Grief is an exclusive journey, and each person approaches it differently. I accepted this concept after our firstborn was preterm and died after birth. Like many couples, my husband’s and my grief seemed to contrast from time to time. I was very open, and Kurt was more selective. It took time for me to appreciate the way he handled his grief. While we approached our individual grief in varying ways, we agreed to openly talk about Leland with our children.
Our grief experiences became especially unique as I saw it being processed through my children’s eyes.
My daughter’s seventh birthday was just a few days away, and we had yet to complete the shopping for her birthday presents. I looked over to Ian and tilted my head towards the door and mouthed to him, “Come along.” I flung my black Lulu everyday pack over my chest and grabbed the car keys. He hastily shuffled his feet to the foyer and donned on his sneakers. We successfully snuck out without causing a scene and hopped into the car.
When he was little, one of the ways to defuse the sibling rivalry at birthdays was to name him the “Birthday Helper.” The helper played an important role and helped pick out the decorations and gifts, wrap presents, and set up the birthday decor. Because he and Victoria were now in school, the role primarily belonged to my youngest child, Grant. However, during dinner, Ian realized he had not been involved in any of the planning for Victoria’s birthday and suggested we go out that night. I loved how, as he was getting older, he still desired to be a Birthday Helper. I also craved the opportunity to have some one-on-one time.
We lived in a small German village where everything closed by 7 pm, so we had less than an hour. We hurriedly perused through a couple of stores without finding the perfect present and had one more to try. As we drove away from Tedi, a local German craft store, Ian said out loud, “You know what’s weird, mom?” I let out a quick, “Huh, what’s weird?” as I made my way into the roundabout and swiftly onto the second exit leading us to our final store.
His response was firm but filled with a little confusion, “Victoria tells everyone she meets that she has three brothers!”
I initially responded by saying, “Well, she does. She has you, Grant, and Leland.” As I uttered their names, I realized the direction of the conversation. I turned into the next parking lot and squeezed our tiny black hatchback into an open spot. As soon as I turned off the ignition, we both unbuckled our seatbelts in near synchrony. I twisted back towards him and asked, “What do you tell people?” He pondered a second and replied, “I have one brother and one sister.” I felt the urge to go into an explanation but opted to lean into curiosity. Instead, I asked, “How do you feel when Victoria tells people she has three brothers?” His face scrunched as he answered, “It’s just weird, Mom.”
I took it in and let his comment settle. We stepped out of the car, and I made my way towards the store entrance. “You seem uncomfortable when she says this. What about it feels weird?” I was a step ahead of him and peered back as he replied, “Well, what if we’re playing hide and seek with some kids, and they ask how many brothers you have? If she says three, but they only find two of us, what do you tell them then?” I was impressed with his scenario. “I see. You’re expecting that they will want to meet all of her brothers, but they can’t. You could tell them my older brother isn’t here; he died.”
Ian paused, and the sliding glass doors opened to reveal to us a row of multicolored kid-sized shopping carts parked next to the regular carts. Even though he was nearing nine years old, I could still see the parts of him that longed to remain a little kid. I looked at him and said, “Do you want to get your own cart?” At 4’4”, he was much too tall to push this cart, but that did not phase him. With delight in his eyes, he shined a gap-filled smile, grabbed the cart, squatted down to his knees like he was toddler height, and giggled as he pushed the cart. I chuckled and was bewildered at how in a matter of seconds we went from a deep discussion to laughing in the store. During graduate school, a teacher once explained that the best way to have deep or hard conversations with our kids is to have “1,000 one-minute” moments. Tonight, we were having one of these moments.
As we walked through the store, I pieced together in my mind why he was grappling with his sister’s comments.
By telling people she had three brothers, it would require him to address the elephant in the room: where was the third brother? No one would ever be able to meet Leland. So why tell them? I was amazed at how his mind wrestled with this concept. What benefit did it give an elementary kid to share with their friends that their brother died before they were born? What does a 7 or 8-year-old do with that information? When would it be helpful to share? Who deserves to learn this vulnerable part of our family’s story? In some way, these were really hard questions I have struggled to answer for myself. He had no control over the number of siblings he possessed and was now in a weird spot. What he did have control over was deciding if and when he shared this part of his life.
We gathered a few things from my shopping list along with an impulse buy of cookies and tea, but no gift. We walked back to the car with our items stacked in our arms and proceeded home. I knew our initial conversation was not over, and we were only a couple of minutes away from our house. I broached the topic one final time as I turned onto the one-way street leading to our home. “Hey, I just wanted to go back to our conversation earlier about Leland.” Sometimes, circling back does not always lead to further discussion, but I could tell the topic had been weighing on his mind.
Sure enough, he fervently jumped right back in, “Why does she want to tell people that?” he asked.
“That is a good question buddy,” I responded as I pulled onto our driveway and shut off the ignition. “You know what I believe you both are dealing with–,” I hesitated to see if he would finish my sentence, but he remained silent. “Grief.”
I reminded him of the time during the initial days of the pandemic when he helped make a video about grief for our church. He shook his head in agreement. “Do you remember how people can experience emotions differently? Well, it sounds to me like you and Victoria are handling this question differently. For Victoria, it is helpful for her to talk about Leland and include him when people ask her about our family. However, you do not feel comfortable or maybe ready to share that information. That is okay, love. Maybe one day you will, or maybe you won’t. That is up to you on how you decide to talk about Leland.” He remained quiet for a moment. I secretly hoped he was absorbing this information and also releasing any expectation that there was a right or wrong way to deal with it. Ian was unbuckled now and leaned forward between the driver and passenger seat. I stole a kiss on his left cheek, told him I loved him, and we both headed inside.
I always hoped my living children would feel comfortable talking about Leland.
Realistically, I knew they would approach it in their own manner. I understood the abstract idea of Leland was difficult to fully comprehend and their stories would evolve over time. Victoria loved to draw pictures and include Leland. She often asked questions about him or pondered out loud.
When our youngest was four years old, he once hollered out at the playground, “Leland died!” I stood from a distance, mortified and bemused. A little girl near him peeked her head out of the play structure window and asked, “Who is Leland?” Grant responded, “My mom’s lovey. He died in her hands.” She looked at him and responded, “That’s sad.” Then they proceeded to play. I was surprised how he pieced together the idea of his brother, death, and the one tangible item we associated with Leland. With each age, their cognitive development framed their understanding of their brother. It made sense that Ian would now apply logic and reason, and I respected my son’s viewpoint.
That night, I did not manage to come home with a birthday gift, but rather I was grateful for the invitation to witness my son wrestle with what it meant to grow up with a brother he never met. Before children ever ask a question or bring up an idea, they have spent time pondering it alone in their minds. Curiosity allowed me the gift of understanding where my oldest was on his journey. I have had my time to figure out how and when I want to share Leland’s story with others. Now, it was his turn to do so.
- Parenting After Loss: Answering the Question, “How Many Kids Do You Have?”
- 5 Ways To Share Loss Babies With Their Siblings
- Parenting After Loss: Making Space for Both Babies
- How to Talk to Your Living Children About Being Pregnant After a Previous Loss
- Parenting After Loss: Talking Death With Toddlers