Conversations with 6-year-olds

I joined Eleanor at school for lunch today. Her school encourages parents to come for lunch, though I rarely do because I want her to gain independence. We already spend a lot of time together. Also, I have plenty of other things to do such as writing, cleaning the house, and eating all of the chocolate.

I knew she would be thrilled by the surprise, especially on this long week back after winter break. She looked twice when I walked into the cafeteria. Was this happening? Yes! I sat across from her, and her friends immediately began to talk. One of them had a birthday today, and so the others had to tell me their birthdates, and there was a bunch of chatter about a book that they had read last year about a runaway gingerbread man. The kids were breathless with all they had to tell me.

I asked Eleanor whether she ever talked at lunch.

“Well, not really. It’s kind of hard,” she said.

No kidding. In the midst of the jabbering, two girls sitting farther down the bench began to ask, “Does Eleanor have a sister?”

At first, I pretended not to hear, a ploy that was believable given the noise bouncing around the cafeteria. The pair persisted. “Eleanor’s mom! Does Eleanor have a sister?”

I paused, considering whether to throw the light switch or keep my middle child tucked safely in the dark. Their asking suggested that Eleanor had talked to them already. How abandoned would she feel if I lied when she had spoken the truth?

“Yes, she does,” I said. They waited. “Her name is Genevieve.”

That seemed to satisfy them, so I left it alone. I try to avoid discussing death with other children. Such a personal topic. We all have our own beliefs. I know that Eleanor mentions Genevieve to other children though, and I have heard her argue with her disbelieving friends. It pierces me.

I’ve been handed this child who is so sensitive, and I want to tell her that she should keep her sister a secret, not for the sake of other people but for her own protection. But there are happy secrets, and there are sad secrets, and sad secrets always seem to imply guilt or shame. We cannot talk about this because other people will think we are weird or crazy. In my own life, I use circumstances to decide when to introduce Genevieve. That’s a difficult and painful judgement for me to make, so I’m not going to ask a 6-year-old to try it. I am teaching my daughter to speak the truth even when it makes other people uncomfortable. I am teaching her to speak the truth even when it makes me uncomfortable.

I tell myself that this will be best for her — and for our family — in the long run. I worry that I am being selfish, that my own personal interest in keeping Genevieve’s memory alive will hurt my living kids. I worry that they will feel they weren’t enough for me despite the daily parade of kisses and hugs and “I love you’s.” There’s a reason — many reasons, really — that parenting books don’t touch this topic.

Maybe my children would feel safer if I kept this hidden. Maybe they would feel happier if when they asked me what I wanted most, I said “a vacation” or “a diamond” or even “world peace.” Then they wouldn’t really know me, and that seems a huge loss, too. Even after going through all of this with Eleanor, I find my tongue glued to the roof of my mouth when Henry points at the framed footprints that belong to Genevieve. He doesn’t yet understand, and I will have to help him make sense of this thing that seems impossible even to me. Your sister died. We lived.

3 thoughts on “Conversations with 6-year-olds

  1. Thank you for this! I have struggled with the same thing with my son (who is six, like Eleanor, and was three when our twin boys died). We have a new baby too, and I can’t even fathom how we will explain it to her. She grabs at the necklace I wear in their memory and I say something about “that’s the necklace I wear for your brothers” but the necklace is concrete when her brothers are an abstract idea at best.

    My son often has the opposite response, he doesn’t mention his brothers at school or with people he doesn’t know well, as far as I can tell. In fact, someone pointed at his baby sister once and asked “what’s your brother’s name?” And he replied “I don’t have a brother, that’s my sister.” Gut wrenching for me to overhear but I think he just meant that the baby isn’t his brother, she’s his sister. It’s hard not to think I’m screwing him up in some way with how I’ve grieved, but I have to do what I have to do for me first.

    Thanks for continuing to write about this, it helps immensely.

  2. We are so on the same one, Sarah. In fact, I had a Blm friend over today and I asked Ben to tell her his sisters’ names. He responded: “Lydia and Josephine. Lydia died.”

    It took my breath away.

    But it is true and as he gets older, he understands more and more. And like you said, I don’t want to teach him to not tell the truth for fear of making others uncomfortable. I loved how he said this today, how it just all flowed and how he didn’t pause. I hope he can hold on to that but I have a feeling it will get tougher.

  3. My son is five (he was three when his sister died) and my younger son is seven months. I started crying when I read this post. Thank you so much for writing it.

    I love how you said that if we were to hide them, then our living children wouldn’t really know us. I also struggle with how much to talk about my Josephine, in fear of making my other children feel that they aren’t enough.

    My oldest is also sensitive, and he talks about our Josie a lot. I’ve often wondered if this will change as he gets older. As he begins to recognize the shock on their faces, if he will ever feel any of the shame or discomfort that none of us deserve.

    Thank you again, for your writing.


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