We Need To Stop Doing This When A Child Dies

The silent children of your heart

When I saw my friend Nancy’s new baby, the first thing out of my mouth was “My god – he’s the spitting image of Ethan!”  Nancy promptly burst into tears, and I spent the next hour crying with her on the couch in the living room. “You’re the first person to say that” she sobbed, “and it’s all I’ve been thinking about for weeks.”

Ethan was her first-born son – a happy and rambunctious kid the same age as my daughter – and he died when he was 4 years old from an inoperable brain tumor.  It was tragic – completely devastating to everyone who knew him – and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose my child that way.

In His Short Life Changed His Mom Forever

If I’ve learned one thing in my journey as a mother, I’ve learned that keeping quiet about things close to your heart is equivalent to having a piece of it ripped out.  Nancy made me realize that by not talking about Ethan, I was making it worse for her because she NEEDED to talk about him – she needed to remember him, to share her stories of him - to make sure he was not forgotten.

Losing a child – through illness, tragic accident, adoption or even miscarriage – is not something that should be shoved under the rug.  The mourning period doesn’t end quickly – nor should it.  Not talking about it makes it seem like a shameful secret.  No one talks about the children they’ve lost - they become the silent children of your heart – buried under layers of guilt or shame or memories that are just too painful. 

What made this more real for me was when I had to say goodbye to a foster child I raised from birth.  I was a wreck – and I had friends and family that thought it would be kinder to just pretend she never existed.  Even my parents made a visible effort not to bring up her name.  But how can you not?  She was a vital part of my life – and yes, I miss her – and yes, I might cry when I talk about her.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mention her, or feel guilty that I’m crying – my mind is just spinning back with fond memories that most people believe should stay packed away on a shelf.  I WANT to think of her, I WANT to remember her.  Ignoring her memory makes me feel like she was insignificant.

The night Ethan died is still etched in my mind.  Waking up in the middle of the night; hearing the sound of an ambulance racing down the street.  Walking out to the front porch; staring blindly at the flashing lights in front of Nancy’s door.  Watching parents down the street step outside; all of us staring, all of us silent, all of us knowing what was happening and realizing there was nothing we could do.  I stood there in the dark – seeing shadows of other mothers just like myself holding vigil on their porches – all of us connected with the thought “this could have been MY child.”

Finding The Words: How To Talk To Your Children About Death

When the ambulance left more than an hour later – not one of us had moved.  Minutes passed, and then one-by-one, doors slowly opened and we went back inside – no one exchanged a word.  I crept quietly into my daughter’s room and kissed her cheek as tears rolled down my face – silently hoping and praying that I would forever be spared the agony of watching my child die before me. 

It’s been more than three years since Ethan’s death – but every year on his birthday, my friends and I gather at Nancy’s house.  We drink wine, reminisce, and like all mothers, we talk about our children.  Photo albums of Ethan are passed around; stories exchanged; memories shared.  Each year another forgotten memory will unfailingly appear- and each year there are a few more laughs and a few less tears. And as Nancy’s new son grows older, these memories will be the ones that introduce him to the brother he never had a chance to meet. 

Motherhood creates a bond between women that no other relationship can match. And as mothers, it is our duty to make sure the silent children of our hearts are never forgotten.

Happy Birthday Ethan.

As well as being a foster parent, Karen Elliott is a web designer and freelance artist who also works for the Yummy Mummy Club as the online editor.

She and her husband live in a small hamlet in rural Ontario with their two biological children and a continual stream of others who pass through on their childhood journey.