Many who suffer pregnancy loss don't have the "problem" of explaining it to another child, because maybe they weren't able to have one in the first place. Dealing with our son's grief has been a challenge, but it has also been a privilege. Here's how we went.
I didn't get to see a lot of Sam during my second pregnancy, read more here. But when I did see him, it was usually at bed time. He was very aware there was a baby in Mama's tummy and he would talk to it, sing to it, kiss my belly. He and Nick sang "Why are there so many songs about rainbows" (The Rainbow Connection), and that song was played at her remembrance service.
We knew Sam was excited to have a baby brother or sister. His cousins all had babies come into their families. His friends had siblings. He wanted one too.
We didn't tell him straight away that the baby had died. The first night I was in hospital, he knew I was sick. I'd been sick and in hospital a lot over the last few months, so he was unconcerned. He had just been to see his first movie and he was staying with his grandparents, he was happy and occupied. Then when I went home on Saturday afternoon it was meant to be until I would go in for surgery on Monday morning (when he would be at preschool) so he came home to be with us. We didn't tell him what was going on, there wasn't the time or opportunity.
Then when I went into hospital again in the small hours of Sunday morning, he was still asleep. That day when I was in hospital having his little sister removed from my body he was preoccupied with the novelty of having my Dad wait on him hand and foot (my Dad having rushed to our rescue in the wee hours of the morning to come & be on hand when Sam woke so we could go straight to hospital). Later he went to the other grandparents, and was doted on again. When they brought him to see me in hospital about 5pm on Sunday night, he'd had a full weekend of adventure. He was amazingly well behaved, he didn't run around or make too much noise. I got cuddles, smiles, offers of snacks. He was the best thing. Exactly what I needed at that moment. But again, it wasn't the right time, So we waited.
The next night, at home, lying in bed next to me, having cuddles with his Dad, we told him. We told him the baby wasn't in Mum's tummy anymore. He asked if could he meet the baby. "No, Sam, the baby got sick in Mum's tummy and it died and it won't be coming back."
We thought he'd be a bit sad, but he'd just roll with it, get over it quickly. Boy, were we wrong. We're obviously doing something right in raising an emotionally adjusted child because He. Just. Lost. It. He cried and cried, genuine sobs - "But I wanted a baby", "I don't want the baby to die", "I want the baby to come back". And with tears running down our faces we placated as best we could. "We wanted the baby too", "We didn't want the baby to die either", "We want the baby to come back too, it just can't, the baby has died and can't come back".
While Nick held a sobbing Sam, I asked him if he wanted to know the baby's name, and through the tears, he nodded. "The Baby is called T.J. Baby T.J. And we're going to have a special celebration for the baby. Would you like to help me?". He nodded. "You could help me with the special garden, I'm going to paint some special rocks so we can always remember Baby T.J. We're also going to have a special celebration, with lots of balloons that we can let go into the sky, would you like that?". We would hear this rabbitted back to us many times over the coming weeks. "We had a baby called Baby T.J but the baby died and we're going to have a special celebration with balloons in the sky".
I let Sam help me choose the paint for the rocks for the garden. He helped (a little) with the painting, and admired them while they were drying. He knew all the colours of the rainbow, and there would be a balloon of every colour to release in the sky - ROYGBIV, or as his other favourite rainbow song goes: "Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue. I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow too".
We didn't really plan how we were going to tell Sam. We knew we would tell him, and we knew it would have to be soon, but we didn't sit down and script what we were going to say, the language we'd use. I suppose that would have been a smart thing to do - but I also think that speaking directly from the heart was a good approach.
One thing we did agree on was that we would use the word "death". That might seem pretty heavy for a 3-year-old to handle, but we thought it was important that he understood the finality of the situation. "Gone away", or "passed away" would have been misleading, and potentially confusing for him. From reading and speaking to others since, we've learned this is the current "recommended" approach, so hey - go us.
I hadn't expected him to lose it the way he did. I'm not sure if it was genuine grief, or whether it was that preschooler "I-lost-something-I-wanted" indignant rage, or whether it was because he could sense how stricken both of us were. I guess it was probably a combination of all of the above. Either way, it was pretty gut-wrenching.
He talks about it quite openly now, like us he'll have difficult days, and sometimes he'll fess up that he's "sad about baby T.J", though sometimes I'm pretty sure he's using it as a ready excuse for bad behaviour, because he sees how it hits home with Mum and Dad. But that's pretty rare, if I'm honest.
The harder thing is the questions. He's a pre-schooler, so of course he's obsessed with asking "why" about everything - and the loss of his future sister is no exception. "But why did Baby T.J die? Why was she sick? Why couldn't she get better?". We try to answer these as honestly as we can - "she was very unlucky and got sick in a way that couldn't be fixed. We're sad too, we wish it was different - but sometimes sad things happen, and all we can do is choose how we deal with it".
Harder still is trying to manage the way he perceives sickness and death now. He's seen the inside of so many hospitals, hospices and other sad places in such a short life. When a friend or family member gets sick or goes to the hospital, he'll often ask if they're going to die. He asks us if we're going to die. As a parent, what do you say to that? I'm OK with little white lies but there is a big difference between "no you can't have any ice cream because there's none left" (there is a lot left and I will be eating it later) and "I am immortal".
Again, we've tried to be honest - "yes, we will all die one day, but hopefully not for a long long time. And that makes the time we do have together more special, right?". It feels like the right approach to us, but I do worry sometimes that he's too preoccupied with death and sickness, and I wonder what scars that will leave.
There have been many tears and sad moments since then and Sam still mentions her almost every day. He knows that Baby T.J is in the sky, looking down on us and the balloons we released went up to her, to share them with her. He often tells me he's "sad about Baby T.J" and needs a cuddle.
When he lost his balloon at a Christmas party last year and then proceeded to lose it I calmly sat him on my lap and thanked him for sending the balloon up to Baby T.J. Instead of a devastating memory, he was then happy to tell people about losing his balloon and sending it up to his sister in the sky.
Being not from a religious background myself, and Nick having "parted ways" with his faith in his youth, we haven't brought Sam up to understand about God and heaven. I suppose that people who grow up in some sort of faith that involves an afterlife have a specific way of explaining death to a preschooler, but we didn't have one. What we learnt is that no matter what your belief, the key message to get across is that death is final, there's no coming back from it. That it's ok to be sad, it's ok to be mad. And in my opinion, it's important for them to have a place to remember that person. In our house we have T.J's special plant and rock garden that Sam diligently waters. He also believes that when you die the part that makes you who you are goes up into the sky to be with past loved ones and is always looking down on us. I think this image is really appropriate for his age level, and has definitely been a comfort.
So this is all fine in our little family unit, and I'm really proud of the way Sam is working through his grief, how he can talk about it and wrap some context around what's happened. I think that's really important for him to fit it into his little memory story of his life.
Outside of our family though, it can get a little awkward. If asked by anyone whether he has a brother or sister, he'll quite happily and confidently announce that yes, he did, but that she got sick and died and she lives in the sky now. The response to this is normally a sideways look at Annamarie and me, and/or a slow "O. . . K then . . .".
I'm torn on how to deal with this. On the one hand, I think he should be able to talk openly about this stuff - and I don't think enough people do speak up. One thing we've learned on this journey, and one of the reasons we started this blog, was that grief and loss affects more people than you might be aware of, and we all hold it pretty close to our chest. Maybe if we were all a bit more honest with each other about our pain, it would be a better world.
Then again, I don't always want to discuss the loss of my baby with the cashier at the supermarket.
We're like all parents, figuring it out as we're going along, doing what feels right to us, as thoughtfully and lovingly as we can. We're not experts, but we think we're doing OK. I guess if we were to offer any advice to others in our situation, it would be that it's best to be upfront with a child about death. Discuss it, talk about what it means, and what we as a family will do next. It will be hard for you, you will have to confront uncomfortable questions in that blunt and genuinely curious way only a child can ask them. It will hurt. But in our experience, when you can stand back and be proud of your child, when sometimes they're teaching you how to cope, giving you comfort, it is worth every moment.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.