One of the biggest challenges I think I’ve faced since Abi’s death is understanding my other children’s different reactions. Contrary to my posts about openly talking about Abi and avoiding the elephant in the room, the approach with our children has had to be carefully considered.
Abi has always been in their lives. Her sister is just 22 months younger, so they were very close and did everything together, and Abi was six when her little brother came along, making her a great big sister able to share cuddles and play.
They were with us when she collapsed, they visited her at the two Bristol hospitals and then they came with us to her funeral. They saw every newspaper article, the house full of cards and flowers. They saw us cry and their daily routine disrupted. At that time, Mum and Dad were likely as much lost to them as Abi was to us.
Despite what was happening to us as parents, we told Abi’s siblings as much as we felt appropriate. Keeping them involved in what was happening was absolutely the right thing to do. We believed that to pretend everything was okay or give them vague answers about Abi would have led to further confusion and insecurity.
We were clear with them exactly what happened and that Abi had died… that awful word no one wants to use especially regarding a child. She hadn’t ‘fallen asleep’, wasn’t ‘in the clouds’, or had ‘slipped away’ somewhere. She had died, which is forever, and was in Heaven being looked after by God. Today, my son who was five at the time so apparently, we were told by numerous people, ‘unable to understand’, can confidently tell someone that Abi died because a vein in her brain broke.
Our open approach helped them to process what happened fairly quickly and, a year on, while they remember their big sister they are getting on with their lives.
One of our initial fears in the early days was that they would forget her. We worried in the future that they would remember they had a sister but perhaps not remember who she was (a typical reaction as it’s easy to underestimate what our children truly comprehend). So, we were keen to keep talking about her. For about a month or so after she died, everything was about Abi both at home and in the community.
At home, we put up pictures, started lighting candles, kept Abi’s things around us, lost our routine with meals, bedtime and discipline. In the community, there were lots of wonderful fundraising events in Abi’s memory, local newspaper articles, things at school, and we started going to church regularly. The focus on Abi was immense, quite naturally of course… but we realised that it was becoming too much for them. They were becoming overwhelmed by this intense focus on their sister and on them.
I was also focused on their grief, of protecting them from the emotional damage from what they had witnessed. We received activity books from Winston’s Wish and I was keen for them to fill them in, to help, but they weren’t really interested. It was all too much too soon.
We deliberately talked of Abi a lot; ‘remember when Abi did this…’ ‘Abi loved that…’ etc. … even we began to notice that we were doing it unnaturally. We noticed some resistance to our memories of Abi. Our children needed to move on, albeit at a different pace to us. So we consciously reined it in and redirected our focus to them.
But while they were close in life, we found that sibling rivalry doesn’t end with death. How can they compete with a sister who was flying high in everything she did? Who was praised and missed by so many? When someone dies, no matter how they were as a person when alive, we remember and speak of the positives. With a child, of course, there is nothing to compare to their innocence and lust for life and the tragedy of this being cut short. To our children, hearing stories of their wonderful sister must have been both a comfort but also an irritation.
They have photos of Abi in their rooms and some of her small possessions that they keep safe. But while I need to look at these often, they don’t. In their young minds, they have remembered her and that’s enough… now stop crying Mum, and what’s for tea?
My phone and computer screens show pictures of Abi… but I am asked why it’s never a picture of them. I explain that it’s all I have left to be able to look at Abi’s face each day but that I can look at them for real. I know it would help things if I simply changed those images but I was selfishly protecting this small thing I felt I had left of Abi… Can’t I have something too? Must I sacrifice my needs for theirs entirely?
I give another interview to the local paper about Abi and I hear… “Oh not Abi again, yawn. That was ages ago!”
I feel like someone is squeezing my insides when I hear the ‘so what’ remarks. But I know it’s not that they don’t care… far from it. It’s their way of coping.
How can I remember my daughter the way I need to yet keep my other children feeling secure in my love for them (especially when I feel so hurt by the offhand comments they sometimes make)?
It’s taken time and is by no means right, but we’re focusing on them as individuals, not as Abi’s siblings. For example, my daughter did all the same clubs as Abi when she was little and now she has a new hobby, horse riding. I feel this is where she’s channeling her grief energy, which is no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. But it’s also that she needed to find her own identity, to do something just for her. We fully support that.
I’ve never seen my children as the individuals they are as much as I do now, and it’s wonderful. A year on and I changed my computer screen to a fabulous picture of my daughter jumping on horseback, something I never thought I’d see her do. She was pleased. I’m not sorting through Abi things, as we’ve done that, but I am making space for a new sibling. We attend church as frequently but as parishioners, not as ‘the bereaved family’. They have even completed new Winston’s Wish activity books through choice, not because I asked them. They have some control back. I have no doubt that as each year passes their needs and questions will change and we need to be approachable and adaptable to this, as we ourselves move through our own grief.
It’s so hard as a mum to find a balance between remembering my deceased beautiful child and avoiding resentment and rivalry in our home. We still talk about Abi and remind them how funny and talented she was, and they bring up their own memories, but even we can see she was unique. She wasn’t them and, while they both remind us of her in different ways, they weren’t her. To them, a year is a lifetime. They don’t want to be reminded of the trauma we went through and, in some ways, can’t remember it. So, while my son doesn’t really recall going to her funeral, he talks about how Abi used to do Gangnam style with him… and that is a far more special memory in my book.