The conversation continued tonight. I was putting Eve to bed, the too-long nightly ritual that involves a bedtime story, a thorough survey of the room for monsters and skeletons, then cuddles and quiet murmurs in the dark. I am tempted to declare that, at six, she’s getting too old for such an involved routine, but she’s my youngest, my baby, so I continue to indulge. Near the end of this liturgy, Eve and I ask each other to recount one good and one sad part of our day. Hers—good and bad—almost always involve recess; mine almost always involve writer’s block.
“What are you writing about?” she asked.
“Well, I’m writing about Luke,” I told her, and she grew quiet behind the black curtain of night that surrounded us.
“Why did he have to die?” she asked. It seemed more of a grievance than a question. Nonetheless, it was one I felt compelled to address.
I was an infant when my mother’s father died. I never met him; we were living overseas at the time, but as a young child the adults in my life always promised I’d meet him someday. I suppose it was their way of trying to soften the blow of death with the abstract promise of an afterlife. But four- or five- or six-year-old me spent a good part of my childhood waiting for Grandpa to show up at the door. I figured he’d forgotten about me when he never did.
When Luke was dying in hospice, I knew I needed to tell three-year-old Hannah what was happening in a gentle but concrete way. Luke wasn’t coming back, and I wanted to give her a chance to say goodbye. So, on a warm June day, I swept her into my arms as we walked across a sunny courtyard toward the glass entryway of the hospice building.
“This is a special hospital, baby,” I started. “It’s a hospital for people who are about to go to heaven.”
Hannah’s sweet face twisted into a grimace. Glossy tears sprung from her eyes. “Luke’s not dying, is he, Mommy?” she cried. I was shocked by the speed of her revelations: heaven equals death equals grief.
I looked into her sad, bewildered eyes.
“Yes, sweetie. I think he is.”
It was the beginning of a lifelong conversation about death with my children, one that requires vigilance of thought and word. I am my daughters’ guide through a forest of unanswerable questions. Like the adults of my childhood, I want to be helpful. I want to be hopeful. But I also want to be careful. I don’t want to lead them astray. The result is a constant state of mental battle-readiness, scanning the horizon for signs of incoming questions and mapping the potential pitfalls in my responses.
So when Eve asked “Why did he die?” earlier tonight, I had only a moment to chart my course through the coming conversation: Is she looking for an empirical answer, or is this an existential question? Do I invoke God or science? Can I bow out with an “I don’t know,” just for tonight, because it’s getting late and I’m tired? So tired.
I chose science, with a hint of God.
“His body just wasn’t made to live a long time, honey.”
Now her cry broke open—a long, high-pitched wail that seemed to pour forth from some primal well of pain. “It’s just hard, it’s so hard! I’m the littlest one, and I never got to meet him.” She repeated this over and over, a mournful mantra that I had neither the strength nor the wisdom to interrupt. Sometimes no words will do.
“He was here.” She swept her arm across the room, the same room in which Luke slept as a baby. “He touched everything here. And now there’s nothing left of him, only pictures.”
We lay together on her little bed, crying and talking, the sorrow ebbing and flowing. Finally, when I ran out of words to console her, I offered the tangible: a warm washcloth and a glass of water. When I left her bedroom to fetch those things, I could hear Josh talking to someone at the front door, another mom who had dropped Hannah off from soccer practice. I should say hello, I thought, but how to explain my shattered disposition? We had shared carpools and halftimes, this mother and I, but I hadn’t told her about Luke. And soccer drop-off, her standing in a cone of light on my doorstep eager to get back to an idling minivan, didn’t seem an opportune time to bring it up.
Now, a half hour later, I’m collapsed in a chair, having finally gotten Eve settled and tucked in for the night. Josh has dispatched the carpool mom and disappeared downstairs to the computer. I hear the pipes groaning as Hannah turns on the shower. She’s at the age where 60 minutes of soccer tinges the terroir of her sweat with the sharp tang of approaching puberty.
Still reeling from my talk with Eve, I recall the advice the grief counselor gave us about Hannah years ago, knowing it applies to both of my daughters now: “She will process her brother’s death differently throughout her life.”
It’s true. Hannah was three when Luke died. She went from being an only child, to a big sister, back to an only child, then a big sister again. In those few months between Luke’s death and Eve’s birth, when she took on the lonely mantle of being an only child again, Hannah would wake at night screaming and writhing. “I miss Luke!” she’d cry out, still half asleep. “He was my only brother and now he’s gone!” Darkness, it seems, calls forth these lamentations from my girls.
Years ago, just as I did with her little sister earlier this evening, I’d hold Hannah as she wept. Lying beside her in the inky blackness, my heart would ache remembering Hannah curled around Luke on the floor, sucking her thumb and stroking the plump, pink flesh of his bare foot, her eyes half closed in a state of bliss.
When Eve was a newborn, still squirming and larval, Hannah curled around her in the same way, whispering in Eve’s ear. “We have a brother, Evie,” she’d say, with the round and wobbly consonants of a preschooler. “He’s in heaven. His name is Luke.” With her whispered words, Hannah wove Luke into Eve’s story from the very start.
But as she’s grown older, wiser—cooler, she would argue—Hannah doesn’t talk about Luke so much anymore. Her world has widened. There are more things to fill her mind: homework, soccer, sleepovers. Now, each time we pass a cemetery, instead of saying, “Hi, Luke” as Eve insists, Hannah offers her own greeting, “Yo, Bro.” I’m heartened that she has her own way of acknowledging her brother. But when Josh or I or Eve bring up Luke otherwise, she grows quiet and wary, like some long-legged animal sniffing the air for danger.
Hannah emerges from the shower and pads toward her room, sleek and catlike. I feel an unsettling combination of both pride and jealousy as I take in the graceful confidence with which she inhabits her body. She is strong and supple and limber, her smooth skin taut over the enviable muscles of her shoulders and legs. The trappings of beauty and youth that have moved to the rearview mirror of my middle age are still fresh for her.
She spots me sprawled, wrung out on the chair. For just a moment, she turns to me, her face open like a morning flower, a drop of water clinging to the tip of her nose. She must have heard Eve crying earlier. I sense she is about to say something. I lean forward, or maybe it only feels as if I do, all of my questions rushing forward to meet hers. I want to ask her about Luke: if she thinks about him, what she thinks about him. But sensing vulnerability—her own and mine, too—she turns away, the cloud of tweenhood indifference dulling her bright eyes. I often wonder how riding the rollercoaster of Luke’s life and death shaped who Hannah is today. How much sorrow did she absorb? How much fear? Was three-year-old Hannah exposed to so much pain that now, like an allergen, she has learned to avoid it altogether?
The conversation has grown harder with this reluctant interlocutor. When Hannah was younger, as with Eve now, as fraught as these conversations were, I knew what to expect: my daughter came to me with questions, and she believed guilelessly in my answers. But with my eldest on the cusp of adolescence, I find myself tiptoeing around the perimeter, searching for a hidden door that will let me in.
But I will wait. Because this phase will pass, and we will take up the conversation where we left off. There is a blessing here. These talks, with both my girls, are not “one and done.” I have hundreds—thousands—more chances to get it right.
3 replies on “The Talk”
This is really beautiful, such a concrete portrayal of how childhood loss reverberates through life. Your girls are so fortunate that you understand.
Jennifer, yes, it really is a blessing to have the time you do with your daughters to let them process their loss as they grow into more and more understanding, and also as they watch you work out your own way through grief. This column is helping all of us grow and understand as well. So very glad we all have one another as we walk through the hard places! Thank you for so beautifully voicing both the pain and the blessings.
Beautifully written and emoted. My body aches at the mere thought of what you and your family have endured. Your writing and shared wisdom is so helpful to all parents who are struggling with having these conversations with younger and adolescent children, whether it be the profound loss of a child and sibling, parent, grandparent — loss and grief are subjects to continually explore and learn from, no matter how old you are.