Category Archives: Grief

Unfettered

I’ve been researching and writing about potty-training for my job, and I’m thinking back to when we were potty-training Eleanor. I remember little, except that it was a mess. We wanted to have her in underwear before we brought home Genevieve. We also transitioned her to a bed, very much against her will, so that the crib would be available. When we came home from the hospital, I regretted all of it. I wanted back her babyhood.

That year of Eleanor being 2 feels lost. Each day, I got out of bed, took a shower, cried, and pondered whether a mother so sad could raise an emotionally healthy child. Sometimes I wonder whether Eleanor’s sensitive nature stems from that period.

We took fewer photos and fewer videos. In our sitting room, we have a collection of candid family photos on the wall, and there is a picture from every year of Eleanor’s life except that year.

Now that Henry is nearly that same age, I am realizing how much joy I missed. I still have a lot of parenting years in front of me, but the toddler years are my favorite so far. Even with Eleanor, during that horrific time, I loved taking care of a toddler. They have such big personalities, and their goals are so far beyond their capabilities. For all of those parents lamenting the terrible twos, I will take your 2-year-olds. I will take the tantrums and the mispronounced words and the slobbery kisses.

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Henry is obsessed with Santa Claus, and more than once, he has shouted “Santa!” in public while pointing to a white-haired man. When I ask what he wants for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, the answer is usually cashews. And he believes that every problem can be fixed with a screwdriver. “Drivers” happen to be his favorite toy, and he often carries three or four around the house.

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I am so fortunate to get to do this toddler phase again without the fog of grief clouding everything. And I am hopeful that I will remember more this time around. If not, I have this.

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.

Seeking the like-minded

I’ve read that some parents who go through a stillbirth want to move immediately to restart their lives. When I was pregnant with Genevieve, we actually were talking about moving for a job opportunity. As soon as she died, we dropped talk of the move because I imagined becoming a recluse in a new city. I was only leaving the house — reluctantly — because my friends invited me out. And I liked having around a lot of people who remembered Genevieve. Still, I sometimes recognize why people would choose to move.

I took the kids to their favorite park this morning. It’s far from our house, so we typically don’t see people we know. A few minutes after we arrived, I saw a familiar mom, though I don’t know her name. Her daughter had gone to the same preschool and gymnastics place as Eleanor. I originally met her the summer that I was pregnant with Genevieve. Our girls would work on their puzzles side by side at the library each week. After I had Genevieve, she was one of the few relative strangers who talked to me about it. Now, I always feel happy to see her. She doesn’t know my name, but she knows that I have another daughter.

Later, I saw another familiar stranger. Her son went to the same preschool as Eleanor. I had also seen her at a barre exercise class a few months ago, as well as out running errands in her pint-size SUV. I had commented to Greg that it was strange she still drove that tiny SUV. She had two sons when Eleanor was in preschool, and she was due with a daughter the summer before Eleanor began kindergarten. How was she fitting three carseats in that thing? “Maybe something happened,” Greg said. I waved him off.

At the park today, she had only the two boys. I watched for a while, waiting to see a daughter toddle past. Nope. I already had Genevieve on my mind from the earlier encounter, and I wanted to approach this mom. Eleanor began preschool after I had Genevieve, so none of the parents there had known our story. What if I asked about the daughter and she had died? I should keep my mouth shut. But if her daughter had died, wouldn’t she be grateful to find another mom who understood? I expected to be able to somehow see the loss on her face, and I couldn’t.

Eleanor and Henry ran to play in the same area as her kids. I took off my sunglasses.

“It is you,” she said. “I couldn’t tell for sure with the sunglasses.”

She was with a friend, and she said they had just been complimenting my hairstyle. She asked about Henry, who had been a tiny nugget the last time she saw him. I pointed him out. At this point, the question begged to be asked.

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but the last time I saw you, you were pregnant…” I began.

“Yes,” she said, starting to laugh. “We sold her off!” she joked. “No, she’s at home with my husband, napping. She’s 15 months and doing all sorts of adorable things.”

I smiled and got out of there as quickly as I could. I almost told her that my own daughter had died. I stopped myself. The implication would be clear. How ugly that would sound to her, my assumption that her daughter had died.

Sometimes I do feel like an ugly person for hoping to find other parents who have lost a baby. But then I also like to find parents with 6-year-old children and with boisterous toddlers, people who can understand this phase of life. I’m not wishing for babies to die. I’m merely hoping to find resonance.