We all know how once someone dies, their biggest faults are often forgotten. Generally, this is okay. It’s good for those who remain to let go of pettiness and past hurts and focus on the happy moments. At funerals, we put them up on pedestals and that is where they remain in our memory.
This is especially true when children die. We know that children most definitely would have grown out of their annoying child-like habits. Back-talk, fighting with siblings, and tantrums are traits we (mostly) leave behind when we become adults.
In Madeline’s case, she didn’t live long enough to develop ANY irritating characteristics. If I was really pressed, I’d say that I disliked that she never slept through the night, but that was really a product of my own unwillingness to teach her how. I remember an instance in the months after she died. I was out with someone, and his kids were misbehaving. He looked sheepish and then said, “You missed all of this…Maddie will always be the perfect child.”
After children die, we are free to create the best versions of who they would have become. Depending on the age of the child, this is easy. Right now, I can imagine that Madeline would have been a model student with a dozen friends. I can walk by the school that would have been hers and when I close my eyes I can picture her at the top of the slide, queen of the playground. I can talk to my friends with kids Madeline’s age and find out what they are reading and what activities they are into. I have marked milestones she would be hitting.
It’s as the time passes that things will be harder. I won’t know if she’d have gone to college or followed another path. She might have gotten married young, or maybe decided marriage wasn’t for her. Career, children, I’ll never be able to say definitively, “Today is the day she’d have gotten a promotion at work. Today is the day she’d have had her first baby.” This won’t stop me from creating a fantasy about the grown-up life she missed out on, but it will be exactly that – a fantasy.
I worry about how the canonization of deceased children impacts their still-living siblings. Annabel asks me so many questions about Madeline, but I never expected her to ask, “Was Maddie ever a bad girl?” I don’t want her to think her sister was perfect. Don’t get me wrong, she was perfect, in the exact same way her siblings are now. But I would never want Annabel or James to think Madeline was some unattainable standard of perfection that they can never achieve. So, I struggle with presenting the truth (No, she was never naughty…she never had the chance to be) with what I think Annabel wants to hear (I’m sure she would have had her naughty moments, just like you).
Going forward, I am going to be more aware of the way I present Madeline’s stories to her siblings. It’s easy to slip into hyperbole but I owe it to all three of my children to make certain I retell my memories accurately. The fantasies will stay in my own head. I want Annabel and James to know that they occupy the same amount of space in my heart as their sister, and they only have to measure up to their own potential – not the memory of someone else.