Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How do you explain death to a three year old?

After posting about Griffin's reaction to donating our blankets, I thought I should re-post the essay I wrote for Mindful Mama Magazine's essay contest last October. I was one of the runner ups, and won some great stuff, coupons for Happy Baby frozen meals & snacks, tshirts, Fresh Start baby food making kit, and even a signed copy of Dr. Sears' Vaccine Book. I know it is rather personal, but it was already posted on a public forum. Writing is a craft too, so here is what I wrote...

Posted on October 10, 2008
Two months ago today (at 2:05am), I gave birth to my daughter Rowan at 40 weeks and one day. Everything was normal until the end. As labor intensified her heartrate got erratic and my midwives called the paramedics. With the paramedics in the lobby of the birth center I managed to push her out in just five pushes. All babies come out blue and wrinkly, but she never turned pink, she never breathed on her own. There was a kink in her cord. After transports to hospital then NICU, we sat grieving the daughter we had to let go. But we also had to think of our other child, 3 year old Griffin waiting at home to meet his baby sister.

At first we were not sure he should come to the hospital. But as they were wheeling me back to my room in the Family Birth Unit, I saw other siblings there to meet their new babies. I knew Griffin needed to meet his baby sister. He was so excited. He was in the waiting room when his cousin was born just a few months before, and he knew what was supposed to happen. I realized he would be REALLY confused if he did not get to meet his baby sister.

He had spent the day with his Grampa, and he brought Griffin down. It did not seem like enough to try to tell him when we came home without a baby, especially after 4 false alarms. We timed it just right. They removed all her cords and IVs, except for the breathing tube, and the nurse helped us wash and dress her. Then we got to sit and hold her for awhile before they removed the breathing tube so Griffin would not be scared by the tube.

My dad brought his harp and played for quite awhile in the NICU... then "played her out" while we said goodbye. As one friend put it, "she got to experience something beautiful in the world, even in her short life."

Griffin was tired, subdued and confused, having just woken up from a nap. I held the baby, and he crawled into Daddy's lap. We introduced him to his baby sister, and tried to explain that his little sister was very sick and she was not going to be able to come home with us. I explained that since she could not be with us she was going to be an angel and have wings to fly and watch over us. I figured a 3 year old needed a concrete image to understand where our baby has gone.

I had him come into my lap with Rowan in my other arm and let him hold her, touch her little hand and foot, and give her a kiss on the head. I pointed out a little angel ornament they gave us that hung over the bed she had been on. He kept looking back and forth between the angel and the baby, clearly trying to understand. She just looked like a sleeping angel in her little white dress. Eventually he said, "Your baby (he paused) ...MY baby's going to be an angel.” After awhile I asked if he wanted to take a walk with his Uncle and he left while the rest of the family each held her and said goodbye. Then the nurse check for her heartbeat and verified that she had passed on.

Griffin came back just as they were wheeling me out of the NICU, and he asked, "Mommy, Where's your baby?" I had him climb on my lap to ride back to my room and tried to explain that she had to stay there because she was so sick. He was still a little confused, and I remembered that he had been talking to his Grampa the week before about his dog Angelo who died. He had asked him a lot of questions about death then.

So I reminded him of Angelo, and told him our baby had died like Grampa Lloyd's dog. It seemed easier to tell Griffin that he might still have someone to be a big brother to. So I told him 'Someday we might have another baby, but not for awhile. Remember how long it took to grow this baby in Mommy's tummy? But someday we might have another baby.” He asked, "And that baby won't be dead?" That was when I knew he understood.

That night I had to stay at the hospital so Griffin slept with his Daddy in our bed at home. When I called as they were settling to bed my husband put Griffin on the phone to say good night. He said, "Good night Mommy. How are you doing at the hospital Mommy?" I said, "I'm feeling good. I'm just going to bed too." He said, "I miss my baby sister Mommy." I said, trying not to cry, "I miss her too." He said, "Daddy misses her too. And Grampa misses her too." He was talking about Rowan for about half an hour that night before he finally settled down to sleep.

The nurse made 3-D molds of her hand and feet. When I got home we made a special shelf at Griffin’s level with his hand and foot molds from when he was 2, along with his Wishing Bowl with wishes from his fairy godparents, Rowan's hand and foot, and a plaster heart with the soles of her tiny feet. Each time I show one of my friends the molds Griffin tells them, "That's my baby sister's foot and hand. She's gone now to be an Angel."

His uncle (who became a dad just 5 months before) told me later he and Griffin talked about Rowan during their walk. He told Griffin that Mommy and Daddy were going to be sad for awhile but we both love him very much, and he was going to have to be very brave and give mommy lots of hugs. I think Griffin took it to heart. He has always been huggy and cuddly, but in the weeks that followed he loved crawling up in my lap and telling me how much he loved me.

Griffin frequently requests that we read him the books he was given to help him understand, "No New Baby" etc... We both tear up every time, but realize that is what he needs from us because he is grieving as well. When we look at pictures of her he says right away, “That’s my baby Rowan!” When we saw a baby on TV the other day he was very quiet (which is unusual for him), so I asked if he was okay, and he tearfully said, “I miss my baby sister.” I said I did too and asked if he wanted to look at pictures of her. We found the framed ones we have and he placed them in the middle of the living room where he could see them. He will always remember he had a sister.

We also planted a Rowan Tree during a memorial service in our backyard, and created a little garden around it filled with pansies. Griffin sat on his Daddy's lap, solemnly staring at the picture of his baby, and eagerly helped everyone plant pansies when the time came. The service was followed by a "Party for Rowan" inviting a few of Griffin's friends to come play with him after the service. Now Griffin and I periodically go out to weed her garden or sit together on a bench to look at it.

The other day when I gave him paper and markers, he began telling me everything he was drawing. “I’m drawing my baby sister Mommy. This is my baby when she was in your tummy. This is my baby when she was an angel.”

I have started a project with my MOMS Club to make and donate blankets and quilts to local NICUs in memory of Rowan. I love sharing my passion for crochet with others, and plan to teach anyone in our club of 65 members who is willing. In the hospital we were given a crocheted afghan and a beautiful quilt. For parents in my situation, these blankets are the only things we have to take home and cuddle to remember our lost babies. Starting this project gives me something positive to focus on, and honors my daughter in the best way I can.

I sometimes have to remind myself that when Griffin begins crying like his world is ending because he did not bring home the balloon he got yesterday, it is not about the balloon. He cries, “I miss my Balloon.” In the exact same way he tells me, “I miss my baby. Mommy, why did our baby die?”


  1. Hey there Lori,
    It's me Vic. We met at the concert in WSU.
    What a beautiful moving story you have here. I feel the loss, and started to tear up.

    I think you handled the explanations very well. It's got to be very hard on him and the rest of the family. *hugs*

    I don't have kids, but I hand raise birds and have lost a few and felt the pain in a similar way, but not the same.

    What you are doing for the moms who loose their babies is a wonderful thing. I love the idea. I hope it keeps up for you and doesn't die off.

    See you around hopefully.


  2. that is so beautiful - i'm so glad you shared and submitted this

  3. I am so sorry for your loss. I could hardly get through this for the tears blurring my sight. My daughter lost her baby boy, her second child also, in 2006 a month before he was due, he just passed away inside of her. I have a picture on my fridge of her and her husband holding him after they birthed him. It was a very hard thing on us all, as you well know. She had another baby girl in 2008. :o) They never figured out what caused Conner to pass away inside of her, only that the placenta dried up. I love the idea of making the blankets for the parents to have in remembrance of their baby. I'm going to inquire at the 3 hospitals in my area and see if they take blankets for babes that don't make it. Thank you for sharing your story.