Thursday, June 11, 2020

An Older Baby Sister: Teaching My Toddler About Loss

From the moment I found out I was pregnant with Hank, I pondered, questioned, and let's face it, stressed out, over how we would tell our son about Hadley. I never wanted our oldest to be a secret, something dark and depressing in our family's story. We talk about Hadley, we have photos of Hadley, and we let it be known to Hank that he does in fact have a big sister. But here's where the waters get muddied. How come his sister doesn't live with us? How come we go to visit her at the cemetery? How come Hadley is older than Hank but still a baby? TOUGH STUFF, right? I'm not a psychologist and I don't know if we're handling it the right way, because honestly? There is no "right way" when it comes to child loss. It rocked AJ and I to our core and we've just been doing our best to do what we think is best. For us. For Hank. For Hadley's memory. Here are some things we've done to address this difficult topic with Hank....

-We visit Hadley: Every time we pass a cemetery (any cemetery), Hank says, "Hi baby girl, I love you!" It's such a sweet thing. He knows that Hadley's spot is where we go to feel close to her and remember her. We talk about how it's such a pretty spot under the tree and a peaceful place to think about her. 

-We look at Hadley's Photo Book: I made a photo book for us and our families the summer after Hadley was born. We almost always look at it right alongside Hank's baby photo book. We want him to feel positive and know that mom and dad had 2 babies and they each have their own photo books from when they were just born. I found that looking at the books together has been helpful with questions Hank has had. 

-We talk about Heaven and Jesus: Hank knows Hadley is in heaven with Jesus. We tell him she got sick so she had to go be with Jesus instead of here where she was too sick. 

-We celebrate traditions: Throughout the years we have developed traditions relating to Hadley that mean a lot to AJ and I and I hope as Hank grows they will be meaningful to him as well. On Hadley's birthday we go visit her and leave flowers and a small gift item. We have dinner at Buca di Beppo and come home and sing her happy birthday and light a special candle that we only light on her birthday. At Christmas, we keep a small tree at our house with an H ornament. On Christmas Eve we bring it to her. The past few years I've tried to do something like a hike or something to keep my mind occupied on her bithday. These things help us to be mindful of Hadley's memory in our lives and the predictability helps me cope with what can be a super hard days. 

-We answer his questions honestly but appropriately. As a teacher I believe so strongly in child-friendly language. Kid brains aren't meant to take in all this "adult stuff." It's important to be honest, but I don't want to frighten Hank. I never want him to think that getting sick means he'll never recover, nor do I want him distressed by Hadley's loss. I want him to know how many people prayed for our family, how incredible our doctors and nurses were, and that there are so many kind people out there to keep us safe and to help us. One day we'll discuss the particulars-the how and why Hadley passed, more details of her final hours etc. But I'm an adult and I still rarely let my brain go to some of those details. They are there, but accessing them each time I think of Hadley is far too painful (That is a testament to some intensive PTSD therapy). 

I want to give a huge shout out to the movie Coco. It's a family favorite around here and we have referenced it so many times when talking to Hank about visiting Hadley. We talk about how Miguel and his family go to the cemetery to remember their loved ones. In the movie, Miguel learns that those who have passed on are always present with him, guiding him. and supporting him. I think this movie is a brilliant way to discuss death with young children. 

It is my sincere hope that growing up with this hole in our family will make Hank more compassionate, understanding, and resilient. My first time going to a cemetery was in 2016 to choose a plot for my daughter. Death was completely foreign to me. Hank, on the other hand, has known it from birth. It will shape him. And I pray it helps strengthen his character as a man of God and an empathetic human who knows how beautiful and precious each day truly is. 

Savor Your Sparkle,
Leslie 

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