My son was two years old when his sister was stillborn. I remember how quickly the panic began in my head. What do we tell him? When do we tell him? How would he know her? How would I make sure that he knew her? It was my job to make sure he knew her, right? Although the questions have not stopped, some answers have come. Not in my therapist’s office, nor in my late night analytical marathons. Not in the wisdom of my amazing support system or even in the rawest of moments with my husband.
These answers, the ones to some of my most agonizing questions, are coming from my son.
In the weeks after her birth, I spent a lot of time in bed. I remember days of incessant crying and futile attempts at sleep with the infamous hospital teddy bear clutched tightly against my aching chest. It was on one of those dark days, that my then two-year-old son first showed me his ability to connect with our loss. He came to my bedside with that same bear in his tiny toddler hands and gave it to me as he drew close and whispered, “Mommy you need your Gigi.” I couldn’t see it then, but looking back I see it was the beginning of his awareness and of his connection with his sister.
When he was a little older, we started bringing him with us to the cemetery. He immediately took to the place. He would ask to go see the “big rocks (headstones) and pretty flowers” and we would take him. I couldn’t see it then, but he was listening. And watching. And learning about his sister.
Shortly after that, he asked me when he was going to get to go to Jocelyn’s house. Ouch. Her house was his house. But she doesn’t live here. Actually, she doesn’t live. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. So I took a deep breath, steadied my voice and cautiously said, “Well honey, Jocelyn would have lived here, but she was very sick and didn’t get to come home with us.” To which, he so pointedly responded, “Oh.” And that was that. I didn’t push. I wanted to let him take the lead. And I was specifically dreading the question about death. Actually, I was dreading the realization about her having died and the questions that would surely follow. But I wanted him to know. I needed him to know.
And I was terrified of the alternative.
Meanwhile, he continued to grow and we, of course, continued to grieve. I spent a lot of time thinking and worrying and fretting and strategizing about how to make her known to him. About how to gauge my age appropriate answers to questions that I desperately hoped, but feared, were coming.
And then finally, it happened. He turned four and the concept of death intrigued him. Things die. Bugs die, characters die, sisters die. It’s the natural progression of that concept, I suppose. At least in our reality. So he approached me and said “Mommy, how did Jocelyn die?”
Bam. Out of nowhere and point blank. Holy crap. Here it was. The moment I have been thinking about for two years. I looked up and met my husband’s gaze. I could see the fear on his face that I would be hurt or upset by the question. I turned back to my son and told him that she was very sick from the beginning and her body didn’t develop like it was supposed to in my belly, which made her too weak to live.
And y’all…I braced myself for more questions. And maybe some feelings and I don’t even know what else. But instead I got this, “I think maybe she was attacked by a wild animal in your tummy! That or maybe you drank too much coffee!”
And just like that, it was over. And it was perfect. We laughed and cried and it was exactly how it should have been. My happy, healthy, rambunctious four year old was putting his sister’s death into his language. In a manner that he could understand.
I couldn’t see it then, but he has been doing the same since the beginning. Whether it’s a gigi, a big rock, or an animal attack. He is thinking about her. And trying to understand it. He’s processing her death. Her absence. Her story.
What more could I possibly ask?
I will continue to wonder and watch and hope and fear and dread and anticipate. But I can breathe a little easier when I remember that he is going to know her, because we know her. That in a way, they already have a relationship. And in a way, it has been evolving since she was born and will continue to do so.
In a way, it’s just like any other sibling relationship. And that makes me very happy.