This morning I woke up with my two year old daughter, G, snuggled up next to me. “Good morning, Mama,” she said. And then, out of the blue, “I went to the hospital to see you. You weren’t feeling well. And you cried. I wanted to hold Theo but I wasn’t big enough.” More than three months have passed, and her memory of that day is still vivid. With an aching heart, I reminded her that the reason she couldn’t hold Theo is because he died. I told her she was still his big sister and reminded her that she got to sit on Daddy’s lap while Daddy held Theo, so she would be able to see and touch him.
“He had a little cut on his nose,” she said.
“Yes, he did.”
“I still can be his sister.”
“You’ll always be his big sister.”
When we first found out that Theo died, Nate and I had a conversation about whether the kids should come to see him after he was born. We decided that the older kids could choose for themselves whether to come, and we decided that it was probably not something that G needed to experience. We figured she was too young to understand and probably would not remember it anyway. But after both of the older kids came to meet Theo and have their pictures taken with him, we realized that G needed to come. Even if she didn’t remember, we worried that someday she would resent the fact that the other kids had pictures with Theo and she didn’t. So we had my in-laws bring her to the hospital to meet him.
After a stressful night with not enough sleep, G was in tired toddler mode. She was fussy, grumpy, and uncooperative. But when Nate’s mom put her on his lap while he held Theo, she quieted down immediately. She just looked and looked at Theo, then reached her hand out and touched him ever so gently. We tried to explain to her that Theo died, and I could see her little brain trying to make sense of this baby next to her who didn’t look quite like the other babies she had seen and held. I felt like I had let her down. Lied to her. All these months we had talked about how she was going to be a big sister, about Theo’s birth and all of the things that would come after. Even though she was only two, she had expectations for his life as well.
For the first couple of weeks after I came home from the hospital, she asked about Theo a lot. She couldn’t seem to understand where he was. Was he in my tummy? Was he at the hospital? We kept explaining that Theo was not in my tummy anymore, that he died and he would not be able to come live with us like we had planned. She (and the other kids, for that matter) really connected with the idea that Theo was in Heaven with Nana. For G, this was something she could grasp. She remembered Nana and understood that she couldn’t see Nana anymore, so she started to realize that she also wouldn’t be able to see Theo anymore.
After Theo died (and after my mom died as well), everyone told us that G wouldn’t really understand and, therefore, it probably wouldn’t affect her very much. I have not found that to be true. Death and grief have been continually present in her life, and they have affected her and shaped her worldview. For example, one night last week, I was taking her upstairs for bed. She always chooses a different doll or stuffed animal to sleep with. That night, she picked up one of her favorite dolls and gasped, “Mama! My baby died!” I don’t know many other two year olds whose pretend play includes the death of their baby dolls.
G also recognizes death in movies and asks questions about it. At the beginning of Frozen, when Anna is unconscious, she asked, “Why did Anna die?” We explained that Anna didn’t die, she was just sleeping. Similarly, we recently watched Finding Nemo as a family. When A and M were younger, I always skipped the part in the movie where Nemo’s mom dies because I thought it was too sad. But this time, we watched that scene. G immediately asked me, “Mama, where is Coral? Did she die?” I explained that yes, she died. “Why did she die and go to Heaven?” G asked. I told her that people don’t choose to die, but that sometimes it just happens.
“Nana and Theo died and went to Heaven,” she said. “I can’t see them anymore.”
“That’s right,” I said, hugging her. “But they will always love you and you will always love them.”
“I will always love them,” she repeated.