By Maureen Day
I have only a few memories of my sister, Patti; really just glimpses that I recall… jumping rope in the kitchen and getting in trouble, laughing on the couch, seeing her sick lying on my mom and dad’s bed. Then, she was gone. I was only 4 years old when she died at the age of eight, unexpectedly from Reye Syndrome - sudden brain damage occurring from the use of aspirin to treat chicken pox. I didn’t understand any of this, of course, at the time. I only knew she was gone and so were her pictures and that every time I said her name,
my mom would cry and my older brother would get very angry with me. So, I quickly learned and followed along. I was afraid to ever have a friend named Patti, not wanting to speak her name but kept my angel sister close to my heart and would talk to her at night. As I grew, sometimes I would secretly whisper to my mom asking about her when no one was around. She always cried and I always felt so badly about that, but my desire to know compelled me to choose hurting my mother rather than go on pretending. It became our secret and she would tell me small, beautiful details about her. Like how much my older sister loved me and had fun playing with me. And the time she dreamed about her… she had her blonde hair all in curls just like my mom always liked to fix it, and she walked in the back door, came directly over to my mom and without a word, gently kissed her cheek. She believed this was Patti’s way of saying good-bye. We rarely spoke of her, but when we did it was so healing and just felt so right inside even though I was convinced what I was doing was so wrong. To avoid the pain I believed I was inflicting on my mother, I would sneak around and ask neighbors what happened, rummage through her bottom dresser drawer and find pictures of her and sweet little notes and drawings she had made that my mom had tucked away. I just needed to know as much as I could.
Eight years ago I lost my baby, Katie, at 11 weeks. I was devastated and surprised at just how deep was my pain and sense of loss. I felt compelled to do something with my experience and try to help others who were grieving in the same way. But it wasn’t until I attended a class called Children & Grief that I had a personal epiphany, a revelation connecting so many dots in my life. I learned that if you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve. It was explained that at the age of four children process through repetition – which was why I kept asking over and over again about my sister. And as children develop and death can be more clearly understood, they need honest explanations so their minds don’t just fill in the blanks, which can be scarier than the reality. And at each stage of development, children need to be allowed to grieve all over again. Denying grief and loss only postpones, never eliminates. The only way to move through it is to acknowledge, talk, cry, and FEEL every emotion that comes along on the grief journey. Having a support system, opportunities to share and express grief, a stable environment, information about death, and encouragement to just be a “kid” will allow children to mourn in a healthy way.
My parents were wonderful, loving people and I don’t blame them in any way. They did the best they knew to do and times were different then in the way people dealt with death. But as a child of loss in an environment that did not allow for healthy grieving, without even realizing it, I had been prepared for being a parent experiencing loss. Somehow I instinctively knew that I NEEDED to acknowledge my baby, talk about her, keep her part of our family, express my love for her, and openly grieve her loss. I am so thankful for my sister Patti and the lessons her young life taught me that will last me and allow me to serve others for the rest of my life.
How do you share the memory of your baby with his/her siblings?