“No, mommy, I don’t.”

These words in response to the question I posed to my son, “Do you have a sister?” sting. I feel myself instinctively recoiling, feeling like I just got punched in the gut. I try to recover as tears sting my eyes, as anger and pain hit me, as my worst fears come to life in front of me. I tell him that he does, ask him if he remembers Colette, and while I catch a glimpse of realization, ultimately, I drop it and move on.

Child holding a parent's hand - Parenting After Loss: Building a Legacy

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This happens in the evening of a particularly tough day of parenting. This kid, who has always been so happy, carefree, and sweet, is now three and is definitely testing boundaries and forming his own personality. This second half of the terrible threes has come in swinging and it is exhausting us as parents.  So, when after putting him down for the night, he yelled out for me and I went in to change his diaper, I took advantage of some sweet and fun moments we were having. I heard him say something about his best friend at school and her sister, and after he uttered the word sister a few times, I asked the question.

I finished changing him and put him back down to bed, but the words, “No, mommy,” rang in my head long afterward.

This is what I was most afraid of, what every loss parent fears—that we will be the only ones to remember our babies who are gone, that after we leave this world, our babies will essentially die again with us.

It is one of the reasons why I talk about Colette so often, not just for my own grief, healing, and processing but also so that I do all that I can to ensure her legacy lives on long after me. In the words of one of my favorite musicals (and definitely Elliott’s favorite), Hamilton, he describes a legacy as “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” and as writing “some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” The best way to explain a legacy and what I believe, but if the legacy is to be Colette’s life meaning something for the world, for her to long outlive her very short life, then what happens when my son, Colette’s brother, does not seem to be willing to harvest that garden, to finish that song?

I have thought a lot about this (and cried a ton) in the days after this statement. Yes, I know enough about child development and have talked to enough experts that I understand his ability to conceptualize that he has a sister when he cannot see her is tough. I know because I have seen them that when he talks about his BFF having a sister, he can actually see the sister. He can visualize that mom or dad drops off two kids in the morning and picks up two kids in the evening. So, when he starts to recognize and identify those relationships as siblings, how could he understand that he also has a sibling when that visual is lost?

And I should know better on this point because, as I have discussed before and as I feel often, adults have a difficult time conceptualizing that we have more than one child when they only see Elliott.  So how can we put those same concepts that other adults struggle with onto a three-year-old?

While I logically follow that, for me, the pain comes from feeling like while others have been short-sighted or fearful or disgusted by the talk of including Colette and Sweet Pea in our family, it feels like for Elliott, it should be different. There should be some sort of sibling bond that supersedes all of the other nonsense, something that he does not need to see, just feel that tells him he has siblings, that connects him to Colette.  But, I also know that I am taking my own experiences as a sibling and imposing them onto Elliott’s experience.

My sister and I have always had a deep bond, one that has only deepened with time. The night before I delivered Colette, my sister called me, and when I answered, she was frazzled, asking me if everything was okay because she had a sense that the baby was coming. I, in turn, had the strong feeling the day before her water broke early (thanks PPROM!) that something was not right. And I could go on and on about all of the sister intuition moments we have had back and forth, but that is not the standard for all siblings, regardless of whether they are earthside or not. While we have it, and I am grateful for it, I know many other siblings, even siblings who have the best relationships, who have never felt that connection and intuition. So, regardless of whether Colette was here or not, I have to let go of what my experience has been and remind myself that even if they were both here today, they still may not have what I have idealized as the template of sibling experiences.

Most of all, though, the feeling that remains after this experience is one of anger.

I am angry at the fact that I have to navigate this world, this life without all of my children. I am angry that I constantly have to correct people who say that Elliott is my only child. I am angry that sometimes I do not correct others because I am too tired, too triggered, just want to be “normal,” and then feel guilt long afterwards that I did not do the explanation. I am angry that my daughter is not here with me. I am angry that I am forever the woman with the dead kid and that I have to experience what that is like when so often, I would love to present to the world as anyone else but that. And although this may not make sense to many people, I am angry at Elliott for his answer, for not knowing and holding space for all the things we have told him, for his sister, for our family. I know he is only three, but just like I did not lose Colette once but to lose her over and over again as the milestones come and go, as, when he said “No,” it felt like he was denying Colette’s existence at every stage of his life and that cut deep and opened up the greatest fears I have had.

So, today, I am sharing this so that other loss parents do not have that fear that I have had over children not always acknowledging or wanting to speak about their angel siblings, but also because we are all trying to do our best and need to focus more on what the intention than on the successes or failures. And find your loss parent friends who will not only understand where you are coming from, but who will also take some of the weight of feeling like you are the only one who will protect your babies’ memories because they will love your angel babies too.

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