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.