When we lost Charlotte, I was consumed with grief, and I wasn’t able to see forward more than a second at a time. My world was moving forward but I felt like I was stuck in concrete, motionless and not wanting to move too far away from the memory of her in my arms. I can still see her perfect little face; her perfect little eyelashes and feel her tiny fingers in my hand. But time does move on and as the days turned into months and the months have now turned into years, I’m left with the reality of having to explain to her sisters who Charlotte is, why she isn’t here and that’s a very difficult (and painful) situation. So, I wanted to share my thoughts on how to help a grieving child with the loss of a sibling.
One of main reasons I wrote my book is that I really wanted to help other families process their sense of loss, not just for themselves but also for the siblings that, thankfully, are still here. I am by no means an expert in how to help a grieving child with the loss of a sibling, but I do have some experience with my own two girls, and I think it’s important to say here that this blog is my opinion, and my opinion only, it should in no way replace your own personal viewpoint or advice from a health care professional.
But here’s goes with “my way”. For me, the biggest decision I had to make was “when was the right time to start talking about Charlotte to our girls”, early on in my grief journey one of my mental health professionals told me to start as soon as I could handle it. I distinctly remember the first time I spoke to Madeleine (Charlotte’s surviving twin), I was an absolute mess, it sent me into a uncontrollable anxiety attack that lasted for hours, maybe even days if I’m honest – you know the ones where the air feels like it’s made of lead, your lungs are in agony with every single breath and you can’t function, can’t talk, sometimes you can’t even stand – I’m truly sorry if you know what these “episodes” feel like. I liken it to having all my nerve endings on the outside of my body. However, I thought if I “practised” talking about her often as I might get “better” at explaining it without losing it completely every time, so that’s what I did. I did, and still do, speak about Charlotte all the time. We celebrate her birthday with Madeleine, we light her urn regularly, we often talk about what we think she would be like, what she would look like, or wonder would she fight with her sisters as often as they do?
Children process grief differently to us adults (checkout my other blog on this), however one thing that is similar, whether you’re an adult or a child, is that this takes time, it takes time for everyone to absorb the reality that they [their sibling] has died. Death of people is always sad and makes us reflect on them, the relationship we had with them and the memories we have of them. One of the biggest issues to deal with when you lose a baby (especially on the day they were born) is that those opportunities to create memories have been taken away from you, the harsh reality that all those tomorrows you imagined are no longer possible. I imagined what it would be like to be a twin mum (although I know technically will always be), I imagined them at school, them learning to ride but the reality is that every memory of Charlotte coexists with the most intense grief I have ever (and hopefully will ever) experienced. My memories of her are me and my husband holding her knowing she wasn’t able to stay with us for very long at all and our darling baby girl grew her wings after she felt our love for 45 minutes.
I would literally give anything to say one more “I love you” and to kiss that perfect, albeit tiny, little forehead. One thing that’s really important to us is that Madeleine, and our other daughter Edith, don’t have what they refer to as survivors’ guilt. This is especially pertinent to Madeleine as, the truth is, Charlotte helped Madeleine survive, she made the ultimate sacrifice for her sister, and I’ll forever be grateful to our superhero princess for giving her sister a real fighting chance. Of course, we don’t tell Madeleine this at all. All we say is that Charlotte is, and will always be, your guardian angel and we try to make it a gentle and peaceful experience when she thinks about her sister. It’s not anyone’s fault but certainly not hers.
What I have noticed, is as I get better at talking about Charlotte, our girls get better at listening and comprehending what it means to have a sibling that died. It’s not a scary or taboo subject in our household, in fact we encourage the girls to talk about Charlotte and ask questions that are on their mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a perfect science and there are still times that completely surprise me, when I’m transported back into that hospital room saying goodbye to her and, in truth, I think I will always have those moments and, actually, there’s part of me who wants to always have these moments. They are, after all, the only memories of her that I will ever have.
Another thing I have seen is that when our girls don’t understand something or we can’t answer their questions in a way that they can comprehend, we often see bad behaviour, or acting out. Which I think is a completely normal expression of their emotions in that moment and I suppose it’s really no different to when it overwhelms me too. I will never be able to answer “why did she die” because I don’t know that answer and I never will, and we all have to find a way to live with, to live through that. When my girls are acting out, I have found the best way to diffuse the situation is to try to connect with them, let them know you feel like this too (I feel like screaming and stamping my feet too at times) and that their feelings and actions are completely ok. In fact, I want them to be able to express these emotions freely without fear of judgement or retribution. We want to be their safe space and that they know they can always come to us for reassurance and love.
At the end of the day, this is a really tough journey and there will be (many) bumps in the road and wrong turns. I know, for me anyway, that you don’t/ can’t get everything right, and mistakes are a certainty. But if we keep trying to give our children and ourselves time, then maybe, just maybe healing won’t be as terrifying.
Good luck, I’m truly sorry this is your path too! I hope this article has gone some way to give you tips on how to help a grieving child with the loss of a sibling.