E and M experience the death of their sister in such different ways. For M, Anja’s death – and Anja herself – is an abstract concept. He knows she was his sister, but it’s clear that also confuses him; he has a living, breathing, running, loving, shouting, laughing, helping, playing sister and Anja is not a sister like that at all. What kind of sister is she, then? He will often give me a stone or shell and say he found it for the ‘Anja jar.’ In the summer, we saw cemeteries on the side of the road throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and he was curious: ‘what are all those stone places, Mommy?’ I explained to him how people’s dead are buried there and he suggested we could put Anja there, too. It was a very polite suggestion. It was clearly intended to help me. He knows that sometimes I’m sad about Anja and he wanted to help me. M is sometimes – maybe often – confused about Anja’s death, existence, and place in our family, but it is a gentle confusion – or seems to be: he is quietly perplexed.
For E, everything is so different. Turbulent, frustrating, unjust. I was upset with E the other day because she and her brother kept screaming and squealing over my attempt to facetime with my sister, who lives in NY. I said to E, ‘she’s my sister and I rarely get to talk to her.’ E snapped back: ‘well, do I ever get to talk to my sister?’ E’s turned into a clam of late; she doesn’t want to talk about how she feels very often, and it’s harder than it used to be to know what she thinks, how she’s understanding her loss these days.
Yesterday on the way to school we talked about Christmas plans and how we would buy gifts for some children whose families couldn’t afford presents this year (through the Christmas Bureau). There’s a Christmas tree at the Granville Island kids market that is decorated with cards saying ‘girl, aged 4,’ ‘boy, aged 11’ which you can choose off the tree and shop for in the market. E wants to do that and choose a ‘girl, aged 6’ – ‘because 6 is the age I most remember being,’ she adds. ‘6 is how old Anja would turn in January, too,’ I said. E’s face changes, and I wonder: is she thinking about what 6 was for her, what it might have been for Anja? I know E wanted to buy a present for a girl Anja’s age, too, but I’m not sure she realized Anja would be 6 and whatever she was thinking, it was clear her thoughts were swirling around, keeping her busy. Her face was a bit crumpled, eyebrows drawn in. For E, the loss is tangible in a way it isn’t for M. She remembers me pregnant. And most of all, she remembers how it was when Anja died. The intense grief that took over our lives and home. That grief – my grief – had such an impact on her. It becomes increasingly clear to me how the period of time where I kind of checked out (it wasn’t very long and it was for my own survival, I tell myself over and over) shook her to her core. She was only 3. She needed her mama. And I was there…but I was also gone. There’s an insecurity in E that I feel sure traces straight back to that time when I wanted nothing more than to run into the forest and cry all day and night amongst the trees or to check myself into a hotel room – in my fantasies it was an all-white hotel room, white furniture, white rugs, white beddings, no art – and be by myself for as long as I needed. I was with her, all the time, but I was far away, too, desperate to be with her sister who had become so completely unreachable, so permanently distant. There’s a desperation in E when she’s stressed that comes, I think, from feeling abandoned in some important ways, and there’s an anger in her when she’s frustrated that comes from the total unfairness of the death of her sister. E was so excited to be a big sister. To have a little sister. She talked nonstop about what she and her sister would do while I was pregnant. She saved dolls and toys for her. She helped organize her room to make space for a sister. I’ll never forget her face when we told her there was a sister for her in my tummy. Her huge, beaming smile. ‘We can call her Balloon,’ she yelled, gleefully. I remember the dance parties we used to have, before Anja died. We’ve never had one quite like those pre-grief ones. Something went missing with Anja and E knows it, felt it, lived it. We don’t dance with the same abandon since Anja died.
On our walk to school yesterday, while we talked about the giving tree at Granville Island and buying presents and Anja, aged 6, M was on his bike. He was thoughtful, but distracted; interested, but not invested in the same way E was. He could ride ahead, wait for us, catch up on the conversation, move in and out. But E was different. She said, ‘we’d have to move again if Anja was 6. She wouldn’t want to share with a little brother.’
‘Well, you two would probably be sharing,’ I suggested, and she thought about that, quiet, in her own head. ‘We’ll never know how things would have turned out,’ I said, gently. ‘Life is so strange like that. You could turn one corner one morning instead of another and your whole life could change completely. Everything changed for us when Anja died. We were going one way, and now we’re going another.’
This is real for E in a a way it is not for M. If I had a nickel for everyone who said, ‘at least you have E,’ when Anja died… I wanted to shout at them, ‘well, what about her? Now she has to figure this out and live with this, too.’ I was – and am – so unequipped to help. And not only does she have to deal with the loss of a sister she wanted so badly, she had to deal with the loss of her mother. I can’t imagine the confusion, the anxiety, she must have felt.
And the other platitude: ‘well, she’ll develop empathy in a way other kids her age won’t; this loss will teach her to look out for others.’ Ok, maybe, but she didn’t need that. She didn’t need to be taught a lesson through the death of her sister and the temporary implosion of her family.
M didn’t experience those things. He gets to experience the loss of his sister as something his family has already begun to process. We’ve established the narrative of her loss. We have ways of telling her story, gentle ways, ways that integrate her into our family, into the world. I can tell her story without sobbing or wanting to scream. I can hug him while I tell him. E lived through the untellable times with us, the times where I had nothing to say but screams and sobs. There was no gentleness for her. We tried, yes, but she wasn’t fooled.
I met someone last week whose first son was stillborn. She said to me, ‘and you had a living child, that must have been so difficult to navigate.’ Something inside me stopped at that statement and listened: I think that was the first time someone started there, with ‘it must have been hard to parent a living child in that grief’ instead of with ‘weren’t you lucky,’ at least in some way. It was never lucky for E, and she was not a consolation prize for me. She was her own little grieving person.
E and I walked the rest of the way to school, holding hands, M just ahead on his bike, in his dinosaur rain coat and with the pink streamers flying on the side of his handlebars. I think she and I were thinking the same things: loss, wonder, grief, love and the terrible/wonderful way that it is all out of our control.