My five-year-old daughter is my second child, born just 16 months after her big brother, Richard. Every night, as I tuck her in for the umpteenth time, she tells me she has a question for me. It can be as simple as asking me to find her newest piece of artwork downstairs or as difficult as asking why her brother died.

Two little girls looking at a rainbow - Parenting After Loss: How I'm Normalizing Grief in my Household

Author’s Personal Collection/Jackie Mancinelli

As we neared Richard’s 7th birthday, my daughter would ask daily about her brother. On one of our nighttime tuck-in rituals, she asked a barrage of hard-hitting questions:

“Mom, why did Richard die?”
“His heart stopped, sweetie. You know that you cannot live if your heart stops beating.”
“I know that, but why did his heart stop? Was he sick?”

Navigating these conversations is always difficult, but in the dark, my mind raced as my eyes brimmed with tears. How do I tell a five-year-old that her baby brother hemorrhaged inside of my body? The simple explanation for death no longer satisfied her. In a sense, he was “sick,” but I couldn’t tell her that because then she would fear her next illness. I tried to think of the simplest way to explain it.

“You know how your body has blood in it?”
She laughed, “Of course!”
“Well, Richard’s blood started to leave his body and went into my body when he was still in my belly.”
“Why? Did he have a cut?”
“No, and we don’t know why it happened. We know that it is very rare, so it doesn’t usually happen to babies. His blood went from his body through the umbilical cord.”

I could sense the confusion building in her, so I took my phone from my pocket and looked up an image of the umbilical cord to explain.

“You see this cord? It goes from the baby’s body to the mommy’s body. All of the nutrients go from the mommy’s body to the baby’s body to help it grow. Your brother’s blood went through this cord and into my body. You had a cord, too. It was attached here,” and I poked her belly button as she giggled.

She then surprised me and declared, “You know what? I’m not your first baby. I’m actually your second because Richard is the first. I always thought I was the first, but I’m not. He’s seven and I’m five.”
“Yes, that’s right! You are a little sister and a big sister.”
“I wish Richard were here, Mom. He’s missing so many fun things.”
The finality of the statement hit me. “I know, me too,” and I began to sniffle as tears streamed down my cheeks.
“Mom, are you crying?”
“Yes, but it’s okay. I am sad because I miss him, but I like to talk about him, too.”
“So they’re sad tears and happy tears?”
“Yes, exactly.”

I gave her one final hug and told her I loved her before reminding her that it was finally time to go to bed.

As I went downstairs, I felt a massive weight settle on my shoulders. A series of questions buzzed through my brain: Am I a good mom? Is it okay to talk about Richard like this? Is this normal?

Am I a good mom?

Yes. As my children grow older, these kinds of conversations are happening more often. It is difficult to know exactly what to do because there are so few resources available for loss parents that are parenting living children. I discuss everything with my husband to see if we can agree on specific responses or how to tackle certain situations. I talk with other loss parents to see if they have any advice or can share what works best for them. I also talk to child grief professionals that I work with via my nonprofit to ensure that I am doing the best by my children. I do not think that anyone ever feels confident as a parent 100% of the time, but I know that I am doing a good job for my children.

Is it okay to talk about Richard like this?

Yes. Before our oldest daughter was born, my husband and I decided to always be open about Richard. We never wanted to be secretive about his existence. We just were not sure how to go about it. It began with visiting his plaque and decorating it with our daughter. When she could say names, we taught her how to say, “Richard.” Once I began my nonprofit work, I told her how I help families like ours and I tell Richard’s story to other parents. I now try to approach her questions with honesty, but always being mindful of her age.

Is this normal?

Yes. This is the right approach for my family. Everyone is different, but this is how we wish to handle grief in our household. I hope that my children can see me embracing my emotions, loving all of my children unconditionally, and working to ensure their big brother’s memory is honored. I also want them to see all facets of who I am as a mother – the one who can make homemade cookies is also the one who can cry when looking at an old picture. The one who reads them bedtime stories is also the one who does random acts of kindness on their brother’s birthday. I am their mother, but I am also Richard’s mother – those identities can never be separated. It is who I am.

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