This is a post I started around Christmas and just now finished...I'm posting it now especially for a friend missing her babies.
We’ve entered a new developmental stage with Avery and Lily…a new stage of grief that had not been present up to this point. I knew it would come and I assume that it will come again and again as they get older, as their beliefs solidify in their hearts, and their understanding of the world around them continues to shape and form. The question stopped me in the middle of the kitchen. I was busily preparing dinner for our family and my dad and stepmom, who were visiting from North Carolina for the holidays. I popped in an educational DVD I contributed to for families about to leave the NICU. It is full of the important topics like breastfeeding and nutrition, immunizations and follow up appointments.
In the course of the program I share our personal journey with prematurity and coming home with three medically fragile babies. I tell the whole story, their early birth, extended NICU stay, and Zoe’s death. I wanted the girls to see it because a lot of their photographs were used throughout the video and even some footage of them this summer, running and laughing in the backyard.
As the video came to an end I walked to the kitchen to begin setting thetable. Within moments I felt Lily at my side, holding on tightly to my thigh; she looked up at me with her big blue eyes and long brown eyelashes that seem to go on for miles. Her sweet, small voice asked “Mommy, why did you say in that video, Zoe died?”
Wham! It hit me, like a dodgeball aimed right at mygut. We never used the words death, dying, dead, die, or died with them when talking about Zoe. We have always simply told them Zoe was in Heaven with Jesus, a phrase they’ve come to adopt as their own at times. All the books and articles I have read on child grief have said to tell them the truth. Do not sugar coat it, do not make it seem scary, do not tell them the person who died went on a long trip or went to sleep. Do not tell them only old people die, do not tell them they are up in the clouds. Tell them the truth. Teach them the difference between being sick with a cold and having a terminal illness.
I had only seconds to figure out what I was to say and in those few seconds I took a deep breath, and said a quick prayer with my exhale. I quite simply asked the Lord for wisdom. I fumbled over my words, I don’t know if I said the right things…but I told her the truth.
I got down on my knees, right at her eye level, my hands clasped gently around her waist and said “Sweetie, I said that because Zoe did die. She died and now she’s in Heaven.”
“But Mommy, why did she die?”
“Zoe got very, very, very sick. A different kind of sick than we get. And now she’s in Heaven.”
I sat down on the floor in the middle of the kitchen and pulled Lily tenderly onto my lap. She buried her head in my shoulder, clung tightly to my sleeve and cried. For the first time she cried about her sister, Zoe. Her soft whimpers coming from that deep place inside that my own cries come from. Sadness washed over her and the blanket of innocence that protects our children from the adult issues of the world became a little bit worn, a thread-bare spot was created as a filter of light shone on her understanding of life and death.
A few minutes passed in silence, I stroked her hair, held her tightly to my chest and repeated “I love you so much Lily. And Zoe loves you too. We all love you. Its ok to be sad, its ok to cry, its ok to miss your sister. I miss her too and sometimes I’m sad and I cry too. We all love Zoe and we all love you.”
Slowly she turned her face up to me, her creamy skin now splotchy from crying, her crystal clear blue eyes, now red-rimmed with grief and said “I miss my sissy. I want Zoe to come back. When can I go to Heaven Mommy? I want to play with my sister.”
With each statement, each question my heart cracked a little more…nevermind my own grief of missing Zoe, especially at this time of year just weeks before their birthday and Christmas, now my heart was breaking for my living daughters. Seeing grief overtake my little four year old daughter, I thought to myself “little girls should not have to even think about things like this. Why does she have to feel this pain too? I know this pain and it is a deep-seeded pain that stays inside of you. Lord please help me. Please help my daughter. Don’t let me ruin this moment, help me use it to draw us nearer to you and nearer to eachother.”
Avery stood by, looking on, a little perplexed, not quite sure why Lily wasc rying. She lovingly stroked Lily’s hair and held her hand. This moment was awful and yet wonderful at the same time. To be witness to these raw emotions within my girls, the sensitivity and tremendous love they have for one another was astounding.
I kept breathing, slowly. In…..and out…..in…..and out…..in…..and out. I heard God’s whispers in my ear: “Take your time Keira, don’t rush them, don’tworry about dinner, this is more important. Be present. Be available. Honor their feelings, validate their grief, don’t try to fix it. Do everything for them that you wanted done for yourself when your grief was at it highest. Love her. Nothing more is needed, just love her.”
Time passed with a few more questions that I didn’t have answers for. I wished so deeply I could tell her when we were going to go to Heaven and I wish I could tell her if Zoe was a baby or a big girl, if she had a white bed like Lily and Avery, and if she liked todance. My new counselor recently suggested I let the girls make their own memory boxes for Zoe. Something that can be just theirs to keep in a special place. So I brought this up and promised them we would go through Zoe’s boxes and they could pull out one or two of her toys or blankets to sleep with. Lily’s eyes brightened. A tiny smile even found it’s way to her lips. She knows these boxes quite well, they sit high up on a shelf in my closet and only once or twice have I brought them down.
We hugged some more and Lily took me by the hand to the shelves in our living room, she pointed to a photograph of the three of them when they were barely one year old. It was the photo I used for our holiday card in 2007, the only Christmas we had all three at home together. It was the card that served as my birth announcement because I had refused to send an announcement out when they were born as I wasn’t sure they were all going to survive their NICU stay. Imagine that, I waited to make sure I knew, and yet I really didn’t know.
Lily wanted the photograph to sit next to her at the dinner table. When we all sat down to eat and held hands to say the blessing, Lily made Richard and I place a finger on Zoe’s picture to include her in the circle of prayer. She seemed satisfied with my answers to her questions, appeared to like my ideas of finding special Zoe things just for her to keep, and so I think I walked over this hill with her in a positive light. It was only the beginning. The next several days held more moments like this. Moments where Zoe was “present” with us…having a pizza picnic in the playroom she needed her own plate and napkin. Lily and Avery took turns holding her and often passed Zoe to me to hold and hug.
On the day of their school Christmas program, I brought a special birthday snack for their class; pink and purple flower cookies along with a dozen ladybug cookies. All of their classmates hungrily gobbled up the cookies after singing happy birthday to Avery and Lily, while my girls sat quietly and slowly ate theirs. Savoring every drop of sugar that came in contact with their lips! All of the little girls and boys were off playing while my two sat silently with empty plates before them. They whispered something to eachother, that secret bond of sisterhood and being multiples ever-present before my eyes; and then Lily looked at me and said “Mommy, we didn’t sing happy birthday to Zoe. Tell Ms. Winnie Annison, we need to sing to Zoe. Zoe is here and she wants us to sing to her too.”
I obliged with the sting of tears behind my eyes and that familiar tightened throat. Her teacher joined us and we sang to Zoe. On my way out of the school I stopped by the office and offered cookies to the staff. Heather, the director is one of the kindest women I know, with a heart so full of compassion and love for the Lord; she reminds me of Lily in some ways and Lily adores her. She took a ladybug cookie, knowing the significance of that red little bug for our family, and said “I’m sure today was hard. Good, but hard too. I was thinking about you the whole time.” What she doesn’t know is how much that helped me, to acknowledge the bittersweet moments of experiencing Avery and Lily’s“firsts” without their sister, not being afraid of my tears, and offering a hug at just the right moment. Heather blessed me that day with words and an embrace that I know came straight from God.
Avery, Zoe, and Lily