Our family, by Annabel. l-r Annabel, Madeline, James, Mommy, Rigby, Daddy
We are careful to make sure Annabel and James don’t feel like they’re living in the shadow of their sister. They each have the same amount of photos hanging on the wall, and we talk about Madeline when she comes up naturally. We let Annabel (and eventually James) guide the conversations we have about Maddie, and that means sometimes we talk about her a lot, and other times there are long stretches where we won’t mention her at all.
Not long ago, Annabel was talking with someone (an adult) about Madeline. She made the segue from talking about Frozen to talking about her sister, which has been a common conversational path over the last six months or so. I was tending to James during Annabel’s chat so I missed the discussion, but she brought it up in the car on our way home.
Annabel: Mom? [Adult] said that Maddie is in a better place.
Me: What? What are you talking about?
Annabel: I told [Adult] that I am Elsa and James is Anna, but if my sister was here she’d be Elsa and I’d be Anna, and then [Adult] said that Maddie was in a better place and where is that? Can we go there?
Even though I knew the adult Annabel had been talking to was probably totally surprised by the conversation, and even though I know the adult was simply trying to comfort Annabel, I was upset. We never tell our children their sister is in a better place. Not only do I abhor that expression, I would never dream of using it with a small child. It’s a complex concept that is too abstract for my four-year-old’s black-and-white way of thinking.
If you find yourself in a similar situation with a child who’s lost a relative, I have some advice. First, if at all possible, find out what the parents are saying to the child. Annabel’s teachers handled this brilliantly. When they found out about Madeline, they asked me what Mike and I would like them to say if Annabel asked them any questions. They understood the importance of consistency, especially since children often ask the same questions over and over as they process things.
Second, be a good listener. I’ve found that often, Annabel and her friends just want to know I’m paying attention to what they’re saying and don’t really care if I offer any input. They’ll sometimes make outrageous statements but by they time they’ve worked through their elaborate narratives, they’ve either forgotten their questions or figured out an answer that makes sense to them.
Third, asking the child questions can sometimes be enough. Responding to a question with a kind, “Well, what do you think?” or “What did your parents tell you about that?” can give you a lot of insight.
Most importantly, don’t push what you think on the child. They might not believe what you believe, and they definitely won’t grieve how you expect, but their thoughts and emotions are important and should be respected.
The “better place” expression has stuck with Annabel, and she’s brought it up several times since that day. We’re working through it, but it’s been sad and difficult.
“Why is she in a better place? Why isn’t she here?” I ask myself that question every day.