Not Just a Daughter, Also a Sister: Sharing Death with Siblings
By Martha McGeehon, Everly’s Mom
When Everly died, our oldest had just turned three. She was a very verbal three year old and we knew we would have to carefully think through not only how we told her about the death of her sister, but also how we responded in the days, months, years ahead. Here is our experience sharing this tragedy with her.
One of my most vivid memories of the day Everly died was the almost immediate realization that our oldest daughter had lost her sister. I looked across the small hospital room and said to Nick “Campbell’s sister is gone, how do we tell her that?”
Nick immediately jumped to problem solving and began asking every person who walked in the room, our pastor, the nurse, the social worker, “How do we tell our three year old her sister died?” We were met with sympathetic looks but no concrete answers.
We were fortunate that we had family friends who picked her up from school and allowed her to spend the night and take her to school the next day to give us the time and space to create a plan before we turned her world upside down. We spent the time racking our brains on who we could call or how we could figure out how to tell her the news. Luckily, we had done some volunteer work with an organization that serves children with special needs, some life limiting. Nick called his contact and asked if they knew anyone who had any experience telling an older child about the death of their younger sibling. We were quickly connected with a staff member whose experience matched ours almost identically. Twenty years ago she lost an infant daughter unexpectedly in her sleep and had to tell her three year old daughter the devastating news.
She was a lifeline. She walked us through exactly what to say and how to say it. What words to avoid and what to expect. This advice can be found under Explaining Death on our Sibling Support page.
Later that afternoon our friends picked Campbell up from school and brought her home to us. After big hugs the three of us sat on the floor. Campbell on my lap and Nick looked her in the eyes and simply said, “Campbell, yesterday Everly died.” In her three year old way she looked right back at him and said, “I am going to miss her,” and walked off to play. Nick and I sat there dumbfounded at her understanding but didn’t want to push given the advice we had received.
Over the course of the next few weeks almost every time she would see one of us the first thing she would say to us is “Everly is dead.” Almost as if she was trying to confirm it was really true. Our response was always the same, “Yes, she is,” and then we would invite her to ask questions or talk about Everly. Most of the time she wouldn’t take us up on the offer but occasionally she would.
One night before bed she took us up on the offer to talk more about it and started asking questions about what happened. The conversation went something like this:
Campbell: “Everly is dead.”
Mom: “Yes, baby she is, do you want to talk about it?”
Campbell: “Where is she?”
We had made the conscious choice to not introduce the abstract concept of an afterlife to Campbell at this point. We knew three year olds are very literal and we felt like it would be too confusing to understand. So we simply answered “We left her at the hospital, but we don’t know where she is right now.”
Campbell looked at us and said “Did they put her in the trash can?”
We quickly responded “No, honey of course not.” While our brains reeled to figure out why she would think something like that we asked a few probing questions and she finally said. “When flowers die we throw them in the trash.”
We explained to her that she was right, that is what we do with flowers but we don’t do that with people. At the time that answer seemed to be enough for her.
As time has passed, Campbell still regularly talks about Everly. Often in the car she will be sitting quietly looking out the window and simply say “I miss Everly.” When this happens we say something like “I do too, do you want to talk about her?” Sometimes she will and sometimes she won’t; we continue to take her lead in these moments.
When we told her we were having another baby, the first thing she asked us was if that baby would die too. This broke our hearts that any little kid would have to think about that but we did our best to put her mind at ease that we had a great doctor who was doing her best to make sure baby brother was healthy and would stay that way.
Campbell’s questions also have started to get more sophisticated as she gets older and we continue to affirm her feelings, give her space to openly talk about Everly and her feelings and ask any questions she may have. Now, at five, she regularly shares with people she meets that she has a baby brother and a baby sister that died. While we know this is hard for others to hear, we also know this is her truth and we hope she continues to be open with herself and others. None of this has been easy, but every time she brings it up it reminds us that Everly’s spirit is still alive and well in Campbell and our hope is that never changes.