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a hard talk

It is my distinct honor to  welcome our newest regular contributor Brianna from  Daily Amos.  In 2010, her first son George was diagnosed with heart failure caused by supraventricular tachycardia at 24 weeks gestation. Over the next four weeks, the doctors tried to slow his heart rate down with medication. After stopping treatment, Brianna developed Mirror Syndrome and had to have an emergency c-section. George died shortly after birth. Brianna brings her wisdom and sharp insights to Glow in the Woods. We are grateful to have her. --Angie

When I was a kid one of my favorite books was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  I often imagined myself as Max (and what child who has ever read that book has not done that same exact thing) throwing off the shackles of parental subjugation and escaping to a place where I was beholden only to myself.  To this day I still love that book and get a thrill every time my nearly eighteen-month-old daughter asks me to read it to her and yells, “Max!” as we flip through the pages.  There is something pure and honest in the way Sendak writes about childhood that is completely unique to him, which is probably why his books are beloved by so many people.  Maurice Sendak died last year at age eighty-three having written and/or illustrated hundreds of pieces.  Given the subject matter of what he wrote about I was surprised to discover that he never had any particular fondness for childhood and was more than a little preoccupied with his own death.

During one interview Sendak explains what he believes to be at the root of his morbid obsession.  He tells a story of being a small child, about the age of four, and seeing on the front page of a newspaper a photograph of the remains of “The Lindbergh Baby,” the twenty-month-old child of the famous Charles and Anne Lindbergh who was killed during a kidnapping for ransom attempt.  Sendak goes on to recount how profoundly the image terrified him and that his parents never really adequately addressed his distress.  His parents, in fact, denied that such a photograph existed and insisted that little Maurice must have fabricated the entire thing.  It wasn’t until many years later, long after Sendak’s obsession with the Lindbergh baby had matured and developed into the fixation he had about his own death, did he actually get confirmation that the photograph he claimed to see on the newspaper did actually exist.

I don't know why his parents chose to ignore their son’s obvious difficulty processing what he saw.  Maybe they really believed their four-year-old son had lied about the photograph.  Perhaps they thought convincing him that the entire incident never happened was the best course of action.  I assume they were doing what most decent parents do when faced with uncomfortable situations like these; the best they can.  But whatever the reason behind their decision, the result, at least in Maurice Sendak's mind, was that the little boy grew up to be fixated on his own death.

Watching Sendak recount what a traumatic experience he had with his first encounter with death made me think about the first time I learned about the concept myself.  It was when one of our cats died and I must have been six at the time, maybe seven.  She was a tortoiseshell beauty we called Puzzles, name owed to the interlocking swatches of orange and black fur on her back.  She had been sick and my parents sent us down the street to play at a neighbor’s house while they took her to the vet.  At the time I was not aware that they were taking her there to be euthanized.  I assumed they were taking her to the doctor’s office to get medicine in the same way they did when my sister or I was sick.  They returned later that afternoon, driving on our street past where we were playing outside.  I knew something was wrong when I saw my dad in the passenger seat and that my mother was driving, an unlikely sight in our family.  My sister, four years my senior, must have also known something was wrong as I don’t remember her saying anything to me the entire walk back to the house.  When we arrived we found my dad, with a grim look on his face, along side my mother, waiting for us at the front door.  “Puzzles was too sick to get better,” they told us, and that they “had to help her so that she would no longer be in pain.”  They explained that they had her put to sleep, that she was not going to wake up, and what exactly all that meant.  There might have been talk about heaven and what happens after death but I honestly don’t remember what was said mainly because I don’t think that part of conversation was as jarring as the idea of actual death. 

They brought Puzzle’s body back from the vet’s office so that we could say goodbye by having a funeral for her.  I realized that was why my father had been sitting as a passenger instead of his usual place in the captain’s seat: he had been holding on his lap the body of our much-loved cat, wrapped in plastic and placed in a cardboard box.  Later that day my dad dug a hole in the corner of the backyard under a tree where we said our goodbyes.  It was about as gentle an introductory experience as a child can have to death.  I don’t look back on that memory with any fear or resentment but rather with an appreciation to my parents for making the hard choice to talk to us frankly about such a difficult subject.

In an ideal world the introduction I had to the concept of mortality and death is the one a child should get about such a profound subject.  The introduction should not happen by being faced with a black and white photo of a stranger’s murdered child, or by the death of a sibling, or by watching mama come home from the hospital without baby brother or sister… Sadly though we don’t live in an ideal world.   We live in a crazy, often beautiful but just as often fucked-up, world.   Sometimes children do get murdered and sometimes babies do die.  Some of us do not get to decide when and how our children learn about death…for some of us circumstance chooses for us.

Since George died Leif and I have had frequent conversations about how and when we are going to tell his sister about him and why he died.  I guess in a way we are the luckier ones in the spectrum of unlucky baby loss. He was our first child and so we have the luxury of deciding when our daughter learns that she had a brother. Still I can imagine that no matter how or when we do it I will always wonder if we irrevocably damaged in some way her impressionable young mind.  When she is fifteen and painting her nails black, listening to her generation’s equivalent of The Smiths, I’ll be certain that it is a result of my failure as her mother to adequately address her brother’s death.   When she expresses any hint of anxiety while being pregnant with my grandchild, I will have no doubt that it is because she is convinced that her baby is going to die just like her mother’s did.   I don’t think it is possible to escape those kinds of doubts or, if there is, I’m still trying to figure out a way to it.

The truth is that I am not afraid of telling her about death and mortality, per se.  What does frighten me about explaining to her that her older brother died is the part where I have to expose her to ideas like sometimes bad things happen to good people and that there are not always good reasons for why terrible things happen in life.  I worry about having to explain to her at some point that occasionally even our best efforts are not rewarded with happy endings.  I don’t know how or when as a parent you tell your child these things as it seems to me it must at least partially steal away some innocence, and there is such precious little time they get to keep that as it is.   What I do know for certain is that I will tell her about her brother George and that he died even though we wanted him so badly to stay.  I will do my best to give her honest answers when she asks questions about him, as I know that she inevitably will.  I will make sure she knows that no matter how scary this world is that I love her and her brother so very, very much.  Maybe that is all she needs and the rest will work itself out.  


What are your thoughts on discussing the topic of death with children?  Have you had to explain the death of your baby to his or her sibling?  How did you do it?   If you haven’t yet had to address the topic, how will you or how would you do it?  Or maybe you won’t address it.  Tell me why.  What do you wish your parents had told you about death?

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Reader Comments (16)

So lovely to have you here, Brianna. You'll fit in so well. Like your George, Hope was our first so I guess we set the tone and the pace of how we introduce her and the concept of death to the living children who have come to us since. Angus knows about her, will tell you she's his sister but he doesn't understand much else. Juliet points to her photo and babbles, we haven't really said anything to her yet. She's 18 months, plenty of time. Angus is asking more and more questions every day about more random and obscure things, so I know the tricky questions are coming, and I still don't really know how I will go about them. He knows that the tomato plants in our garden died. He knows the lizard we saw squashed on the road the other day had died, but I don't really think he knows what it means and to have to tell him his sister died will just about break me. For now, he knows Hope is his sister and that we sometimes take her flowers.
There is no easy way through any of this, but yep, we're all (mostly, I hope) doing the best we can.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSally
Florence was my fifth child, she was born at home with her elder brothers and sisters all upstairs. They all saw her before she collapsed and was taken to hospital. Later that day they all got to hold her, and say goodbye to her. I have photos of my eldest daughter holding her that just break my heart.
My older children know all too well about death.
My youngest knows the baby in the photos is Florence, he says her name and knows we light candles for her and take roses to her at the cemetery, but beyond that he doesn't understand. my hope is that Florence is integrated into our family life in such a way that it won't be too hard on him when he realises, but I do wonder how he will feel to know he came afterwards.
Welcome Brianna, and thank you for this piece. x
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeanette
Our first three children are in Heaven: Oscar and Bella were our first-borns, Tittle is our Rainbow's twin. Since Gus (2.5yrs) was born, we've talked about Oscar, Bella and Tittle. We speak their names daily, Gus has looked at Oscar's and Bella's pictures, he's beginning to learn the ways in which we symbolize them (various colors and animals). We have not yet talked about death specifically, but I know those questions are coming. We will answer them as openly and as age-appropriate as we can, with the overriding goal of making sure that he is loved, his brothers and sisters are loved and they are all our children.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianna
I lost my first and I'm now pregnant with my next child. I plan for this one to know all about its older sibling and like you I don't really dread it as the introduction to death and mortality. If we as a family are lucky, this introduction will be at a time and place of my choosing and not triggered by some future untimely loss. I'm also not worried about the loss of innocence. I think it important that this child be aware of some basic truths at the appropriate time(s): that death is an inevitable part of life, that we are lucky to have been born in a rich country where certain deaths happen less frequently, and that the majority of the world lives without this luxury.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteranon
It's complicated and I haven't figured it out yet. Like you, my first died and I have a 2.5 year old who knows of a Samuel, but doesn't quite get that he was his brother. He points to my tattoo and asks "what's that?" and I'll tell him it's Samuel's footprints. This Christmas, we put up the ornaments (and there are a few Samuel ones) so he kind of thinks Samuel has something to do with the Christmas tree. I have showed him Samuel's picture and told him "that's Samuel, he was your brother" but I'm afraid he doesn't yet understand. I'm having a hard time explaining death - in that no one or anything has died in George's world (yet) so I don't have a concrete example. I don't have a problem telling him that people and things die but the actual how is proving harder than I imagined.

Beautiful writing. Thanks for this.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMonique
I'm confused about how to go about it with my living daughter. She had turned 2 exactly a month before we had Shelby. She is now about to turn 3 and remembers nothing of that time and I was discouraged from having her visit us and see Shelby (which I now regret). I don't want to intorduce it too early and have her lack the ability to understand. I also worry that when I do tell her she will tell everyone she sees in the street and it's something I share with people only when I choose to.

My living daughter is well aware of the concept of death- we have had pets die, we have had older relatives die. It's not the issue of death that worries me, it's how learning of the death of her sister will impact her (and my) everyday life. Tricky stuff.........
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShelby's Mum
Eva has 3 older brothers that saw her in PICU. That saw her get well and then, very suddenly, die. They saw it all and they lived it all. Her youngest brother (2 at the time) was actually in the room with her when she collapsed and subsequently saw CPR, ambulances etc...he is 3 now and I don't know how much he remembers or when those memories will surface.
One things I'm sure of though, is that Eva's death has brought us all that much closer to Heaven. Eva's brothers talk about playing with her and hugging her when they see her in Heaven, although they know that mom wants to go first and it will be a long, long time before they see their sister again.
I am currently pregnant again, with another boy. At first I wanted a girl so so badly but the boys all think that the baby is Eva come back from Heaven (I had nothing to do with this notion) so now I am happy that this baby is a boy. Because it will obviously not be Eva to the kids.
We talk about Eva all the time. We wonder what she is doing in Heaven or if she had chocolate birthday cake. We talk about seeing her again and, I think, all in all, as horrible as this has been, it has been rather gentle and positive for my living children. I realize that my belief system is not everyone's but it has helped me and also my children. And we believe it all, not just the nicey-nice feel-good stuff. So, I don`t know. Eva`s death remains the single most jarring, tragic, horrible experience of my life and I`m sure my children will remember the year that their mom cried every.single.day but my hope is that by talking about Eva and everything about her life and her death we can accept it in a way that keeps her part of our family.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEm
I also lost my first child, his little sister was born a year an five months after. She is now 5 months old and of course she has no concept of much of anything yet. But I see it coming natural through the tening of his grave but I am very unsure as to when she'll actually be big enough to start grasping sisterhood and death.

As an aneqdote, my friends daughter - who's 2 years old - desperatly wants a sibling (not an easy task considering my friend and I met through our strugglles with infertility) and keeps telling what children in daycare has siblings. But she doesn't want a brother. We thought it was early for her to start thinking boys were boring. Til we suddenly understood she didn't think a "brother" was a boy sibling. We have sometimes when we've been out said things like "pass by E's brother" and then gone on to put flowers by his grave. She thought a brother was a stone! And she didn't want that!! I'm hoping, I will in time be able to let E know about the brother who never was a stone in a good way. But I'll start with just "having him around"
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFC
I had to explain again today, to my 4yr old after I found out he thought his baby brother was still at the hospital. He just doesn't yet understand the permanence. My older child understands, and it was heartbreaking to have to explain to him that his baby brother was not going to make it. We're only a month out, so it's all still extremely raw.
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteralwaysmy3boys
Our older living daughter was 3 when Gemma was born still. We knew she would not live well before the day came, so we were in the position of having time to think and choose how to approach it with the older one. We decided to involve her and tell her the story in an honest way. She held her sister, and we have lovely photos of that. I was worried it would scare her, or traumatize her, but children are simple. They understand things differently. To her, it wasn't distressing, only factual. She knew mama was sad of course, but it did not seem to shake her little world much.
I love that we have continued to use Gemma's name and tell her story enough that it seems to be a part of our family's working memory now. I really wanted it to be that way, not awkward or difficult, but normal and natural. The older one will mention her frequently, draw family portraits that include her (sometimes as rainbow dust all over the picture, which she came up with and I find to be such a beautiful image).
Overall I am really glad she knows about her sister, and that it is natural for her to talk about her sister in Heaven. It warms my heart, and builds my confidence that she will continue to understand and process it and an emotionally healthy way through her life.
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteff
Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.

"I think it important that this child be aware of some basic truths at the appropriate time(s): that death is an inevitable part of life, that we are lucky to have been born in a rich country where certain deaths happen less frequently, and that the majority of the world lives without this luxury."
I could not agree more. I was totally oblivious to this before I lost George. Soem times I wonder if I had been more fully aware of this if I would have handled his death differently.

"but my hope is that by talking about Eva and everything about her life and her death we can accept it in a way that keeps her part of our family."
This is my hope for our family as well.

"I had to explain again today, to my 4yr old after I found out he thought his baby brother was still at the hospital."
I can't even imagine how difficult that must be.

"The older one will mention her frequently, draw family portraits that include her (sometimes as rainbow dust all over the picture, which she came up with and I find to be such a beautiful image)."
Wow. What a sweet and beautiful idea. Children are amazing.
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianna
So wonderful to be able to read your writing here Brianna. I've missed you at Daily Amos.

I also love Maurice Sendak. If anyone else is interested in hearing him talk a little bit more about death, beautifully illustrated by Christoph Niemann, I thoroughly recommend this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TH2OaaktJrw

Your parents sound very wise and kind. I wish that we could all be introduced to our own mortality in such a considerate and gentle fashion. But, sadly, we don't live in an ideal world. I'm fairly certain that I don't need to point that out to anybody here. Sigh.

I have had several faltering conversations with my surviving twin daughter, now four years of ago. I've told her where all the scars on her hands and feet are from, that she was very sick, that she was very small, that there was another baby inside mummy with her, that the doctors couldn't make her better. But she still asks me when her sister will come from a tea party. Or vehemently denies that she has a sister. Or thinks that her sister is a necklace (I have some memorial jewellery)

Sometimes I feel like I am simply doing the 'they f*** you up, your mum and dad' thing - extremely effectively and rather prematurely.

But I agree with anon, death isn't an optional extra. It is an inevitability and I've tried to make it a 'matter of fact' part of our everyday life, that we have another family member but that she is dead.
February 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine W
God, I love this piece. I used to drive my mom crazy because I would never check out any book from the library when I had first started reading but WTWTA.

Mason was 4 when Roxy died. I just gave him that information in the same way I would say "it's time to go to the dentist." At the time, I guess it's all I could do. I just dropped it like a rock. He asked me if his mom was also going to die. I said "no, she is fine." He's never seemed to obsess about it much, but he kind of has that kind of mellow personality that allows him to accept the inevitability that sometimes bad things happen and you have to go through them.

I see him with Lila (born not quite 2 years after Roxy died) though, and Roxy's death defines how he feels about her... he is incredibly protective, always worried she is going to get hurt. It's sweet, but I feel like he's burdened with too much knowledge of the downside of life sometimes.
February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKenny
Thank you for this piece of writing. I'm searching for some kind of babyloss parenting manual to help me figure this out, but I know that's silly and impossible. Your post and others responding help me realize how we just have to do our best in our own particular way and situation and that it doesn't make any sense for me to worry about it. I am so grateful that Shoshanna has a younger sister I can even have these conversations with someday.
February 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSapphira
So glad you are here, Brianna, and this powerful post is so beautifully compassionate and lovely. Thank you. My daughter was 20 months old when her sister died, and I just didn't know what she knew. I remember sitting her down a few days after telling her that the baby died. And I said, "Do you understand what is happening here? Why Mama and Daddy are crying?" And she shook her head. "The baby is Mami's belly died. Her name is Lucy, and she is your sister. Mami and Daddy are very sad, and we are going to cry a lot. We wanted her here with us. If you are afraid, you just tell Mama and I will tell you exactly why I am crying, okay? Do you understand? " She nodded. She asked questions here and there, like "Did I get to play with Lucy?" Or "Did Lucy come home?" "How old is Lucy now?" I heard her telling another child that her sister died. I always felt terrible in the beginning, like I was introducing her to a sister I was killing in the next sentence. And her ideas have morphed into something I haven't had to prescribe. She decided that our souls become trees when they die, so she touches every tree and tells them she loves them, because she just doesn't know which tree is her grandpa or her sister. With Thor, it is different. Bea tells him about Lucy, and he doesn't really get it. But Bea also doesn't ever let me say I only have two children. She has named the baby we miscarried in May and lists them with Lucia. She never lets me say, "You are the best daughter in the world. " She says, "And Lucy is too." It's wonderful that she feel so natural talking about our family without sadness or moroseness. It is just her reality. One thing that has surprised me is that she has never asked me if she's going to die, or her little brother is going to. She has never asked me about what happens to people after death, she just drew her own conclusions, and I have talked to her about just talking to her sister like she's in the room and can hear her. Anyway, she does not seem in the slightest bit unnerved by death. It is very cool. Love to you as you navigate this with your little one. I found the book, "When Dinosaurs Die" very very helpful.
February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAngie
Like Angie, my daughter was almost 20 months when our second daughter died. I thought we were "lucky" too or at least "caught a break" in this devastating experience since she didn't comprehend what had happened and we didn't have to explain death in any sort of detail. But when I'd cry, she would tenderly stroke my head and put a sad face on too and I'd wonder if this was in some way going to affect her, or the hours of TV she watched because I couldn't move. One of the worst thing that was said to me by a well intentioned friend was, " can you imagine if this happened the first time? Can you imagine?" As though having a living child made it easier. I feel deeply for those of you who have living children at an age that they comprehended and you must answer the death questions in the wake of such devastation. I don't know what I'm going to say. I worry about it too. We have Lorelei's picture out. My oldest points and says "sister." That's as far as we are...she's 25 months now. I feel like " I don't know" isn't an acceptable answer and I'm reading any kind of spiritual book I can get my hands on. My grandfather died when i was 18 and that was my first experience. My daughter will live her whole life knowing death intimately. Maybe it is better?Maybe it will never be a scary, taboo thing for her? I think ultimately, Brianna is right, all we can do is love them, be honest and hope for the best and do the best we can. Beautiful post.
February 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterILM

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