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The Reality of Hearing Your Child Say 'Mommy, Is My Brother a Ghost?'

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Kids sure say the darndest things, especially little ones finding their way through the windy road of grief and bereavement.

Lily, our youngest daughter, is filled to the brim with “darndest things” and countless amounts of questions about the death of her brother and best friend, Matthew.

Recently, after a nightmare, Lily was convinced Matthew had become a ghost. All day she was afraid of everything — the bathroom, the dog, and even her toys had “freaky” eyes. She was adamant that her ghost brother was haunting her and wanted me to take Matthew’s pictures down because his face was scary.

I tried to act like it was just any other nightmare and went on to explain how dreams, good or bad, are not real. That when Matthew was created, it was into a human just like her and not a ghost.

I could feel my child’s questioning eyes pierce right through my struggle to explain the unknown with answers that were more grounded in faith than fact. I have found the living don’t really know what will happen when they die, simply because we have never died. But yet in my family, death is an exhausting part of our daily life.

I will be honest: this day was extra tiresome and my heart hurt with the thought that somehow, Lily’s amazing brother had now developed into her worst nightmare. Despite our daughter’s questions about death, her love for Matthew still finds a way to grow.

My ears can’t help but perk up when Matthew’s name makes it to Lily’s exclusive “best friend list” or when she includes him in her artwork. I find amusement in my resourceful little griever who likes to tell her younger brother Luke that she is unable to share her special toys with him because those are only shared with Matthew — which means she does share, just not with children in this world.

Of course, Lukie finds great irritation when he is deprived of “special toys.” Refusing to be outdone, Luke will inform his sister about his special brother Izahia, the eldest sibling in the family. Sometimes their “special brother” battle-offs are cute, but most times it is a reminder of how different life is for families like mine.

This past Christmas Luke asked if the brother he has never met was riding in a sleigh with Santa.

I will be honest, his question disturbed my peace of mind because Matthew existed but Santa is not real. Somehow, Matthew had developed into a figment of Lukie’s imagination, only existing in the world of make believe with other folklore legends like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny.

This new school year has created extra grieving opportunities as we prepared our little Lily for her first day of kindergarten. While shopping for school supplies she exclaimed, “I can’t believe Matthew will never get to go to school.”

I had been having the same thought and was shocked with how much this little girl was in my head. Each item we placed in the cart made me hurt for Matthew.

Every form I signed that would never contain his name.

The lunch box that he would never choose.

The teacher I will never meet had all become just one big fat reminder of a life that did not happen.

And then there was that back-to-school physical that really broke this grieving mamma’s back. A nurse was reviewing our family forms. Turning to Luke she said, “And you must be Matthew?”

“No,” I said. “Matthew passed away. This is our son Luke.”

(Insert lots of uncomfortable silence here.)

Which is fine. I am totally used to that type of response, but this nurse let her uncomfortableness get the best of her and replied with words that were literally like acid to my eardrums. With awkwardness she replied, “Oh, you’re the replacement baby.”

My face could not conceal the hurt just inflicted by her words. Tears rushed in with velocity, but I refused to let those lying words hang in the air for a moment longer. With great assertion I said, “There is no replacing Matthew, but Luke does bring us a lot of joy.”

I don’t even remember the nurse leaving, just bursting into tears as the door closed behind her. My children’s eyes focused on me, and my husband, a little wide-eyed, responded with practicality, “She didn’t know.”

I can understand that aspect but what I do not understand is why my grieving experience can make another person feel uncomfortable. It’s mine and I own it every day/ With that ownership has come the knowledge that losing Matthew is not a fixable problem.

Not with filler words. Not with time. And not with replacement babies.

He was one of the greatest loves of my life and I am in need of him in every way. These “feel better” sayings do not ease that need and I will be honest, it has never hurt when someone responded with a simple “I’m sorry.”

This new school year has also brought in the opportunities for new joys. Lily’s first day of school was a great success with one new friend and hope that her new teacher never dies.

I know it may not be a normal hope in your home but in ours, it only means she really likes you.

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Thinkstock photo by Ruslanshug

Originally published: November 7, 2017
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