This weekend, driving along in the car with the children, Megan asked me to wind down the back window and when I did she stuck her hand outside and murmured faint whisperings into the wind. “What are you doing Megs?” I asked, glancing at her in the rear view mirror, wondering what had caught her attention so closely. “Nothing”, she told me, her gaze unmoving, her arm still outstretched, “Sometimes I just hold out my hand and hope that Joseph might touch it.” And honestly, as tears spilled down my cheeks, my heart wasn’t sure whether to burst or break.
That night, as I tucked her into bed she pulled my head into her chest and held me there for such a long time, the sound of her heart beating right against my ear, and asked me “Mummy, what would Joseph look like now?”. “Well I think he would look like all of you.” I told her, tracing the gentle curve of her button nose and that cupids bow so like her big brothers, “Maybe he would have little pieces of each of you, what do you think?”. And as she nodded, those big blue eyes of hers growing serious, she asked me, in barely a whisper, “And would he would love me?”. And as I wrapped her up in my arms and told her, without a moments hesitation, that he would adore her, in just the same way we all do, I physically ached for the life we should have lived.
And it’s moments like this which hit me the most, the innocent words of the children, trying to make sense of the fact they have a big brother they will never meet, never know, never grow old with. Often when I think of Joseph and all that we lost, I think of myself and his Dad, I think of Lewis who, at just two years old, went through something no child of his age should ever have to experience, and yet the truth is, it’s not just the three of us who feel his loss every single day, it’s each of his siblings who would have known and loved him the same.
I guess this is where parenting after loss is hard: taking on the grief of existing children, forever longing for the sibling they planned to grow old with, taking on the grief of subsequent children, forever longing for the big brother they would never know, forever answering their questions even when I’m not even sure of the answers, listening to their wonderings when inside my heart is breaking, and watching the four of them together always wishing there had been five. I’m not sure those moments will ever get any easier.
Often I am asked how we explained to our youngest three that they had a big brother who died long before they came into the world, and it’s strange because actually, we never did. There was never a defining moment where we sat down to share the truth with them, never a moment of clarity as they suddenly understood the enormity of our loss, nor a moment of confusion as they wondered why Joseph lived in the sky and not down here on Earth with the rest of us. It may sound crazy, and perhaps it is, who knows, but from the moment they came into the world, it was like they already knew?
As tiny babies in their car seats visiting their brothers grave for the very first time, their little eyes were wide with wisdom; as toddlers bearing flowers, or children releasing birthday balloons, they never once thought to question why we went through this ritual week after week, never thought to wonder why we didn’t have a regular cake and candles or a birthday party back home. They knew, long before we ever discussed it, that our family was different to others, that for reasons they would never fully understand, and nor could I ever explain, Joseph could not stay.
Sometimes when I tell people this, I see a look of surprise flash across their face, the sceptical raise of their eyebrows as though to say, you’ve never actually sat them down and told them? Those poor children, they must be so confused! Sometimes, on days like that, I feel as though I am doing this parenting after loss thing all wrong, days where I question my judgement, the stories I tell, the phrases I use, the emotions I show, the words which are said, and left unsaid.
And then there are days, like this one, where I feel like I’m doing the best I can, where I am certain that all four of the children understand our loss far greater than I can ever explain it. When I catch them reaching out of the car window, when I see them blowing kisses when we drive past the cemetery, when I hear them talking about their superhero brother, telling magical tales of fighting dragons, shooting rainbows, and making wishes come true, in those moments I am happy by how easily they believe. When a teacher pulls me aside to tell me that one of the children has spoken of Joseph in class that day, when I find a drawing of our family with Joseph smiling down from his cloud, when I see them look up at the stars and tell me, “Joseph’s right there!”, I am proud of how freely they include him. And when I hear the sound of their laughter, their little frowns on angry faces, their peaceful sighs as they are sleeping, their little hands held tightly in mind, I am comforted to know that whilst Joseph would indeed have been little pieces of the four of them, they too are made up of little pieces of him.