Master Xavier has been finding it a bit hard to cope with things. At 5 years of age, we never anticipated having to tell him that his sister had died after he so patiently waited for her for all that time. We were very unsure about how to manage his grief, whilst we were still struggling to cope ourselves. Now, almost 4 months on, we can see a bit more clearly, deal a little better, and the time has come to really try to help our big little man.
When a baby dies, no one knows what to do or say. And we are the same. G and I are often lost for words in how to reply to peoples often sobbed expressions of condolences. I usually murmur "thanks" before hurriedly changing the subject back to them. Likewise, we didn't know what to say to Xav. Our parents had to tell him Poppy had died, since they were looking after him when she was born. He fronted at the hospital saying, "I understand everything mum. The baby died. But we will have another one." He didn't want to see her, and we didn't want to force him. He actually thought the whole thing was quite exciting initially; staying at Grandparents, lots of visitors, a big party. To a 5 year old, I can imagine how great all those treats must have seemed.
What is the right way to explain death to a child? Xav is a bright boy, and remarkably in tune with the feelings of those around him. He knew something bad had happened on the day Poppy died. He will often curl up on my lap when he knows I am having a tough day. We can't hide our grief from him anymore than we could hide the pregnancy. But what is the right way to help him cope?
Initially it was about him understanding what had happened. He knew Poppy was sick. And when she died, we told him her heart was too broken to work and she died and went to heaven. In his head the baby Jesus comes and picks up people who die, kind of like a heavenly chauffeur, and we are OK with that. We have given him a general understanding of the main parts of Christianity, I suppose, but we try to let him make sense of it. To him, God and Baby Jesus are there to look after us when we die. We read him, "We were going to have a baby, but we had an angel instead", which is a great book aimed at his age group and as we were happy to call Poppy an angel, it worked for us. Poppy brought Xavier a pink bear, his Poppy Bear, which he can cuddle when he misses her. And we have a memory box with her special things; her clothes, her hand prints and footprints and casts, some photos and a few other bits and pieces. He likes looking at that.
But beyond that? We give him a chance to talk. Most nights he sits on my lap and we have 'Question Time'. He can ask me anything he wants to know about, no holds barred. And he has asked some wonderful questions, and we thought we were getting him through. Until 2 weeks ago when he said to me, "Mum, why didn't I get to hold Poppy? I want to cuddle her and play with her." Bam, back to square one.
Did we make the right choice, not having Xav meet Poppy? Did we give him too much choice? Maybe we should have encouraged him a little more to see her, at least. But truthfully we were relieved he didn't want to see her. We were worried he would have the image of his dead sister in his mind forever. What should we have done? But it's not like we can change it now. But I can regret it. And Xav might too.
My big little man, who has been our enduring strength through all of this heartache, who deserves so much better than having to deal with this, is trying his best. His school counsellor thinks he's not grieving at all, and just responding to our grief, like a naughty little boy, playing up to get attention. I disagree, I have to say. She doesn't look into those big blue eyes and see the sadness at not having a playmate at home, at not having Poppy here. Sure he responds to our grief, but I think he responds with a little of his own. When he says, "Mum, I hope our next baby doesn't die," I grieve the innocence he should have, that I wish I had. When he's old enough to have children of his own, will he remember this and his joy at being a father be marred by the loss of his little sister so many years before? I wish I knew.
All I know is that I don't know if I'm doing this the right way, because there is no right way. Xav, G and I are finding the way that's right for us. It's an awful, awful path to walk, and I am hoping that by walking it together, that will be right enough.