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.
You are an amazing and thoughtful mother.
You are such a wise and thoughtful mommy. I admire you so much.
This was beautiful.
This breaks my heart, Heather,and makes me cry, yet on the other side.. it is absolutely beautiful. As I read all of the things that you write about Maddie,,and answering Annie’s questions,,,,,you and Mike, both, are doing an absolutely fantastic job.
I have to echo exactly what Sue posted. You are amazing parents and my heart breaks for you that you must deal with these questions. (((Hugs)))
I think you should write a Maddie book for Annie. I would add pictures of Maddie and add in some of what you wrote about Maddie on your blog. I think this might help answer some of Annie’s questions and give her a keepsake about her sister too that she may be able to share at school.
I’m sorry about your loss Heather. Your grief and pain are palpable in your posts. I wish I had enough words to help ease your grief but I feel woefully in adequate.
Heather, you have once again written the words that swirl around in my head. Jake and Sawyer (who lived 2 weeks and 6 weeks respectively), like Maddie, did not live long enough to be in time outs or have 1st days of school. It is so hard not to live in that “what ifs” and “what should have beens”.
I try very hard not to make the twins feel any different but it is not always easy when their brothers are not here. I was caught off guard when they asked me “Do you love Jake and Sawyer more?” but I should not have been.
It is all so bittersweet. Sending you hope and hugs always.
That was beautifully put.
I think it will have to be a balancing act. At first, you may have to tell the kids what they need to hear (see: Annie’s naughty question), but that souldn’t prevent you from revealing more as they are older and more capable of dealing with nuance. A 3 year old might not understand “she never had the chance to show that side of her”, but a 10 year old definitely will.
Jen D. says:
I’ve commented before that my parents lost twin girls before I was born.
This post made me cry. Both for your loss and out of happiness that you are such amazing parents. Annie and James are so lucky to have you.
This is beautiful!
Kim Hartman says:
WOW. You ARE truly an inspirational person. I cannot tell you how closely this hit home for me. Having lost my son’s identical twin at 7 months gestation, I have the same issues, his questions. You handle them like a pro, be proud of yourself. it’s obvious you are an amazing mother who’s thoughtfulness will bless your children all their lives.
You are SUCH a good mom, and I love the picture of Maddie. (As well as the one of Annie and James, who are looking quite a lot alike there!)
Kids know how to ask the simplest questions that are so incredibly hard to answer. Love and hugs to all of you.
Wow, this helped me as I am struggling with explaining my girls’ father’s suicide to them, when I can’t begin to understand it myself. And because there was badness going on as well, before his death, I feel generally that I should validate whatever their feelings are, be they positive or negative but in my quest to help them see the good in him (which hurts to do but they need to know) I may perhaps set up unrealistic or unreconcilable beliefs. Man, this stuff is hard, Heather, but you really are an awesome mom.
I typically start of my day with your website, and so, of course, my day started off with tears. Such a tough burden you have to carry, but I’m really impressed with your thoughtfulness about how it does/will impact your living children.
Because it seems that you will be searching for ways to correlate behaviors between Maddie, Annie, and James, it occurred to me that the “naughty” behavior from Maddie could be “not sleeping through the night.” Of course, we all know the truth of it, but it could be a way that Maddie was human and not a canonized child.
My friend Mitzi (35 years old, like me) was born as a sort of “grief-balm” when her parents, who planned to have only one child, lost her older toddler sister to a car accident. I didn’t meet Mitzi til college – I’m sure that during some angsty teenaged fights, she probably hurled the “I’ll never be as good as Suzy in your eyes!!” comments at her mom to be hurtful. But from college and beyond, Mitzi has never had anything but profound compassion for her parents and their incomplete memories of the big sister she never met. She has never felt compared to an impossible standard. It’s inevitable that the “You wish Maddie were here instead of me” comments will probably fly out of both Annie and James’s mouths at some point during a bitter adolescent fight. Your consistent love and care of both of them will make them know, even as they say those types of things in a moment of unfocused pubescent rage, that they’re untrue and unfair. Do whatever you have to do to do right by them, but I am certain that it is possible to have beloved, uncomplicated memories of a child gone too soon, and also to raise well-adjusted and unthreatened children who only know her through your memories.
Heather what a beautiful post with beautiful words. ”
they only have to measure up to their own potential – not the memory of someone else.”
This is so true in many ways. I have a son and daughter and my daughter always looks up to her brother. I’ve always told her yes he has great qualities to look up to, but you want to be yourself and you have great qualities as well. It’s complicated….
Aww, this bring tears to my eyes. Maddie is a beautiful child and she is missed and I cant imagine the hole it leaves in your heart!! hugs
I have so much admiration and respect for the careful thought you put into all three of your wonderful children.
This really hit home with me. Not because I’m a mother that lost a child, but because I’m the little sister of someone who died. My sister was quite a bit older than me…she passed when she was 21 and I was only 6. I worshipped her, she had always treated me like I was a little princess. At any rate, as you mentioned, people say nothing but good about the deceased and I did in fact grow up thinking my sister had done no wrong – and at times – that I would never measure up. So, it was rather astonishing when I was college age to start hearing the stories (told as funny memories) about some of the not-so-good things that my sister had done as a rebellious teenager. I was shocked, but at the same time, it made me feel closer to her…made her more human, and not just someone that I had fuzzy childhood memories of. It’s sad that your children will have to grow up without their big sister, but your stories will help them know her and the kind of person she was in her too-short time here.
There are very few things on this earth of which I am certain, Heather. But I know that all your children feel your love, forever.
you have such a gift for writing. thank you for sharing your thoughts and your family with us. it is clear that each of your children will always know that you love them.
You’re a smart lady, H.
Also your kids are so cute.
Amy N says:
Long time reader, first time to comment! This post is so beautiful, you are such a thoughtful parent. Your children are so lucky to have that…..all 3 of them!!
A heartbreaking and beautiful post Heather. I’m constantly amazed by your ability to put all of this into words. I struggle so much with being able to name and label my grief.
I’ve just passed the 6 year anniversary of my sister’s death and while I can still remember the times when she wasn’t her best, I always focus on how amazing she was and how much I adored her and looked up to her. It’s nicer that way. I know she wasn’t perfect and I was certainly angry with her when she was alive, but now that she’s gone…I’d just rather remember the love.
Your wisdom and strength are admirable. You and Mike are doing an incredible job, whether it feels like it or not.
What I find beautiful is the legacy you are leaving them with this blog. Your words, your descriptions, of everything that has happened. In detail. What a rich gift to give them.
One day Annabel and James will get to know a bit about their sister by reading here. Bittersweet, but certainly a real treasure.
Mrs Flinger says:
Even living siblings struggle with this. I see both of mine doing this too regularly. In the end, you will always be the proud, heroic mom to all three. And as they grow, each of you will find truth and peace in your love. Including all Maddie is.