My son says to me, “Mommy, I want to die. I want to go to heaven to see my sister, Mary Rose. I miss my sister.” My son was almost two and a half when he embraced and kissed his newborn sister. Fr. John took Mary Rose to the church when my son was asleep, that fateful Friday that she was born, and when my son woke up the next morning he asked me “Where is my sister? Where is Mary Rose?” We talk about the grief of mothers and fathers, but the siblings have difficult grief to bear without the understanding that adults have about death. If we have trouble processing the death of a loved one, what is it like for our little ones who are grappling with the reality of this big life lesson in their young lives?
I’ve only been to the cemetery once since Mary Rose’s funeral on August 9th. We did not bring our son to the funeral, though he was introduced to his sister and encouraged to be with her in the short time that we were together as a family on the earth plane. Before we went to the cemetery to see her stone in February, I explained to my son that we have a soul and a body. I told him an angel takes the soul up to heaven and that Mary Rose was given a new body with no owies, that heaven is a place where everyone is together with God, but it gets confusing because I also tell him that his sister is here with us, and that God is everywhere. When we went to the cemetery on a Sunday morning, my son was excited when he got out of the car. He looked around frowning at the stone markers and asked, “Where is my sister?” Apparently my discussion of laying the body to rest didn’t do much for my then three-year-old son.
I know that many people bring small gifts to their family members’ gravesites and go often, speaking to their loved ones there, feeling comforted. The cemetery is an important part of many people’s healing. Mary Potter Kenyon writes beautifully about her visits to her husband’s grave in her book Refined by Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her husband died unexpectedly. I wonder if it is different when people expect a loved one to die, as it seems to be with pumping mother’s milk. Perhaps for those of us who know that death is coming, the cemetery is not so critical in our walk through the grief because we start our grieving with the diagnosis. We brought crystal angels and stones to the cemetery and placed them on Mary Rose’s stone, but I left feeling bereft.
After Mary Rose’s death I started noticing feathers all over our yard. This has been my way, to pay attention to nature and to look for gifts and signs. I gathered those feathers believing that Mary Rose gave them to me. They now hang above my desk surrounding an angel sculpture. It is important to follow our individual grief. If grief leads you to the cemetery, then go and be there. If grief leads you somewhere else then that is okay too. Whatever feels right is the path to process the pain and grief of our loved ones’ deaths. We can choose to suppress our sorrow but it stays in our bodies and hearts until it can’t be contained any more. Instead we can sit with grief, breathing into the center of our cracked hearts to begin our healing process. I have chosen to spend this last year grieving my daughter’s death knowing that this is the healthiest path for me and my family. It hurts. I want to run away, but I breathe and stay in my life, because despite my daughter’s death, I love my life.
“How can I go to heaven?” my son asks again. “Can I take a plane? Can I take a train?” I remind him of the angel that is our transportation to heaven and he stares at me trying to figure this out. “I don’t want to stay on earth any more,” he says, “I want to be with my sister.”
There are several children’s books on death and I have read a few, though I hesitate to show them to my son. Many of these books talk about saying goodbye. They focus on the finality of death. For those of us who don’t believe that the relationship with our loved one ends after death, how can we explain the transition of the soul from one life to the next? I continue to love my aunt, Matina; my grandmother, Despina; my daughter, Mary Rose. I feel them. They come to me in my dreams. I hear them whispering through the breeze. There is no end to my relationship with them, and our love continues to grow. I know that for those who don’t believe in the afterlife this might seem strange, but I never thought that this was it. Each life touches one person and then another and another and continues after death through us and through the expansive life of the soul which never ends.
I recently enrolled my son in a grief program called The Healing Chickadee offered by founder, Terry Murphy, through wordbirddelivers.com. (See Resources.) Ms. Murphy’s brother died when she was a little girl and she did not have the language or tools to explore her grief and process her great sadness. My son will receive a bird each month for a year with a story that deals with grief. We received DeeDee first, the chickadee whose grandmother died. She comes with a cardboard bird house to paint and decorate. We love DeeDee. After we received her my son asked “Mommy are you too old? Are you old enough to die?” I tell him that most people die when they are old and I remind him how old his great-grandmother is. I tell him that only God knows when people will die. I am honest because I want him to know the truth that life is messy and chaotic and that tragedy strikes each and every family. We might want to avoid sadness and death but they both creep into our lives eventually.
For the siblings who have their own trauma it is important to talk about the emotions that come up when the children are ready to discuss them. My son seems very shaken when he sees newborns. After a pediatrician’s visit where he saw a newborn in the waiting room my son says “Our Mary Rose didn’t move. Our Mary Rose didn’t cry.” The first time he saw a newborn move her tiny arms, he was startled. His sister could not move from her weak muscles, and then she was still, wrapped in a pink blanket that said Mary Rose.
Sometimes my son says “Mommy I want a baby in our house. Two babies.” Other times it is, “Mommy all your babies will die. If God gives us another baby it will die too.” This is what my son knows. He knows that life is fragile and that babies sometimes die. I imagine that if we have another pregnancy that this will bring up trauma and memories of me weeping for months, stuck in back pain, not wanting to move forward or face what labor would bring. I also know that I will hold his hand and snuggle and tell him that God is in charge, and that every life does what it is supposed to do. For a minute or an hour or several decades, each life has a purpose. Each life will pass from this body and continue on its journey that takes her both far away and very near to our hearts.
In the Orthodox Christian liturgy we pray for the living and the dead at each service. Somewhere in the hymns and prayers and Chalice we find that we are all connected and united in Christ. Christ means Light. If we make the choice, we too can embody Light. The holy doors to the altar of the temple or church stand between heaven and earth in the iconography depicted. On the one side we see Mary, the Theotokos, God-bearer, holding her son, and on the other side, Christ, the Pantocrator, who will come again according to our traditions and scriptures. If we are honest we live between heaven and earth, between the ancestors and the future generations. The Native Americans believe that a laboring woman stands between death and life as the veils thin to allow each soul to enter from one world into this one. I too am a door between heaven and earth. I walk holding my sweet son’s hand, and feel Mary Rose reaching out to us.
This life is a threshold and a portal into the deep waters of our souls. When people ask me if Gabriel is my only child, he too looks startled. I want to scream “Of course not,” as my body is clearly still loose from carrying and birthing my daughter. My sister offered that it would be easier to say yes, and not discuss Mary Rose with strangers or acquaintances, but to deny her existence is to deny part of my path. Sometimes I wonder if our family will always grieve Mary Rose. I know that there are moments of such sharp pain of missing her, that I will miss her my entire life. I am grateful for the opportunity to nurture her in my body and to be the opening into which she could come. Birth work is sacred work. Our grief is also sacred, especially the innocent grieving of our young children. Their eyes are open to realms that many do not experience until they are adults, and we, their parents, can honor their path as they love and miss their siblings, as we walk together, holding hands, taking another step forward on this meandering road.