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  • Writer's picturethesepreciouslittlepeople

Any siblings? Yes, one of each: one dead, one alive.

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

This is not a new dilemma for us. As soon as Esme died it tilted our world on its axis. Our lives were forever divided into 'before' and 'after' and talking about death with the young children in our family became part of our 'new normal' in a whole different way - this was not in the natural order of things that we knew for any of us - and it was suddenly our desperately sad reality that babies can and do die. Unknown territory for us all, and we muddled through as best we could.

Our first visit to Esme's grave with her little brother after he was born

But navigating this topic as my two living children get older feels like a whole other kettle of fish altogether. I have a tendency to overanalyse and overthink things at times, and this is probably no different, but the stakes feel high; the probability of getting it 'wrong' seems quite likely. At times when I'm feeling more able to joke about it I tell myself that we should start putting aside savings to pay for their future therapy sessions; at other times I am in anguish over how I can help guide them through all the awkward or confusing moments that will be to come. Sometimes I wonder if I'm being horribly selfish insisting on keeping Esme's place within our family; making sure that her siblings know that she is their sister and allowing them to witness my grief. But I also know that to do things any other way would be keeping such a huge part of myself forever awkwardly and uncomfortably hidden away, and I feel on balance that would be more unfair. To never know why my tears fell more easily at certain times of the year, or to have her few special things squirrelled away never to be shared with them; for them never to have the chance to realise just how and why they are so very special to me; for me and their dad to visit her grave privately, secretively; to never be able to hear about their big sister they never had the chance to meet and grow up alongside; well, I just couldn't do it, even if I wanted to. And I try and remind myself that children do not have anywhere near the same hang ups as we adults do about this subject. Yes, it might prove a bit confusing and possibly even a bit scary for them at times as their understanding develops, but your average Disney film has just as much power to upset them in my opinion. Admittedly some of them only deal in 'baddies' facing an unfortunate end, but totting up just how many feature death, and it's an impressive body count. University professors have even conducted a study on it, watching 57 Disney or Pixar films in which 71 character deaths occurred (nice excuse for a duvet day - or week - if ever I heard of one). Their conclusion was that "killings in these films can actually help children relate to death and understand it in ways that otherwise might be very challenging for them." (Link to full article outlining the study in more detail is here)

A picture of the family depicted in Coco - the whole family - deceased relatives included

Speaking of Disney films, I plucked up the courage to watch a recent release with my nearly 4 year old son earlier this week, hoping that us watching it together over the years might pave the way for more open conversation about all things death-related. Coco is a vibrant Disney/Pixar film that explores the traditions of the Day of the Dead. Told from the point of view of Miguel, a young boy who ends up in the Land of the Dead, the movie is a tribute to Mexican traditions and customs. The Land of the Dead admittedly contains some potentially disturbing imagery, but the skeletons quickly become very prominent characters and are not portrayed as sinister or scary because they are dead. Despite the morbid subject matter, it becomes apparent very early on in the film that this holiday is not only revered within Mexican culture, but celebrated joyfully - though it occurs at the same time as Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day, the mood of The Day of the Dead is much lighter, with the emphasis on celebrating and honouring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or malevolent spirits. As the Nobel prize-winning Mexican writer Octavio Paz explained in his seminal work Labyrinth of Solitude:


"The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

Miguel's grandmother and her mother, Coco, visiting the family during the Day of the Dead celebrations

Despite us now having watched it a few times already, I can't yet claim that it has opened up any strikingly meaningful debates about how and why Esme died, but thankfully I set my expectations down low and made a promise to myself not to mention her unless it seemed appropriate so we could just lose ourselves in the story as much as possible. I did explain that they were in a cemetery visiting graves like we visit Esme's grave to help explain that setting to him, and I also highlighted that the photos they had on display were of people who had died, a bit like we have Esme's photograph on display, but otherwise I refrained from mentioning her. We have definitely been enjoying the film, and although there are sad moments and I shed a few tears; it has been refreshing to see death spoken about so openly, and dealt with in such a different way compared with western culture - to see dead relatives included and remembered - happy memories of them shared even with those who never had the chance to meet them. It was emphasised in the film that it is us remembering them that allows them to 'live on'.


The song 'Remember Me' from the film even won an Oscar for best original song, and the songwriters openly credited grieving the loss of someone very important within their family as having inspired them. If you listen closely to the lyrics (especially the duet version at the end of the film and have a Spanish speaker - or Google Translate - to hand) they are incredibly moving but also comforting. Our precious little ones gone too soon are never far away if we carry them with us in our hearts.

Miguel, his baby sister, and his grandmother remembering his great grandmother Coco at the end of the film

I can only hope that topics like this more commonly becoming part of mainstream culture make things easier for bereaved families. Just as I start to reassure myself that I'm doing the right thing for us I'm side-swiped by my son's nursery asking me to share photos of our family with them so they can discuss families, feelings and 'all about me' as a group as their first topic this term. I guess my worries around how other children (and their families) will perceive our situation is very much something that is beyond my control, but I am determined that none of us should ever feel ashamed to talk about and include Esme if we want to. Joel The Complete Package have made available a Sibling Support Booklet through their online shop (free of charge): a resource to share with a child's nursery, pre-school, or school setting to help explain that they have a sibling (or siblings) who died and how it is talked about within their family so that they can echo explanations and offer any support as necessary. I am so grateful for resources such as this which give me a useful template from which to open up discussions about Esme with those who look after my son two days a week. I also came across this article the other day which further proved that there are more of us who struggle with this than I realised. I am always sorry to hear of other families facing up to the tragic death of a child, but there is great comfort to be found in knowing that we are not alone.

My son visiting his sister's grave as part of her birthday celebrations

I have written before about why I think it's so important for us to accept that children have a right to remember precious little people within their families who have died and to grieve along with us if they need to. You can read more about how to talk to children about death and find further support here. You can also read more on why I feel the book I have written for children affected by the death of a baby is a much-needed addition to the genre of children’s books that deal with bereavement here, and order a copy here.


I would love to hear about how you have dealt with this topic within your family - and how your children have processed the death of their sibling(s) - especially if you have any words of wisdom to share on how to make any of this easier on all involved.


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