

As my children get older, their questions about Lucy will become more complicated and their grief more palpable, I think. But they will always grow up with Lucy and her death. That is just part of who they are. I wanted to link to this post I wrote before, since I write about this topic as it comes up. Esperanza wrote a beautiful comment about this from the sibling perspective, which is definitely worth a read.

Michelle: my question is do you ever deal with feelings that you just can't take care of your living children because you are trying to take care of your dead child? i am really struggling with this right now as i am the only one who seems to remember xavier. i feel like i have to mother xavier because he is dead and there are others that can 'mother' my living children for me and it breaks my heart that i struggle with this.

Oh, Michelle, your question hit me in the gut. Yes, absolutely. Particularly in the beginning. I haven't felt that way in a long time, come to think of it. Sometimes I feel like I spin my wheels in my house trying to integrate Lucy, or I should say, I feel like I used to spin my wheels. I don't know when it happened, somewhere between 18 months and two years where Lucy's death and my mothering her became integrated into our life. It felt natural and like I wasn't two mothers torn between two ways of being--grieving and mother, or mothering Lucy and mothering everyone else. Rather, I felt like one mother now. But I so frequently get frustrated that I seem to be the keeper of grief in our home. The one to establish rituals. The one to remember Lucia. I guess I mean that my husband does not feel the same impulse to remember and honor her. I asked him once why and he said, "Because you do that for us, and I appreciate it."

Renel: Do you ever wonder how your life would be different or your grieving would be different if you did not have your little boy? How do you think your pregnancy or more so your birth and alive baby after your loss help you heal or do you think it did help you heal if even in a small way? Do you ever feel like you want another baby because there will always be one missing?

Renel, thank you for your comment and your questions. I struggled a great deal with whether or not I wanted to have a third child after Lucia died. I just couldn't imagine him not dying in the womb again and didn't think I could effectively parent Beezus if I lost another child. I was convinced I would have no marriage left. When we finally decided to start trying again, I was sure it wouldn't change anything. So, yes, I do wonder how my life and my grief would be different if I didn't go through pregnancy with Thor.

I can say this: going through pregnancy after loss was the most anxiety-producing, hardest thing I have done aside from losing my second child. It changed everything about me. It took me a long time to recover from that nine month concentration of pure anxiety, fear and hormonal surges. I lost the last of the friends I had during that period, because I simply could not talk to anyone. I couldn't hear platitudes or comfort from people who didn't know what this was like. And unfortunately, pregnancy seemed to break the filter between what I was thinking and what was polite to say. I grieved for Lucy and felt almost no connection to the new pregnancy.

When I went into labor and went to the hospital, I thought I would be a heap of posttraumatic stress, but I wasn't. I began to feel real joy. This was it. This was the end. Whatever happened from this point on, it was out of my hands. I had done everything I could do for this baby. I went to every appointment. I took care of my body. It was then that I realized that control was a complete fucking illusion. I realized that before, but I truly surrendered my will then. I did everything the same as with Lucia, save the extra monitoring. I sort of fell into this sort of resignation that if he dies, he will die without regrets from me. And in that way, I felt free and slightly healed. The period after Lucia died until going to the hospital to give birth was marked by me in a raw state of self-loathing, anger at myself and replaying the ways in which I could have saved her. I cannot control anything in my life and I was going to have a baby. It started sinking in. Thor would be here. It was a gradual to move from grieving Lucy to welcoming a new baby.

Lady Mama wrote a comment on my blog a few months ago which said, " Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different." And I think that is it. I began to forgive myself. It didn't just start in the hospital, but I realized it in the hospital. Lucy didn't die because I couldn't love her enough. Lucy didn't die because I did something wrong. Lucy just died.

I'll be honest. I repeated those words over and over for sixteen months, but it took me a long time to get it. I still struggle sometimes with it, and with that understanding.

When Thor was born, he was always his own being, and I never really conflated Lucia and Thor. I will write about that more with Angie's question, but yes, there was something that changed in me when he was born alive, though I don't know if I would call it healed or healing, because there is always the wound of Lucia's death. Thor's birth did nothing to that pain, but the joy it brought helped me be very present with my gratitude and joy instead of always tempering in mourning, if that makes sense. I felt gratitude, so much gratitude that this baby needed me and I could love him. I channeled Lucia love into my children. I also will say that in the first three months, there was nothing that felt overwhelming to me about having a newborn, which was a very different experience than bringing Beezus home.

I think what was healing is that my family felt complete--Beezus, Lucy, Thor. I couldn't imagine life without the three of them. I don't know what I would have felt if Lucy lived, if I would have had a third child, because life didn't work that way. Thomas is here, and it is exactly as it should be. But, yes, you nailed it with your last question. Sometimes I think, we should have another baby. And I realize it is always that desire to fill the hole that Lucy's death left.

I hope this was helpful and not scary. I also invite all people to answer these questions either here or on your own blog. I would love to know how others would answer these questions. You can link your answers in the comment section. Next up might be a lighter post with random questions.


  1. Wonderful post! I am constantly wondering about how I will integrate Aiden into the lives of our future living children. I always assume that as long as I am comfortable talking about him and his death then they will be too. We have his pictures and little reminders of him up around our home which I think will help make him feel like a part of our family rather than just some mythical spirit.

    Thank you so much for doing this series of q&a. Nerissa was right, whether intentional or not, you have become this guru-like source of knowledge for the babylost community. xo

  2. Really love this Angie.

    Rainbows have become an important connection between Rose and my kiddos, lil C says that Rose sends them to she asked me last week, with complete seriousness I might add, does Rose barf rainbows? Hilarious and heartbreaking all at once.

    Later she told me that 'sometimes babies just die'.

    That was something I didn't learn til I was much much later in life, so it breaks my heart that she has that awareness at 4.5.

    Such is the journey of grieving and mothering...


  4. Thank you for your honesty, and for spending the time to share so much in your answers.

    Like I said, I'm not there yet, but hope that one day, I will be lucky enough to have a living child... and once I get there, what you shared will be very useful :)

    Thank you again :)

  5. Topical post for me....Today my two live children and myself attended our annual memorial service. For the 1st time I organised it, so I was a little nervous. Archie 2 1/2 and Sadie 14months have come to all our services since they were born. They also regularly come with me to the cemetry to lay flowers for Alfie and tend his grave. I carried Sadie in my arms today and she helped me put a message of remebrance on the tree at the service and Archie chose a peace crane to take home as a memento of remembrance for his big brother. For the 1st time 2 days ago he showed me Alfie's picture - we were at my Nana's house and he's picked it up from the shelf, he said look mummy Alfie eyes closed, Alfie sleeping.......tears of pride and sadness sprung to my eyes. I have in the past struggled over how to include Alfie, however I decided that as he is integral to our day to day lives, his photo on the mantle piece in our home, on the wall at grandmas, in GG's house, our visits to his grave,plus all the work I do for sands - I'm not sure I even will have to explain as such? They will be given the full story as and when they are old enough to fully understand.
    I know it's heartbreaking, however to attempt a positive, I'm sure it will enrich their lives they same way Alfie's death has enriched mine.

  6. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was just thinking about talking about Camille with Kai and I wrote a blog I haven't posted yet about it. I am still trying to figure out how to incorporate a more daily/ weekly /monthly ritual for Camille. I haven't come up with anything yet. I talk about her all the time and so does Kai, but my husband never does unless our son brings her up. I'm also a little worried that my son would destroy any "alter" we may put up because he is 2.5 and likes to throw balls and climbing and pull things down etc... I assume it is a process that will develop with time but this is important to me. To find a way to think of Camille in a way that I can return to. I guess a physical manifestation I'd what I'm looking for because her physical body is not present. Thanks again.

  7. Thank you everyone for sharing their thoughts. One thing I feel like I should say is that the altar and the ways we remember Lucy did not come about immediately after she died. The altar was something that came very slowly. It was first on a high shelf. And it began with one candle that my sister in law sent to me after she died. I loved having a little warm light in the room with us. Lucia means light, so that felt like a little presence dancing in our room. It has evolved. Thomas Harry is really into everything. He throws the Buddha when he gets to it, but in general, my parenting approach has been to leave the things I want out and teach the kids not to touch it. It might mean a few broken, or chipped items, but eventually they get it. TH doesn't touch the altar most days, and we are usually there to prevent the big problems. Renel, my only suggestion or assvice is to do it slowly, when something meaningful comes to you--a picture or stone or feather, whatever comes that reminds you of Camille. In the early months, I used to kind of think that everything had to be forever, and I am finding as life goes on that my ways of remembering Lucia are changing, and one thing that worked in year one isn't the same thing that works in year three, if that makes sense. With love as always.

  8. oh angie, thank you so much! i almost didn't post my question because i was sure i was the only one that struggled with mothering live and dead children. i feel so much better reading your response. in your comment you wrote about how your grief is changing over time and i hadn't really thought about that, but my grief and how i express it is changing over time. again, thank you for your response...i don't feel so lonely right now.

  9. I love that you suggest answering these questions ourselves. I never think of that kind of thing. And if you've read my most recent post, you'll see that writing is something I am really struggling with. Maybe I will take these questions as a prompt. Also, I love your answer. But that's why I read your blog.

  10. I can so relate to the part you wrote about your pregnancy with TH. That was super hard, maybe that hardest thing I've ever chosen to do. And like you, when I got to the hospital, I felt such a relief--whatever happened, I'd done everything I could. It was going to be over, good or bad.

    Thanks for all your wisdom and insight. I am still struggling with how to integrate Calla to our boys' lives, mostly because my husband and I are not on the same page about it, for a variety of reasons. Sigh.

  11. I think are important questions. I remember so vividly the almost panicked feeling I had trying to figure out how to hold onto Henry in the early, early days of grief. Wondering how to make him real for future brothers and sisters who would never meet him was a big part of my worry. I wrote about talking to his sisters about him:

    Also, I think your comment about how rituals and traditions develop and evolve over time is helpful to say to people early in their grief. I remember the stress of trying to figure out what to do for Henry's first birthday. It was intense not just because it was his first birthday but because I kept thinking it was what we would do for every birthday there after, that if I wanted to establish a tradition, I had to do it right then. I finally feel like I have a ritual for his birthday that feels right—for now, but it will likely evolve as our other children grow and as my grief changes and my needs change.

  12. such great questions. i wonder myself how i will integrate Julius into conversations/daily life when we have other children (he was our 1st). i know his presence will be known from the beginning as we have many things out in the open dedicated to him (similar to Lucy's alter). but it brings me much comfort to know that Lucy is treated as a regular member of the family (because she is) instead of this scary entity that people try to avoid talking about. i would hate to ever feel as though i couldn't bring up Julius freely (to my children or anyone else).

  13. Many of my "real-life" bereaved mom friends have done an excellent job in integrating their dead children into their family life, whether they already had children or had subsequent babies. They take them to the cemetery & our support group events, they display pictures & mementos openly, they have had birthday parties with cake. I think, as you said, the trick is to just answer the question(s) at hand and not give them any more information than they're prepared to absorb or deal with at this point.

    Some parents in our group found a book called "We were gonna have a baby, but we got an angel instead," which they felt was great for their young children. For older children, Maria Shriver (ex-Mrs. Schwarzenegger) wrote a beautifully illustrated book some years ago called "Where's Heaven?" (or "What's Heaven?" -- I can never remember), about a young girl dealing with the death of her great-grandmother. Maria wrote it for her daughter after the death of her great-grandmother, Rose Kennedy.

  14. Thanks so much for this post, Angie. N and I are on different pages when it comes to talking with Dot about her brother, and it's helpful to get some perspective from you (and everyone else).


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