Angie's answering questions about talking with your living children about their lost sibling at Still Life with Circles, and I thought I'd chime in.
Right after Henry died, I worried about how we would keep him as part of our family as our family grew (which I hoped it would). I didn’t worry about explaining what happened to him to other children we might have, but I needed to know that they could somehow accept this person that they never met as part of our family. I was desperate to figure out how to do that. Then I met a mom, a little further down the road, who really seemed to have integrated her daughter into her family, even though, like me her firstborn had died and her other children never met her. I decided it was enough to know that it was possible and that I would find my way once I had another child to hold in my arms, not just my heart.
Henry, I lost my orange blanket at Zoey’s house.
I’m not sure why this it the thing that Kathleen chooses to tell Henry, over and over and over. The blanket was lost and found much earlier this summer, but it is what she says to him often, when I do the bedtime routine.
Brian talks to Henry about praying for our family and others who knew him. I simply ask if she wants to say good night to Henry. If she says yes, I bring down the picture. Sometimes she kisses it, sometimes she says goodnight or I love you or I lost my orange blanket.
I don’t know how this nightly ritual started, but it is as much a part of the routine as brushing her teeth. I accept that there may come a time when she doesn’t want to say goodnight to Henry or when she wants to do it in some other way. This is about how she interacts with her brother.
We had a new babysitter here on Tuesday. While I was getting Elizabeth dressed for the day and Kathleen and H. were playing, I heard Kathleen say, “This is Henry.” I looked out and she was showing her picture blocks with immediate and extended family members, and the first person she decided to show was Henry.
I made Kathleen an alphabet book for her first Christmas. Or I intended to. I only completed one page in time for that Christmas. On the H page, I put Henry’s picture in the middle of a big heart. H is for Henry and hearts. Henry is in heaven, but we carry him in our hearts.
Brian has lots of photos and little video clips on his iPod. Kathleen likes to watch the video of her going down the slide, but she likes the one of Henry smiling too.
In late May, Brian told Kathleen that the next day was Henry’s birthday, and she said I sing “Happy to You” to Henry.
Should we have cake? I asked. But of course.
I had made cupcakes for his first birthday, the only one we marked with our family, but I hadn’t made cake for him since. This year we had chocolate cake with sour cream frosting, and we sang to him.
We have pictures of Henry in almost every room of the house. He’s in Kathleen’s alphabet book and blocks. We have photo albums of him as we do of Kathleen and Elizabeth. We talk about him. We talk about memories and missing him. We tell Kathleen about things that she used that Henry used just as we tell her about things that Elizabeth now uses that she once used. We talk naturally about him, and so far it seems she does too.
People have asked me if I will talk to Kathleen and Elizabeth about Henry. I tell them I already do. I can’t imagine how I would not.
So we talk about him, but how do we explain what happened? We’ve told Kathleen simply that he died. We have pictures and stories and we love him, but we can’t see him. We tell her he is with Auntie K and Bandit. We will, I suppose, add more as they asks more and understands more.
I just revisited what I thought about talking to Kathleen about her brother in her first year, early on and later. We're doing the same things, but they have evolved more into part of our routine now. I worry less about Henry's role in our family. My questions about how he and his siblings will interact evolve too—will they ever resent him? feel like we love him more? how will they share him with their friends as they get older? what will they want to know about him dying, about death, about where he is? Or maybe they'll have completely different questions. We'll talk about them as they come up. We'll continue to talk about our son, their brother.