Thursday, July 16, 2015

Talking About Loss with Zuzu

I filled out an information form for Zuzu's preschool. The first question was "Identify all members of your household. List the ages of your child's siblings."

I took a deep breath. And then I wrote Sister - Colette, "Coco," eleven months old.

On the next line, I added, Our first daughter, Eliza, was stillborn in December 2010. Caroline knows that Eliza died and that we love and miss her.


I attended a grief support group last week. Almost everyone there had a living child before their loss, so there was some discussion of how to talk to your kids about the death of their sibling. Because I had no living kids when Eliza died, this was not something I thought much about at the time.

In fact, I was jealous of anyone who had a living kid, even if they had a loss after. People would say they couldn't have gotten through the days without their living child, which bugged me because I was somehow getting through the day. Of course, I didn't have to get out of bed and try to act "normal" the way they did. Friends of mine have also said that they feel that their grief robbed them of months of their living child's life--days that they managed to function as a parent, but couldn't enjoy or savor. There's obviously no "better" or "worse" or "easier" or "harder" when it comes to losing a baby.


By the time Zuzu came along, I didn't really have a game plan for telling her about Eliza. I'd heard of the book Someone Came Before You, but I didn't have it. All I knew was that Eliza was not going to be a secret. I didn't want her loss to be something that Zuzu would "discover" one day, or some kind of news bulletin that we would sit down and burden her with when we determined she was "old enough" to handle it. (Particularly since I didn't feel "old enough" to handle it.) I just wanted her to grow up always knowing about Eliza.

I also decided that I didn't want us to shy away from using the word "died." There are so many euphemisms for it--synonyms that I use regularly and that I don't really have a problem with, but that are too abstract for a little kid.

It's unsettling to hear little kids talk about death, but I think we have to remember that the big, dark, scary associations that we have with death are learned, and are socially or culturally indoctrinated over time. For a little kid, death isn't scary or "bad." It's just a fact. And that's how I wanted to present Eliza's death. It's just a fact. It makes us sad, but it's not shameful or embarrassing. It's an important part of our family's story.

An older child could certainly be frightened by the idea that if his or her sibling died, that he or she could die, too. But little kids aren't making those leaps of logic quite the same way. Zuzu, however, surprised me one day when she said, "Eliza die-ed. But I am growing! I not die-ed!"

Honestly, it can be a little creepy to hear her talk about Eliza's death so matter-of-factly at this point (even though that's what I wanted).

I try to keep it simple. I don't talk much about heaven much because my mom told her that Little Mac went to heaven and then there were all kinds of requests to go to heaven and see Little Mac, and questions about where is heaven, and I'm just sort of avoiding that for now since I have no idea. I just say that Eliza died and we love her and miss her so now she is in our hearts (another confusing concept, I realize, but talking about love can be pretty abstract, too).

It's not simple, though. And I admit things got super confusing around Easter when we read some books about Jesus. Take the story of the resurrection, add a toddler's limited understanding of Eliza, her great-grandparents, and also Little Mac, and you get a lot of unanswerable questions.

Sometimes she puts on this over-the-top, kind of pretending-to-be-sad voice when she talks about Eliza. It's the same voice she uses when she's pretending to be Elsa and telling me that Anna needs to be taken to the trolls. She'll say something like, "Oh! Eliza died and Mommy misses her." Which is true, obviously, but for her it's the same kind of true as Anna's heart getting frozen in Frozen. Dramatic! But not really real.

And she doesn't talk about Eliza all that often, but it does tend to come out of the blue and surprise me. I really make an effort not to get upset when Zuzu bring her up (and usually I don't find it upsetting, so that's not hard to do) because I don't want her to think she shouldn't talk about her. But I also let Zuzu see me cry around Eliza's birthday and explained that I was crying because I miss Eliza. She seemed satisfied with that answer. She'll say now that she misses Grammy and Bops, or certain little friends from school, and that she keeps them in her heart. I tell Zuzu that I keep her in my heart when I'm at work and she's at school, so she seems to understand that it's a way of thinking about the people we love.

The easiest way for me to talk about Eliza comes from pointing out things around the house. I started this when she was very little, when I was pointing at everything to just say different words out loud to her. I'll tell her that Coco is using Eliza's blanket, or that this picture is Eliza's sunset. I'm frequently talking about family members in photographs, so that was an easy thing to do as well.

We have Eliza's pencil portrait up in an arrangement with baby pictures of Zuzu and Coco, so I'll just point to each one and say who it is. Sometimes Zuzu will argue with me and say that Eliza is not her sister because Coco is her sister, so I'll usually just say, "You have two sisters, but Eliza died, so Coco is your sister who is here with us." And if she still contradicts me, I let it go.

I don't expect her to understand it yet; I just want the topic not to be forbidden material. I realize that my sadness is something that could burden her, and I don't want that either, but sadness is not bad. And really, I do want her to be aware of it.

I think she should know how much I miss her sister Eliza, just as she knows how much I love her and her sister Coco. I hope that by watching me be both happy and sad (simultaneously, even!) she will eventually understand that it's okay to experience and to acknowledge all kinds of emotions, even the ones that our society tacitly asks us not to talk about. Someday, I expect, she'll have more questions, and I want her to feel like she can ask them.

I'm also trying to be realistic about how Eliza will fit into the way Zuzu understands the world. I don't think Eliza is likely to make an appearance in family portraits that Zuzu draws because she's never known her family with Eliza here. And I am okay with that. But I hope that someday if she knows a friend or a coworker who loses a baby, that she can draw on our experience with grief and offer a rainbow's perspective of the storm.

The truth is that talking about Eliza helps to keep her here with us. We talk about how pink magnolia trees and yellow roses and baby ducks and butterflies remind us of Eliza, just as quilts make us think of Nana and cardinal birds make us think of Papa Gene, and having ice cream and popcorn for dinner makes us think of Grandma and Grandpa Vance. Sometimes it's a struggle because, unlike with my grandparents, I didn't have years to create happy memories with Eliza. And yet her influence on me, on our family, is tremendous. I want Zuzu to know about all the people who have shaped our family, and I want her to know that it's okay to miss them and think about them. And, yes, talk about them, too.


  1. It is truly wonderful that you do this. Hard but wonderful. What a gift to Eliza and to Zuzu (and eventually Coco).

    I have a friend whose parents lost triplets after her, when she was very young, and her parents did not tell her this - she discovered it many years later. As a grown woman in her 30s, she is still suffering aftereffects of this and indeed has a phobia of pregnancy - cannot even be near pregnant people. So thank you for showing an alternate path.

  2. Frances throws me off all the time with talk about death. She's very matter of fact about it, saying things like "It's too bad that Erin died because she could have done x,y,z with us." I also use the word died and death. Passed away or on or whatever just sounds strange to me, although I know a lot of people do use those words. I think they would be so confusing to little kids though. I also use "gone", now that I think about it. It's almost a more fitting word for how crappy it still feels. She's gone and not coming back. It sucks.

    I know of several families with grown children now that always spoke about their children that died. Thinking about those living siblings - their missing siblings always seemed to be a part of their family's story, and I can remember their names being spoken frequently. I think that's important. I would do the very same thing with my children.

    This is the birthday where Ella passes up Erin in the order of the four girls. Frances has already pointed this out as we talk about ages. It breaks my heart.

    I love that you have things (symbols) that remind you of Eliza. And you can also let your girls know what a special role she had in making you a mom - and you knew just how much you wanted that crazy/busy/happy/sad job - and Caroline and Colette have added so much to what Eliza started.

  3. I know that this will someday come up with M, but I think it's also very similar to the way we will talk about her loss of her birth mom, and why her siblings don't live with us. A challenge, but this is what life is made up of... hard questions, some without answers.

  4. I just want to say I think you're doing a great job telling Zuzu about Eliza. I have a sister that died before I was born and it seems like I've always known about it. I don't remember being told it was just something I knew and understood more of what it meant as I got older. We had pictures and mementos and we went to her grave site and put out flowers. I think Zuzu and Coco will be the same. And in that way, Eliza and my sister will be remembered even when their mothers are gone.

  5. Check out the book The Invisible String. It is more about missing people in general and how we are connected to everyone we love by an invisible string from our heart to theirs. It only mentions heaven once so it's not too bad. It also talks about missing people who aren't dead (like you might miss mommy while you're at school but your strings are c

  6. Oops, sorry. You may miss mommy while you're at school but your strings are connected. This one has been good at our house while we talk about Olivia's big and little brothers who died, but also daddy when he's at work and Grammie who lives 3 hours away and we don't see all the time

  7. I'm total shit at this because I don't know why I just am. We are really lucky that my MiL is not total shit at this and in their family pretty much revere their dead relatives. Like if they were buddhist there would absolutely be shrines with fruit in front of it all over the compound. So for G dead people have always been a part of her life, they are in her daily conversations. Her brothers have just joined that narrative for her I guess.

    I totally agree with the grieving thing by the way, I mourn I haven't worked through it better because I just couldn't. I had to keep it together. I often wonder if I'd still feel so crazy about it all if I had been able to completely go through all the feelings honestly in the time they happened.

  8. I hear you met my friend Nora at group. We have the same mindset you do about talking to Ben about his sister- we talk about her often. Justin has asked what we'll do when Ben asks why everyone else's sister lives with them... But I feel like he will take in what he can understand as he can understand it. When I came home from the hospital, Ben went to lift up my shirt and kiss my belly, the way he always did - and I had to tell him his sister wasn't there anymore. A very painful moment for me, but in many ways I am grateful that this happened when he was only 18 months old.

  9. I think of your family and Eliza often Brooke. This post just made me cry, to see how much she was, and still is, so loved.

    My grandparents never talked about my grandfather's first wife and child dying (eclampsia in the 50's.) Later as I grew up I heard snippets about it. I found out much more after he passed and my mom found the obituary in his wallet after all those years. He took my mom and my grandmother (his second wife) to the cemetary often as my mom was growing up (he raised her after he married my grandmother and I was often told he was too scared to have more children, as they or my grandmother may die. Heartbreaking.)

    I truly think this is why he was such a AMAZING father and grandfather. You could see and feel his love for all of us. I miss him so much and my third is named after him.

    Sorry for rambling. Hearing about Eliza and all the wonderful and sad parts makes me think how he must have felt all those years ago and all his life. My one consolation is I believe he is in heaven with them both now, and my grandmother :)


  10. We have always been honest with Eleanor, and we will do the same with Henry. I do flinch sometimes because she talks so casually about death and lately has even been trying to find positive things about Genevieve dying (I assume because we encourage her to find positive ways to look at other aspects of life).

    The psychologist I spoke to when I wrote about this topic said that it's usually negative to have "heat" behind a subject. If children feel that a topic is taboo, they tend to associate that topic with guilt or shame. I never wanted Eleanor to feel like my sadness was somehow her fault, and I also really wanted her to know how important her sister is to us.

  11. Yup, agree with all of this.

    One thing that threw me for a loop was when Finn recently asked, "where did Cale die?" I just said "at the hospital" because I was caught off guard, but am regretting not being honest and saying "in mommy's tummy."

    I am glad you included Eliza in Zuzu's school paperwork. It's important and honest and real.

  12. We talk about Bear in much the same way. Bode has no understanding of a living brother and it is all so abstract right now but he repeats it all. We say that Bear died and is in heaven. And Ella too. Recently Bode wanted to go to heaven and bring Ella home and I had to explain that no one can come back from heaven but that we will die someday and go to heaven but not for a long long time. Then on Father's Day, Bode told my father-in-law all matter of fact that we were going to heaven.

    One thing that bothers me is the other uses for died (e.g. The batteries in the you died) because I think this is more confusing.

  13. I agree with all of this too. I'm expecting the family drawing too...and having Alexander be a no show. I think I'll be pleasantly surprised if Theo is able to make any connection...but will feel not at all let down if he doesn't.

    Well said Brooke. Once again making my life seem a bit more normal

  14. I agree that it's important for everyone to understand that sadness is an important part of life, and not to be hidden or avoided all of the time. As your girls get older, check out a DVD (or whatever format is popular by then!) of the new movie "Inside Out" -- this is the point of it, that as we get older we realize that emotions can be mixed, and that going through sadness is important in understanding a situation, and in being able to move forward to joy again. I think my 12 and 9-year old girls definitely got that from it, but it probably went right over my 5-year-old's head.

  15. I've taken much the same approach with George and Henry in that they know they have a brother who died and that he's not here with us. George will sometimes mention that he has 2 brothers and one died, but Henry's still not fully grasping the concept. It's not a huge part of their lives, honestly, but they know that sometimes I get sad because I miss Samuel. Sometimes George says bizarre things that I never taught him - like that Samuel hides things on us and if he hears a noise, he says Samuel made it. He also has told me that Samuel lives in our house but we just can't see him. Again, I never told him any of these things so it's kind of weird.

    We recently had to put our dog down and it brought up a whole bunch of questions regarding where Buddy went and I've never introduced the concept of heaven to the boys so after a million questions I finally said "he's up in the stars" and George made the most baffled look and immediately wanted to know how he physically got there - did he jump? How did he jump so high? Did he ride on an airplane?

    So complicated.

  16. What a helpful post to read (and sad, of course). B is only 7 months old so we don't have to broach this subject yet, but I know we will at one point and I don't want her sister to be a secret.

    I have an adult friend who confided in me after Q died that she has a brother that was stillborn and shares how her Mom talked about him to her and how they celebrate him each year. It was eye-opening to me to hear about the way they incorporate him into their lives and that this had happened in her family - I had no idea. I want B to talk about Q in the same way someday....

  17. I am so curious about what M understands about his sister, Anja. We have always talked about her, and E talks about her a lot, especially, so he has always heard her name and he knows she died, and will say, "Anja died. Gigi died. etc." But what does that mean to him? I remember how hard it was for E to understand that Anja was never coming home to live with us, and she had been aware of her little sister coming, so ready to love her and take care of her. For M, Anja has always been completely abstract...It's very different, with the baby that comes after - not better, not worse, so different.

  18. Ugh, the preschool paperwork. I included Olivia on it too but was really unsure about it. This is a hard one we have already discussed a bit but since then I was cleaning through our bedroom and Lucas asked to see Olivia's memory box so I showed him a couple things, and he's asked to see pictures of Olivia again, so I guess that's good but holy cow, getting hit with it out of the blue when we are on the way out the door to somewhere isn't a picnic either. I have tried to gloss over the 'died with pregnancy' stuff too, being pregnant and really not wanting to get 4 yo questions about if this baby is going to die or where that could go.
    It's definitely hard. I nominate you to write a book that focuses more than on the loss than the pregnancy like 'someone came before you' does.

  19. You are an amazing mom. Love you

  20. I think you're doing a great job, too. Many of the friends we made through our support group had previous &/or subsequent children, and have been very open with them about their absent brothers & sisters. Attending family events like memorial candlelightings & butterfly releases has been a great way for the whole family to remember the baby together, and for the kids to meet other kids who also lost siblings. One of my favourite memories of these events was when a friend's 6-year-old plunked herself down beside me and asked, very matter-of-factly, "So, who do YOU have in heaven?" & went on to tell me about her baby brother who lives there. I loved telling the mom afterward about it. :)