“That’s Peyton. Mommy. That’s Peyton.”
My little boy looks over my shoulder at the picture on the screen of my computer.
“That’s right,” I say.
“Awww. She so cute Mommy. She such a cute baby.”
“Yes,” I say with a sigh. “Yes, she is.” He snuggles into me, looking more closely at the screen. “Who’s holding Peyton?” I ask.
“Mommy. Mommy’s holding Peyton.”
“That’s right,” I say. “Mommy’s holding Peyton.”
Conversations like this happen fairly often in my house. My twins, now three, recognize their sister in pictures, but do not yet grasp the idea that she is their sister—nor do I push it. They bring her up from time to time, at random. “Mommy, Peyton a butterfly, flying around the room,” or, “that a baby, and Peyton a baby,” and I smile at their acknowledgment of her, at the gift of hearing her name come from their mouths even if that moment is ever so brief, before the conversation is turned to Play-Doh, or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, or whatever else flits in and out of the three-year-old mind.
Peyton was our first child. She died two years before our twins came along, so they’ve only ever known her from pictures they see, or when her name comes up in conversation. We don’t have a shrine to her in our home. Instead, we keep a few pictures of her scattered about, along with all of our other family photos, where she belongs. She is gone, but she will always be our child. She will always be a part of this family.
I see the wheels turning in my children’s minds as they start to put the puzzle together. That’s a picture of a baby. Mommy is holding that baby. Is Mommy that baby’s Mommy?
For me, this is the most fragile part of parenting after loss. It’s not the hardest—I think that the worries and fears that having lost a child bring into your everyday life are the hardest part of parenting after loss—but it is the most fragile.
How do we raise our children to know their sibling, without being scared, or sad about the circumstances under which she passed? How can we expect three-year-olds to grasp the absence of a sibling in their lives, when at thirty-four I still struggle with understanding how this could have happened?
The simple answer is that there is no right way. There is only trusting your heart, and your parenting instincts.
When my twins bring Peyton up, I listen. When they ask questions, I answer them, being ever careful about my choice of words.
There will come a day, I know, when it will click to them that there was a sister that they should have had. A big sister to teach them how to do things, to play with and laugh with and grow with. There will come a time when they will understand that Peyton died of cancer, and with that, a time when they will understand that she suffered. There are infinite emotions that can come with that realization—disappointment, sadness, a sense of unfairness.
There will come a time when they will realize that our two should have been a three, and when that time comes, I will be here. To listen and hold their hands and reassure them.
But for now, I follow their lead. One picture at a time. One question at a time. One day at a time.