Laura, our guest writer today, lost her daughter Claire in April 2012 after three weeks in the NICU. She died of causes that were ultimately unknown. To Laura, her daughter's motto became, 'And though she be but little, she is fierce.' After her death, Laura attended Brief Encounters: A pregnancy and infant loss support group in Portland, Oregon. She is now a board member and is actively involved in attempting to break the sense of isolation around pregnancy and infant loss in her community. She parents her living children with both a broken and a full heart.
"Let's bring Claire with us to the store!"
"Claire is going to the beach."
"Claire needs a new outfit."
My younger daughter, Audrey, repeats this narrative nearly every day. Claire is her doll, and Claire was the sister she never met or played with.
My heart stops and my breath catches in my throat as she explains to the receptionist behind the counter or the lady at the dog park: "You don't know I have two sisters. One is named Julia, and the other is named Claire but Claire died."
She so easily says the words I struggle to admit out-loud. She lays bare my grief in the span of a few seconds, as I hope not to see the look of pity and confusion in the next unknowing stranger. Have they ever had another child proclaim the existence of their dead sibling? Will we be now forever known as the family with the dead baby?
My older daughter, Julia, says she doesn't remember meeting Claire. She was three years old at the time. What she does remember comes in bits and pieces from the video that we took of one of their visits.
"I remember we sang her 'Hush Little Baby' and I brought her a Winnie the Pooh toy. It had these beads on it and it was like Winnie the Pooh was putting his paw in a honey pot." She pauses for a moment as we drive. The world stands still as we now seem to be moving in slow motion down the road. "I think she really liked that toy."
At eight, my eldest has come to understand that speaking about the dead is no small talk. Soon after she turned four, we went to a park and she saw a utility access cover surrounded by cement. She saw it as a grave, saying, "This must be where somebody else buried their baby."
When she looked at the empty crib meant for Claire, she asked, "If we have another baby, is it going to die, too?" I became pregnant with Audrey, my third, and it felt like an eternity to explain that most babies live and, yes, this baby is going to come home, we hoped.
My life is now separated into before-Claire and after-Claire. I know we talk about there being a 'new normal', but how can it be when nothing about it is remotely close to normal? I used to seek out social opportunities, throwing parties with a larger group of friends and setting up playdates for Julia with moms I met here and there.
Now, my circle has significantly narrowed. I meet with women who I've become close to because they have also lost children. We have brunch and talk about how we grieve for our old selves as much as we grieve for our child. How we are might get through the holidays this year. How relationships have changed or been lost as a result of grief. How we fear for our living children's lives because we know they can be lost in an instant. I no longer set up playdates with just anyone because of what they let their children do on the playground—how can they let their little one climb so high without being there to catch him?
There are good things, too.
The tree in my neighbor's backyard that sways when the wind blows, shaking its limbs at the world. The beauty and tragedy of the man rummaging through the recycling bin to get the cans. Pulling over to watch a rare rainbow seen at 7:30 in the morning when the sun hits the falling sprinkles at just the right angle. Hearing a song sung by a choir: People get ready, there's a train a-coming, you don't need no baggage you just get on board. When the worst imaginable thing has happened, normal becomes extravagant. The world, pulsating with life in its every revolution, becomes clearer. Priorities are honed. Extraneous noise eliminated. Direction clarified.
"What should she wear today?"
"I think she needs all the purple."
"Okay, here's the other shoe. And let's make sure she has a warm coat."
I dress the doll up in every purple thing in her wardrobe. Dress, shoes, coat, skirt under the dress, leggings, and a purse to match.
"Wanna come with us to the store, Claire?"
I pause for a second. Try not to think too much. "Sure. Let's go!"
The picture of Claire on my dresser has been retouched. The Q-tip and other medical supplies have been removed. She was in her first days of life, when she needed the fewest interventions in order to continue living. No oxygen for a few brief moments, no ventilator tube. Just her face in black and white, her eyes open and searching. She seems calm to me. It was before the struggle, before the silent cries.
Every day, on my way to the shower, I look at her. Sometimes it's a quick glance and other days I linger, looking into those eyes. Wondering what they would look like today. They would be the eyes of a kindergartner, still curious about the world.
If your lost child has surviving siblings, how has their own grief intersected with yours? How have you guided them through their loss? How have they guided you through yours?