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  • Writer's picturethesepreciouslittlepeople

Exploring the unexplainable: discussing the death of a sister they never knew with my rainbows

Updated: Jul 3, 2022

Talking about death with children is hard, but I have found the concept particularly delicate to navigate given my circumstances and propensity to over-analyse many situations, and doubt myself. My two living children are under 5 years old, both born after the death of their sister Esme, my firstborn, to unexplained stillbirth. As with many aspects of parenting after loss (or even just parenting in general!), I often feel I am very much still making this up as I go along, but I have benefited from some great advice and insights from those who have gone before me, so I thought I would share a little more about how I have gone about things so far and what I have learnt or found useful along the way. The book I have written, 'These Precious Little People', has been a basis for how I have approached this topic in depth, especially now that my son is more able to glean useful information from books, but obviously I've only had it available to share with him for the past few months; some of our most involved conversations have happened unprompted and totally separate from reading it together.

The initials of everyone in our family

Some of our special 'Esme' soft toys - these are part of everyday play

We have always had things on display in our house that relate to Esme. Photos of her up alongside other family members, her memory box on a shelf in my son's room, teddies bought with her in mind scattered about, copies of her hand and footprints or quotes/images that remind me of her on the wall, her name/photo included in personalised family prints. I purposefully steered clear of creating a 'shrine' to her; I wanted things that are 'for her' to be as natural a part of our home as she would have been had she lived. But there are some things that I consider too irreplaceable to be within reach of the grubby and accidentally destructive hands of inquisitive babies or toddlers. To this day I haven't shown my living children the contents of Esme's memory box or the scrapbook I made soon after she died with messages of condolence and pieces of poetry etc that I gathered together - I rarely look in these myself to be honest - and I'm not sure when that day will come. But as with so many other facets of this topic, I've tried to be guided by them as to how much they want or need to know, and when. I know that I will probably feel very emotional looking at those precious keepsakes together, and it's not likely to provoke anything like the same feelings within them, so I'd rather them explore those at an age where we can talk about all of that more in depth if needed, and I'll have more hope that they can understand it all.

Some of the pictures we have up on the wall that include Esme as part of the family - the most precious is our 'Maison Brunker' papercut from the lovely Helen at Ms Matched. The photos can be changed and updated as needed. I love the imagery of Esme shining down on us from the sun.

I've found it impossible to be totally child-led, partly because of the small gaps between our children (Esme was stillborn in 2013, my son arrived just over 13 months later, and my youngest was born 3 and a half years after her big sister). I'm not sure if time would have made much difference, but certainly the emotions I have felt over the past five and a bit years have all felt too raw and fresh to process any other way than fairly openly, and trying to be present with my living children (I am not currently in paid employment, so I spend a lot of time with them) has meant there's not been much opportunity to grieve privately anyway. I don't cry as often now as I did in the early period of my grief, but when I do it is sometimes in front of my living children, and I have tried to be as honest (as is age appropriate anyway) about why. It tends to be more around Esme's birthday, a time of heightened or renewed grief, and for us it has felt more natural to talk about her then. Her life is celebrated by us around the time of her birth, and we have had family gatherings and even a 'birthday' cake to mark the occasion. As my son's understanding of birthdays has developed, so too has his realisation around exactly who Esme is. Speaking about her initially was definitely more for me than him, and it took a long time for him to even register any interest in her existence. I guess for him, people have tended to only mean something if he can interact with them - if they are 'real', tangible. When his younger sister was born, when he was just under the age of 2 and a half, describing Esme as his sister too clearly confused him - how could a sister exist unless they were physically there to see, hear, play with (or poke the eyes of!) - and, even though we have been open from the start about visiting Esme's grave together, some questions began to emerge around this age connected to her physical presence (i.e. the lack of).

My two living children, who (mostly!) adore each other

It's been hard hearing my son express that he misses Esme and wishes she was here, but it's also a testament to the fact that you can grieve for someone you never even met

I have also had questions about what she looks like. I am lucky that I have dozens of photos of me pregnant with her. We have a few (absolutely priceless) scan photos - the only pictures we have of her alive. I've talked about the time we spent with her in the hospital after she was born and some of what we remember about what she looked like at that point in time (again, keeping it age appropriate - there are some photos of her that are a little more upsetting and I'm not certain anyone else aside from me and her dad will be seeing those), but I can only guess that the handful of photos we have of her that he has seen from after she was born aren't satisfactory to help him visualise her, especially when I talk about the age she would have been by now had she lived. I have said that we can imagine together what she might have looked like - explaining that children are a unique blend of their parents - and largely this has then morphed into a conversation about what features him and his younger sister inherited from me and his dad. One tradition I've tried to start up has been to spend a family day out in her honour around Christmas time. This past year was the first time I explained to him why we were doing that, and I said that we could do other things for her anytime we liked. I asked him if there was anything he would like to do, and he replied he'd like to draw her a picture, a picture *of* her. I helped him sketch her and he coloured her in. It was a wonderful opportunity for us to talk about what colour her hair had been, how cute her little ears were, we even wondered together what colour her eyes might have been (even though in our picture her eyes were shut).

Our picture of Esme. My son insisted on surrounding her with hearts

I have shared more about things that remind me of Esme and make me smile in recent times, and it's been lovely to talk about the fond recollections I have of her or things that bring me comfort rather than just mentioning her during sad times when I miss her. We have danced or sang along to songs that I listened to during my pregnancy with her, I have occasionally talked about things that she did inside my womb that made me laugh (and these have led onto lovely conversations about happy memories from my pregnancies with my living children too - helping me realise there were some really joyful moments in amongst the fear and anxiety!) - and I have mentioned some of the things that make me think of her and feel happy. After Esme died I felt like I was being visited by ladybirds and magpies (I seemed to see way more than usual) and began to think of them as a way of her saying hello, so I shared not too long ago that ladybirds remind me of Esme. My son now tells me, "mummy, you think of Esme when you see a ladybird because you saw lots of them in our house after she died". I also talked to him about a song that we played at Esme's funeral as it was a favourite of ours during my pregnancy with her and it's why giraffes remind me of her. The video for 'So Good To Me' by Chris Malinchak depicts a little girl searching for her lost pet, which turns out to be a giraffe. My husband is not a pet kind of person, and I used to joke with him during my pregnancy with Esme that if our baby turned out to be an animal lover he might find himself giving in and finally agreeing to one entering our home. We also associate hedgehogs and dragonflies with her, but these are stories that I'm yet to share - I'm trying to allow them to come out organically when the moment feels right.

It's possible for children to think about who their sibling or cousin is to them even if they aren't physically here - 'These Precious Little People' offers some suggestions how those connections can be explored

A question I'll never find easy to answer is why Esme died. I only realised fairly recently that my son has possibly been filling in the gaps in his understanding with his imagination; my explanation of "we don't know; some babies just die inside their mummy's tummy before they are born and no-one can say why" perhaps not cutting it. He had been playing a game involving his Lego Batman car jetting flames out of its exhaust, and warned me not to stand behind it in case I got blasted with fire and it killed me. I agreed that would not be something I would want to happen (!) and then out of nowhere he added, "yes, like Esme". I felt the need to clarify that Esme had not been the victim of a souped up superhero's vehicle emissions, but he became quite intent on understanding more about WHY Esme had died; he even asked why he had not died in my tummy too. I'm sure I'm not alone in having this question provoke a range of very negative emotions (the self-blame resurfaces, the anger at the unfairness at it all, the fears that if I answer this question 'wrong' it might scare him), but felt assured that the lines I use in my book are all that I could repeat.

Something that has been invaluable to me has been hearing from others who have trod this path before me. Joel The Complete Package has a wonderful support group on Facebook for those going through pregnancy or parenting after loss, and it's felt a very safe place to share some of my worries and seek advice or insight into how we might go about things. The recent discussion on this topic on Michelle's page, 'From The Other Chair', has been really thought-provoking, useful and reassuring too. Ultimately what I have realised is that thinking about what is best for me AND my living children has been what's worked for us so far - clear, simple language, answering questions as they come as far as we can. Making it clear that, as far as I'm concerned, Esme is still part of our family. She is not, and never will be, a dark secret or just 'something sad that happened once upon a time'. Other families will find their own way, and if this book can help them at all along the way then it will have served its purpose.

I have written before (here and here) 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 wrote a blog post last year about how others have talked about the death of a baby within their families, and will shortly write another about other books we have found useful to talk further about death in general. 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) or cousin - 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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