The sibling strategies

photo by  Lauren Rushing

A pair of legs appeared from the upper bunk, followed by the rest of my four-year-old son. He dangled for a few seconds, then let himself drop onto the lower bunk where I was resting. Hello little grasshopper, I greeted him. Suddenly the agile adventurer was gone, replaced by a little boy in need of a cuddle. He snuggled his way into my arms, taking care not to put pressure on my bump. You’re my mommy grasshopper and I’m your little baby grasshopper! Oh my. Sibling rivalry already? Over the next half hour he would repeatedly break away into new rounds of climbing up and hopping down, each time coming back to ask for reassurance that yes, he is still my little one no matter what.

The game repeated many times throughout my pregnancy. We’d snuggle under the covers and choose a species. He would ask for a drink of breastmilk, a scratch behind the ears, some space to nestle under my wing. He was fascinated by what it’s like to be a baby just as he was bracing himself for the change that this strange new creature will bring. You will always be my first child, I would tell him and he would smile back at me. Then he’d run off to play, his mind at ease, only to return the next day as a baby elephant.

And then his little sister died at birth.

He was sad, but even more than that, he was curious. Intrigued by her ashes, he would casually inform strangers that you turn into a powder when you die. He would loudly ponder about coffin sizes for the people he knew. He told his preschool friends matter-of-factly that we don’t have a baby, but that we had a baby. One evening his hand froze in mid-air, toothbrush and all, as he looked up to tell us he would have taken his sister to outer-space when he becomes an astronaut, if she were alive. After that he calmly proceeded to brush his teeth. It was nearly half a year after her death when it suddenly hit him. 

He became intensely agitated. An entire month passed during which he would kick us, destroy his toys, misbehave only to provoke a reaction. He’d gnaw on wooden furniture and bite his nails. He couldn’t fall asleep, couldn’t calm down. He couldn’t talk about it either; he had no words to express what he was going through. He would bite us instead. We were still scrambling to figure out how to walk that fine line between comforting and disciplining, when he suddenly found a way forward: he adopted a rock.

He found the rock on the street and brought it home. That evening he carefully removed it from his pocket and took it to his room, holding it gently in the palm of his hand. It stayed tucked under his pillow during the night. In the morning it migrated to a clean pair of jeans, and accompanied him to school. For days it went everywhere with him. He was completely attached.

And then slowly, patiently, he began playing out an elaborate process of separation. One night I found his rock on the floor—next to his bed and not in it. At times he’d let it lie on the coffee table unattended while he played with something else. At school, he’d leave the rock in his backpack (which hung outside the classroom) instead of taking it inside. Little by little, as long as he was entirely in control of the partings, he could manage without its constant presence. One day he gained sufficient trust that it won’t suddenly disappear, and he made the important decision to no longer take it everywhere. He’d hide it instead, and he’d check on it whenever he came home. We never knew where it was hidden—this was between him and the rock—but he told us that he finds a new hiding place each time he retrieves it. Eventually the rock was mostly forgotten, its purpose achieved, and my son’s tension curbed. 

(How I wished to have a rock of my own…)

His life settled back into a comfortable routine. He took swimming lessons and was proud of his progress. He asked for a strawberry cake for his birthday, and he wanted to invite the entire class. He sang all day long. He decided he would definitely attend university. For astronauts. Then one day when I was putting groceries away he came to me and asked to play grasshoppers again. I’m your mommy grasshopper and you’re my little baby grasshopper, I said as I have so many times before. No, you’re my mommy grasshopper and I’m your little boy grasshopper, and we’re going to have a baby grasshopper. So the goalposts have shifted. Very well, my little boy grasshopper. 

We became all manner of animals again. We watched his siblings hatch, we counted their tentacles, we kept them warm in my pouch, we licked them clean, we fed them worms. He named them, and cuddled them, and kept them safe. He was always my first child and he had too many siblings to count. One evening after such a game he became thoughtful. I was sad that our real baby died, he told me. I am still sad, I replied. (Still? How come?) Because parents love their children very much my little kangaroo, and that love never goes away. I will always miss her.

He is six now and no longer wastes time on metaphors. Why don’t we have a baby? I want us to have a real baby, dead babies don’t count. Why do some people have more babies than others? I think I could change a nappy all by myself. Do babies really drink only milk? What should you do when a baby is crying? If we have a baby, I want us to name it Lilly or Raymond. What if a baby starts coming out of your belly when you’re at work? Is there a baby in your belly now? Could a doctor check if there is one? Every day there’s a barrage of questions: baby, baby, baby; when, when, when.

Come here, little porcupine. If only you knew how much I want you to experience the healing that would come with a brand-new life. Your sister died but you became a big brother nevertheless, and I can see you itching to fulfill that role. When we talk about babies I put my hand protectively over my lower belly but I don’t tell you about the changes going on inside. You don’t need to know how often our babies die, you don’t need to share my fear. So I just hug you and tell you that I would also like to have another baby, very much, and that I hope it will someday happen for us. Then I’ll ask about your plans to go to Mars, and you readily launch into your second favourite topic. 

Have you ever talked to a child about the death of your baby? Do you have living children coping with the death of a sibling? What are their special ways of dealing with the situation?