A Little Sister’s Grief

September 15, 2017
Photo: Shona Cooley Photography

Can a child grieve for the sister she never met? Can she feel the pain of her absence? Can she miss the one she didn’t have a chance to know?

I have two little girls: a three-year-old ball of effervescent energy; and the one who came before her, the baby who arrived silently into this world on her due date. We may not have heard Maeve’s cries, but her arrival echoed around the world, as the unmistakable wail of the bereaved parent, but also the gentle footprints of a silent child, forging a path of love and kindness from the moment she was born.

I have shared Maeve openly, loudly and proudly, because she is my child and I love her deeply. I question every day if it’s the right thing to do, if I am doing her memory justice with my words and actions. But it is also a compulsion, a need to say her name with others. For it helps to allay my greatest fear, that she will be forgotten.

And so from the very beginning, my second little girl has known all about her big sister. Telling her about Maeve was natural, as natural as it would have been if she were a living sibling. It was one of the first things whispered in her newborn ear, “you have a big sister watching over you”; and her first visit to Maeve’s memorial was when she was only a week old. It is all she has known.

My littlest girl finds and emanates so much light in her relationship with her “Maevey”. One of her first words was “Mimis”, her early pronunciation of her sister’s name, declared proudly as she pointed at the picture of Maeve on our bedroom wall. As she has grown, she has spoken more of their adventures; how they dance together in our garden; how she visits her at nighttime when we are all asleep. She finds Maeve in butterflies and pretty flowers. She talks about her with such freedom, unaffected by concern for what others might think.

And yet amongst all that sibling joy, I have begun to see glimpses of sadness too.

A subtle questioning, “why can’t I see my sister like I can my baby brother?”. I recently gave her a balloon to hold for some special photographs, a way to visibly include Maeve in a representation of our family. She took the responsibility seriously, practising how to hold it before the camera was switched on. She was so excited, but rapidly unravelled as another child tried to take the balloon. Her reaction was uncharacteristic for a little girl who is usually easy to console. It wasn’t until later that day that she spoke of her sadness at the other child trying to take Maeve away. And I realised it wasn’t about the balloon at all, it was who it represented.

It got me thinking about my littlest girl and grief. I could see that her feelings were more than simply a projection of my own.

They were real and painful and confusing for us all. I worry about her sadness, for like my own, it is not fixable. And yet it still feels right to raise her with her sister as an important part of our family. I don’t want her to feel she is growing in the shadow of a perfect, untouchable sibling, but instead I hope that she learns about the strength that can come from the greatest of sadness and the beauty inherent within it.

I believe the siblings of lost little ones do grieve, even when the loss occurred before they had a chance to know their brother or sister. I believe they miss them profoundly, in ways we can’t understand. And I believe these little warriors will change our world for the better by lighting the way for others, by showing how purely we can love and miss those who aren’t with us, and by turning great loss into something beautiful.

That’s what I see in my littlest girl. I see grief and sadness, but I also see strength and resilience, and a kindness and empathy beyond her years.

She lives each day with a mama who left part of her heart in that delivery room. And yet, despite my flaws, she loves me with abandon, and I her. She has seen my tears, but also my rising. She may know of sadness, but she has witnessed survival too. She does not let grief break her, but finds light and beauty in their delicate sisterhood. I am glad she knows Maeve. Perhaps one day she will tell me I got it all wrong, but for now, I feel lucky to witness and to nurture my girls’ relationship and I will keep holding space for the dark while they dance in the light, those two sweet sisters, those beautiful girls of mine.

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