A sister named Ava
by Karla ° Thursday, September 4, 2008
As a parent, I have a natural inclination to want to protect and shield Nate from experiencing the tumultuous emotions of pain. Not necessarily superficial pain. He’s a kid. He needs to explore. He needs to fall, and tumble and rediscover the symmetry of balance between unsteady feet and too-fast toddler legs. This sort of pain is easy to handle. The uncomplicated sting of a scraped knee can easily be forgotten in the silliness of laughter and a face first fall and mouth full of carpet fibres can easily be fixed with the comforting security of a blankie and the magic of spot-healing Mom kisses.

But explaining death to a child; an inescapable fact of life that we all have to deal with at some point in time, is not quite as easy. I’ve never hid from Nate the fact that he has a sister. We’ve mentioned Ava to him before, and showed him pictures of her, but we’ve never actually told him that she died.

Children seem to have an intuitive nature about them, and on a deeper level, I’m certain Nate senses and picks up on my emotions. Maybe it’s my own narcissism, but if I’m sad on the inside and force a smile on the outside, something in his eyes tells me that he sees right through the façade.

I want Nate to know about his sister, and I want him to know that it’s ok to talk about her, but he’s not at an age where he’s ready to carry the weight of death on his shoulders. There’s a delicate balance, I believe, between the truth and protecting his innocence.

And just to complicate matters, considering death is one of life’s greatest certainties, it’s also one of life’s greatest uncertainties. Some of us believe in an afterlife. Some of don’t. Some of us believe in Heaven. Some of don’t.

As a kid, whenever someone died, I was told that they were with God in Heaven. I remember being fearful for a very long time that God might come and take me away from my family, too.

And although religion can be an instrumental beacon of strength and hope, it’s not something that Mark or I practice. This is where it can get tricky too, because there are many religious euphemisms that are actually quite hurtful to hear. And although death and religion tend to go hand in hand, I never planned to raise Nate under the teachings of one religion, and instead hope to expose him to a wide range of beliefs so that he can explore and figure out for himself what religion and spiriturality mean to him.

I also have to imagine that telling Nate his sister is in a better place, or that she is happier now would only cause some very mixed and confusing feelings when this message is coupled with the obvious sadness of her passing. If Ava is in a better place, why aren’t we happier about it?

And wouldn’t telling Nate that Ava is resting in peace just perpetuate the confusion of death and cause unnecessary anxiety for him about falling asleep and never waking up again?

Obviously, just telling Nate that Ava is “gone” isn’t ok either, because family doesn’t just go away never to come back. Tell me that's not a trust issue waiting to happen.

I don’t have all the answers today.

But it won't be long before he starts to wonder where all the flowers went, and I'll have to tell him that eventually flowers stop growing and blooming. And that one day insects stop crawling and eating.

Eventually well have to explain that his sister does not breathe or eat either. And that she doesn’t smell flowers or run and play.

Eventually, Nate will understand that different people believe in different things, and that’s ok.

Eventually he’ll be old enough to fully grasp the concept of death, and I pledge to help him navigate that journey through the sombre trenches of humanity as openly and honestly as possible while making him feel safe, loved and secure.

But for now, Nate has a sister. And her name is Ava.

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Oh Karla ~ that is such a difficult situation to deal with but I am sure that you will deal with it in the best way for Nate (it sounds like you have started doing that already) ~
love and hugs XXXX
Posted by Blogger Tabitha :  September 04, 2008

This is such an eloquent, lovely post (as all of yours are). You are an incredible mother, woman.

My husband's older sister died the day after she was born, and he says he can't remember a time when he didn't know about her. His parents talked about her, hung a stocking at Christmas, etc. They don't have any pictures of her, but he still knew who she was and why she died. I know that it wasn't easy for his parents and that there were some awkward or hard conversations, but I think you're getting off to a great start by making her a part of Nate's life.
Posted by Blogger Joceline :  September 04, 2008

Our kids often talk about their brother Matthew - including Maddie who was born after we lost him. They're fairly quick to correct people who say we have 3 kids in our family. "No, we have 4 - our brother Matthew just isn't with us anymore, but he's still our brother."
Posted by Blogger Heather :  September 04, 2008

What a lucky boy Nate is to have such a loving and thoughtful mommy like you. Best wishes to you on this journey.
Posted by Anonymous Fawn :  September 04, 2008

It sounds like you are already letting Nate know all about his big sister in the best way that you can. You are a wonderful mother Karla, don't forget that.
Big Hugs,
Amanda x
Posted by Blogger Amanda :  September 04, 2008

Karla, what a strange road to travel. I think you are doing the best you can- there is no sense masking your emotions, just go with how you feel. Nate will grow and form his own questions, and your instinct will lead you to the right answers.
Posted by Anonymous Shannon :  September 04, 2008

My children learned at an early age that my mother had died when I was 18. My explanation to them when they were little (my 8 year old still doesn't know more) is that she got sick. A kind of sick that the doctors couldn't fix and a kind of sick that won't happen to me or to them. It seemed to be enough information. But even that is too much for Nate now. The words will come to you and Nate will accept them as fact because he trusts you.
Posted by Blogger Heather :  September 04, 2008

That gave me chills. The good kind. Well said.
Posted by Blogger H :  September 04, 2008

I think Mister Roger's has one of the best books published to deal with death and how to explain it to children of any age.

I wise person once share with me that their experience is not ours....as well as our experience isn't theirs.
Posted by Blogger Dora :  September 04, 2008

I'm sure even if he doesn't have her around, he will always have her in his heart and think of her.

Whoa, do I remember what brought on that other post. I have changed DRASTICALLY since I wrote that. I still have my own beliefs in God, but not so much the ones that were instilled in me while I was going to church. Since then, not only have my views changed and lightened up (while my life is still okay, and not damned by God), but my stress level has also gone down. It's nice not thinking that every move that everyone makes is not being scrutinized by God and evaluated for a possible punishment. I'm sorry for upsetting you then, and now.

That said, TJ started learning about God and death (not personally) while we were going to church, around the time he was three. Since then, he constantly asks about Heaven, and when he's going. He used to say he was going to Heaven that day, and I'd have to explain to him that it was hopefully not in the day's schedule. Now, he has a little better understanding of death, but still not enough to fully grasp it. I'm pretty sure he only knows of death from cartoons and video games, where you come right back when it's reset or the next episode comes on! My guess is that it will be a while before you really have to broach the subject with Nate in its entirety. If you take it kind of slow, and just talk about it a little bit here and there, I would venture to guess that he will "get it" once he's old enough, and until then, he'll be satisfied with whatever you tell him. You know kids think we know everything, so even though he doesn't exactly understand your answers as to why Ava is not around, he will be okay with it as long as you make him feel okay about it.
Posted by Blogger Christi :  September 07, 2008

Karla - this is one of the hardest questions we are left to deal with, regardless of whether our child died before or after the birth of our living child. I struggled with it for years, and finally made a promise to myself to find a way to integrate Emma's memory into our family in a "non-overbearing way" so our future children didn't feel overshadowed but did know of their older sister and embrace her memory as part of our family.
IT IS HARDER SAID THAN DONE! You seem to be doing a great job of it. I hope we are accomplishing the same thing here.
Posted by Blogger Cara :  September 07, 2008


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