At our most recent support group meeting, I shared my desire for our three year old to engage in conversations about her baby sister. She mentioned her often, but only briefly. I longed to crawl inside her brain, to really understand how she interprets our reality. While I knew that she would reveal more to us in time, I was anxiously awaiting real insight.
When putting Calla to bed that very night, I asked to hold her, and she obliged. She climbed into my lap and snuggled in close. There we sat, in the quiet darkness of her bedroom, with her nightlight projecting stars onto the ceiling and serenading us with soft melodies. I soaked in the moment, mentally filing the weight of her head on my chest, the smell of her hair, her gentle breaths, the heat of her body against mine. My heart ached for just one chance to hold her sister like this, and tears filled my eyes as I felt an intense surge of gratitude for the amazing girl in my arms. I whispered about how I had held her like this when she was a baby, how I had rocked her while singing our favorite lullabies. I noticed her beautiful face scrunch up in thought, and I could practically see the wheels spinning inside her head. After some time, she looked up at me and asked, “Mommy? Her body was sticky?”
I was caught off guard. Though I had an idea about where her thoughts had taken her, I was careful not to lead. “Whose body, honey?”
“Mommy? Willow’s body was sticky?” Her hazel eyes scanned my face, searching for answers.
“No, honey, she wasn’t sticky.”
“Why did we hold her in a blanket?”
“Because she was cold.”
“Why was she cold?”
“Because she was very sick, sweetheart.”
My sweet Calla makes a signature face when she is in pain. It is the same expression she made as an infant, and it resurfaces now when she is in genuine distress. As this expression overtook her little face, for the first time I could see the pain she is harboring around the loss of her sister. “Why was she sick, Mommy?”
“Oh Calla, I wish I knew. I just don’t know.”
She looked up at me then, and our eyes locked onto each other, neither of us able to look away. Her lips turned down at the corners, and I could see the hurt in her eyes. My three year old girl, trying her best to hold back tears. I felt her pain in the deepest parts of my soul. I found myself weeping, and she took my face in her hands, never breaking our gaze. Together we sobbed and gasped and clung to each other. My little girl was crumbling, right there in my arms, revealing her heart to me, asking an unanswerable question. “Why was she sick, Mommy?” Little does she know that I have asked myself this very same question over and over again since we received her sister’s diagnosis. I stroked her hair and rocked her and promised her repeatedly that she will have her sister, always, even if it isn’t in the way we had hoped. This was the first time we had truly connected over Willow’s death, as well as one of the most intimate moments I have ever experienced.
In the car the next morning, Calla spotted a willow tree. Her excitement about her finding quickly turned to melancholy, as she opened up about her deepest desires. “I wish Willow was here to play with me. I could push her on the swing and splash in the puddles with her and tickle her belly. I wish I could hold her. But Willow died. She lives in the sky now, and she plays in the clouds. Her bedroom is perfect.” From the backseat, she couldn’t see the tears filling my eyes. She couldn’t possibly understand how bittersweet this moment was for me. She was providing me insight about her perceptions surrounding her sister, exactly as I had hoped. But my heart was broken for this little girl and her growing realization of what she has lost.
Our future holds many difficult conversations. Calla is beginning to learn that her understanding of what it means to have a sister is very different from that of most children. She is learning that her sister will never share her toys or join in on her adventures. She will ask questions, and I will never have the answers she is seeking. But I will support her grief journey, just as I have found a community to support my own. As she discovers what she has lost, I will hold her hand and encourage her to explore every emotion that comes along with her tremendous loss, for each one is valid, and each one is a testament to the unconditional love of a sister.
image credit: Violet Lace Photography
Sarah Burg is a wife, writer, and mother of three beautiful children. Following a heroic battle with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), Sarah’s second daughter, Willow Grace, died in her arms shortly after birth in June 2016. Willow’s death has transformed Sarah into a writer with a reason, and she hopes to offer healing and kinship to the child loss community through her words. Sarah also blogs at The Rising (www.sarahjburg.com), where she explores life after loss.