My Daughter Died. How Do I Tell My Son? | NYT Opinion

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In August, our son,
Harrison, celebrated his third birthday. He is our second child. And yet, we have never
parented a 3-year-old before. Because Harrison
has an older sister who never turned 3. An older sister
he’ll never meet. Four years ago,
my daughter, Greta, was sitting on a bench on the
Upper West Side of Manhattan with her grandmother
when a brick fell from an eighth-story window
sill and hit her in the head. She never regained
consciousness. She was 2. When Harrison was
born 15 months later, I became a father to both a
living child and a spirit. One child on this
side of the curtain, and another whispering
from beneath it. Greta became our
reference point for Harrison’s every move. We compared their sleep
habits, their behavior on the playground,
their first words, and their first tantrums. We loved how they were
different from each other and how they were similar. But
only until Harrison was 2. Now that he’s 3, we’re
in uncharted territory. It is a bittersweet thing
watching him reach milestones that Greta didn’t. Potty training took on
the momentous feeling of an unknown country. His sister never got that far. Sometimes, watching
Harrison grow, I’m reminded of how
little we’ll ever get to know about Greta. Harrison’s personality
is a public fact. He smiles wider
and cries louder than any other child
in the neighborhood. But Greta’s own
tendencies and quirks remain only in her
parent’s memories. Once, she was a person
imposing her will on the world. Now she is our
lonely private fact. When Harrison was a
baby, we would tell him little things about Greta. Greta loved bananas, too. Greta was a real
pain about sleep. But he is older now, and
I’m more reluctant to say her name when he is around. It’s not Greta’s life
I want to keep secret, but how she died. A brick destroyed
my first child. And now, I have to deliver
the knowledge of that brick to my second. It will teach him lessons
I don’t want him to learn. So I stall for
time, bargaining. My superstitions about Greta’s
accident have died down. I don’t cross the
street anymore to avoid passing under
construction sites with him. And the first time
Harrison smacked his face on the jungle gym, filling
his mouth with blood, I stayed calm. When he reached
for me, screaming, he saw no fear in my eyes. Recently, he pointed
to a picture of Greta on the refrigerator. That’s Harrison, he said. That’s Greta, buddy, I
said, correcting him gently. That moment reminded me
that someday, before long, my wife and I will have
to sit down and explain to him that he has a sister
and why she’s not here. So I hold my breath and
wait for the question. Sometimes, we dread it. Sometimes, we yearn for it. But we are on his timetable. Greta lives inside of
Harrison somewhere, murky and luminescent. He knows she was a person,
and that she’s not here, but that we love
her very much. And for now, that’s enough.

73 comments

  1. Depending on the age, I say be honest. My sister recently lost her daughter at 1 year and 2 months. Her oldest is 9 years old. She was very strong though the death.

  2. To be honest. I don't have close feelings to my sister. We grew up in different families and cities, and we contact each other every few years occasionally. I don't even know she is still alive or not for now.

  3. Fortunately for him he is currently at an age where the concept of mortality still doesn't exist and sufficient emotional connections to be able to experience grief haven't been developed.

    Simply telling him in your own particular way (that reflects your values) that she is now gone would suffice, I should think.

    Be this that she is asleep forever, with God, simply gone etc.

    This becomes so much harder the older they get, especially after the age where f around fourteen.

  4. My father, a middle son with 4 Sisters had a long and full life as well as his sisters through 2 world wars and fleeing the Russians , separating the the family for 45 years. They made it through all of this alright despite the fact, that I found out lately, that they had 2 ! older siblings that did not live to the age of 3. That is what life was 100 years ago. Fragile, yet you live on.

  5. Greta was her own person and so is Harrison. It's really sad that the parents keep comparing him to her. The thing about having more than one child is that you get to love them for who they are and not compare them to each other.
    Love Harrison for the little boy that he is. Stop trying to find Greta in him. She's not here anymore. It seems like the parents haven't accepted their loss.
    Harrison is not Greta nor is she in him. Love them for who they are.

  6. My son was very happy when he got a little brother. They were born on exactly the same date, February 28, two years apart. After a week, my youngest son was diagnosed with a rare heart condition. He spent the rest of his life at the hospital. That was three weeks. He passed exactly at one month old. My oldest son didn't realize what happened at the time. When he was 5, I took him to his brother's grave. Explaining what happened to him and what will happen to all of us. I can always see the sadness in my oldest son's eyes everytime we talk about his brother.

  7. Well, I usually say “what a sad story, hope this never ever happens to anyone else”. This time, their story was so deep, yet sadly beautiful to move on living.

  8. Omg.
    I am praying and hoping against all rational that this is just a figment of someone's imagination and not even a minute remote possibility that's ever befallen upon the living.

  9. Children are more open to talking about death than most adults. Honesty and vulnerability lead to openness and strength. My third child died in infancy when my others were 6 and 4, and talking about it helped everyone a lot.

  10. this is so haunting, and so heartbreaking. You were very brave to have another child, and of course it is so hard not to fear for him. There's no expiration date on grief, and each of us needs to work through it in our own time. No one can tell you what you should feel, or for how long. That being said, I think any parent who loses a little child, especially in a freak accident, may benefit from grief counseling and perhaps group support, so I hope you are able to do that. A local hospice or children's hospital may have a child life specialist, who may be able to help you find the time and the words to tell your little boy about his sister in an age appropriate way. Love to your family.

  11. I’ve been telling my son about his sister Elizabeth since he was born. He’s 3, now, she would have been turning 5 this April, and when we can we stop at the pictures of our kids and show him who is sisters are. She’s part of our family, just like him. He won’t know what it’s like to not to have Elizabeth as his sister.

  12. 24 years ago my cousin didn't know his three year old daughter was playing outside. It was time for him to go to work so he went out to his truck, began to back out of the driveway, and backed over his daughter. She didn't survive. His son was a newborn, just a couple of months old at the time. The accident destroyed my cousin. He needed help figuring out how to go on with his own life while reconcilling the horror of the accident, and the guilt he felt about the accident. The death of their daughter also destroyed his marriage. His wife also had trouble dealing with the tragedy. She simply could not forgive my cousin for what had happened. They divorced and she took their newborn son and raised him herself. That son is now 24 and has two young children of his own. A boy and a girl. His parents never kept the knowledge of what happened to his older sister from him. As he grew up if he had a question about his older sister his parents just answered it truthfully. He was allowed to hear and to be part of conversations that went on around him that included mention of his older sister by family members and friends. My cousin remarried about ten years after his divorce from his first wife and he has a daughter now with his second wife. His second daughter has also been permitted to hear conversations that go on around her about her older half-sister and her questions about her older half-sister are answered truthfully. Today it appears that my cousin's son and my cousin's second daughter understand what happened to their elder sister and appear to have placed it into the proper context and have gone on with their own lives in the usual and normal ways that people discover more about life and what may be.

  13. I don't think you "tell" people about this. It's best to respond in the moment to each question. Don't tell your story, just fill in the details of his. He will have an intuitive feel of what he needs to know. He will mostly be interested in your emotional response and less in the facts. Simple awareness reveals reality. Don't expect him to have a complicated response at this time as he might not have the tools to do that.

  14. There is a really lovely couple on Instagram who lost their little guy when he was 4 or 5 and they keep his spirit alive in their everyday family life after having two little girls. Mom’s Instagram is babyboybakery if anyone else is going through a journey like this.

  15. I lost a older sister and my youngest sister was 1 at the time. Long story short. I always talked about how she had a older sister and that my sister loved her. I talk about how her favorite song was this and that. So I always make sure I remember her and tell her how she had a older sister and she always loved her and my sister doesn't remember her but she knows there is someone always watching her and that she loved her.

  16. Just love Greta as you adore Harrison. Assure him of his loving family as above so below. Be joyful in the depth and truth of genuine Love! A brick can't hold a candle to all we forever cherish. There's no rush to tell of how she passed. Just stress the joy you know in the close beauty of your enduring family❤
    Love Heals Everlastingly!

  17. This is similar to my family. I had an older sister who died before I was born. My parents told me when I was around 4 and they decided it was time to take me to her grave. I watched my dad cry, the only time I've ever seen him cry, and my mom would explain to me that God took her away so I could be born. This was traumatizing for me. I became a perfectionist, not allowing myself to truly live, because if I make a mistake it was like I was disrespecting Heather giving her life to me. I forever feel like the replacement child, that I was never really wanted and that I'm only here because she died. I see the way they look at me. They love me but I'm a reminder of the fact that their first daughter died. Its so hard.

  18. What a beautiful short. My heart is heavy with the thought of families losing their children under any set of circumstances. ♡

  19. My mom had a baby before I was born. She lived for a day and then passed from a heart defect. I was named after her. I’m still sad to know I could’ve had a big sister.

    I can’t imagine how hard it is to lose a 2 year old from such a freak accident. This story is beautiful

  20. We had to answer this question. Use every chance to speak her name in conversations. She will always be a member of your family. Always answer his questions in a way that wont scare him but teach him about his sister. He will ask many hard questions. Do the best you can.

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