On Tuesday, it was the first time Poppy cried about Gabriel. I am not entirely sure what prompted her to start talking about him; we had just got into the car after doing some shopping and out of, what seemed to be nowhere, she said, ‘I miss Gabriel Mummy, is he coming home soon?’
It wasn’t the first time she had asked when Gabriel would be coming home, we have had that conversation several times. It’s a conversation I dread having with her as I have to tell her he won’t be coming home.
One of my first thoughts when Gabriel died was how I was going to tell Poppy and Jordan. Both of them had anticipated his arrival and were excited in different ways; Poppy was going to change his nappies and give him his bottles, whilst Jordan definitely wasn’t keen on doing the dirty work but looked forward to finally not being outnumbered and having a little brother to share ‘boy things’ with.
I spent hours worrying about how I could explain to Poppy, in a way which she would understand and not upset or scare her. I was in completely uncharted territory and had no idea how she would respond to meeting her little brother, if indeed she came to the hospital to meet him. I didn’t know what the ‘right’ thing to do was; it was a scenario I had never thought about before but after Gabriel died, it was one I played out over and over again in my mind.
Poppy knew that he was going to ‘pop out’ of my tummy, we had read stories about mummy being pregnant, going to the hospital and bringing the baby home. She had played with him whilst I was pregnant, singing him songs, feeding him her food, blowing raspberries on my tummy, feeling him kick and wiggle, cuddling him and kissing him, sharing her milk with him-she knew he was there, he was part of her life and he was supposed to come home.
How could I ever go home without him, with her never meeting him? But how would she respond to seeing her little baby in a way we never imagined he would be?
I spent ages looking online, searching for advice and an answer. There was some advise on the SANDs website about how to tell her but whether or not she should meet him, that was of course never going to be answered on a website, or by anyone else but me.
I was so scared of upsetting her, of her being afraid or not understanding and being confused. I couldn’t find anything where anyone had shared their experiences of young siblings meeting their angel babies and how they responded. I knew that wouldn’t necessarily be how Poppy would respond but it would have been something, something to try to help make such a massive decision-one that I didn’t have the luxury of time to think about extensively or would have an opportunity to come back to at some other time.
I made the decision for Poppy to meet her brother, I had no idea how she would respond, if she would be scared or upset but I felt as though I had to give her the only chance she would ever have to cuddle her brother, kiss his head and hold his hand. That was the best decision for me. I am not writing this to say that it is the best decision for every family, that it is the ‘right’ thing to do. On this journey of loss and grief there are no rights, no wrongs; there are no rules, no guidelines, no comparison. I made a decision based on what felt like the best thing for my family. I am writing this to share my experience and perhaps it may be read by a mum, in a hospital room debating on whether her young child or children should meet their sleeping sibling-just as I searched for someone else to lean on, to know the outcome of a scenario I had never contemplated before.
Before Poppy arrived at the hospital the day after Gabriel was born, I spoke with my bereavement midwife about my fears and how I could phrase what had happened in a way that Poppy might begin to understand. I knew from training I had been on relating to my work, that I needed to be honest with her, that using euphemisms about sleeping could become confusing for a young child; after all he wasn’t sleeping as she knows sleeping-that would imply he would wake up. I knew I had to tell her facts that I could build upon over time, and one day when she is older, she will understand the fullness of what happened.
Poppy came into the room where Gabriel and I were, he was laying in his cot and she went over to look at him, peering over the edge, standing on her tip toes. She looked at him and then looked up at me and her little face was so full of love. She smiled as she looked at her baby, as she reached into touch him and take in all the little details of his face.
I asked Poppy if she wanted to hold her brother, if she wanted to give him a cuddle and of course she did. She had waited just as long as me to hold our little boy. Before I took Gabriel out of his cot, I knelt down and spoke to Poppy, explaining to her that his little heart had stopped working, that he wouldn’t be able to open his eyes, he wouldn’t move his arms or cry. He wouldn’t move when she held him and he would feel cold. I could tell by her face that she knew something wasn’t right but she didn’t look scared; she wasn’t afraid to hold her baby, she wasn’t scared to touch his cheeks or stroke his hair.
She looked at his little darkened fingernails and told me, ‘he has nail polish on’.
She kissed his head and gave him his teddy to cuddle. She did everything I imagined her doing with her little brother the first time she met him, but she did do it more peacefully; we often don’t give young children enough credit for their ability to read a situation, even if they do not understand it.
Whilst Poppy was with us, she did ask if we would be coming home, if her baby Gabriel would be coming home and sleep in his ‘gold bed’-the moses basket which was waiting for him in the living room. As I fought back the tears, for the first time I had to tell her that our baby wouldn’t be able to come home and that he would go to a special place for babies whose hearts had stopped working. I couldn’t use the word morgue, she wouldn’t know what that was and I couldn’t bring myself to think about him there. At that time, she accept that; she wasn’t upset, she didn’t cry or protest or respond in the way I thought she might have.
She spent most of the time she was there just looking at Gabriel and smiling, he was here; the baby we had waited for and spoken about for so long had finally ‘popped out’ and she spent the most precious hour with him.
In the days and weeks which followed, Poppy continued to ask me if Gabriel would be coming home and I had to tell her each time that he couldn’t come home as his heart wasn’t working. She would tell people that her baby was in his special place and he couldn’t come home.
Each time we talk about Gabriel’s heart not working, which is a few times a week, Poppy will always seek reassurance that her heart was working and I brought her home from the hospital. She plays with her dolls and I hear her trying to process her understanding of things, telling them that their hearts aren’t working, or that their hearts are working and they will come home, like she did.
We have had the conversation about Gabriel not coming home so many times that I couldn’t put a number on it, and every time, except on Tuesday, Poppy has responded almost matter of factly about it. But on Tuesday it was like she felt the injustice of it and for the first time she really cried for him. It broke my heart. She wanted to look at a picture of him, so we sat in the car looking at photos on my phone and soon enough she was smiling, looking at her baby. And once again, she told me that her heart was working and I took her home.
I know we will have the same conversation many times to come, I will have to reassure her over again that her heart was working, it is still working and she will always be at home with me. It never gets easier to tell her that her baby won’t come home how we thought he would, but we do have the memories and photos of her with her little brother and, for her, that offers her a comfort-she can look at them and she smiles and kisses him and cuddles the pictures in their frames. For me, it was the best decision and I am so thankful that I took the risk and gave her the opportunity to make her own memories of her and Gabriel together. I am able to talk to her about when she met her brother and those precious moments of them together will be ones that she will always have.