My daughter's first-grade class is learning about Venn diagrams. On the blackboard, under the heading "family," are two intersecting circles, one labeled with the words "has brothers," the other with "has sisters." It's that little oval in the middle, where the two circles overlap, that causes my heart to feel as if it's been probed by the teacher's pointer. I don't need to look at the board to know that Hannah has placed her name under one side: "has brothers." Everyone participating in this lesson knows she has a brother. He's in a classroom down the hall. When the fourth grade puts on a play, Hannah can point to him up on the stage. She lives to wear his hand-me-downs. Nathaniel's was the name she learned to spell before her own.
But few, if any, of her classmates know that she also had a sister, stillborn three years ago. They haven't seen the family portraits Hannah drew at 3, always with one little person hovering in midair above the others. Or "traveled" with her when she was 4 and piloting planes to Heaven to visit her baby sister. Or played house with her at 5, the baby always dying. Now she's 6, and there is no room for grief in first grade.
The morning after I delivered our beautiful, inexplicably still baby girl, I went home to an angry 3-year-old and a silent 6-year-old. "Their reactions will be different because of their ages," my pediatrician told me. "Don't expect them to feel the way you do." I wouldn't have wanted anyone to feel the way I did. The baby had died inside me, and most of me had gone with her.
"It's not fair," Hannah ranted, several times a day. "Everybody else gets alive babies, and we got a dead one." Nathaniel was stoic. At the funeral he helped shovel the small pile of earth necessary to bury the coffin his father had made. Back at the house, which was crowded with people, I asked him how he was doing. He whispered that he didn't know men cried too.
A few weeks later, when I no longer felt dead but, rather, as if I were going to die, the grief killing me over and over again, we went to the cemetery to water the shrubs we'd planted. "What's she eating in there, anyway?" Hannah asked offhandedly as she draped a macaroni necklace over the metal marker.
"What do you mean, 'What is she eating?'" her brother said derisively. "She's dead."
"I know that," Hannah said. She looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded.
After a while, she asked, "So, how big is she now?"
I knelt down on the wet ground and hugged her round, warm body to me. Who but a 3-year-old would dare say the things bereft mothers mutter to themselves? Is she warm? Is she lonely? Does she know I love her?
We started walking back to the car. "Do you think she'll come back to life?" Hannah asked.
Nathaniel wheeled around: "What do you mean? Only Jesus or maybe Moses can come back from the dead. Don't you know that dead is dead?"
As we drove out through the cemetery gates, I heard him tell his sister, "Stop it, or you'll make Mommy cry."
I had read all the books, and I knew to say the "right" things: It's okay to cry. I don't mind talking about the baby. It's okay to share your feelings. I encouraged my son to draw and paint and, if he wanted, to talk. When he did talk, it was mostly to say the same thing every day: "You're not going anywhere, are you?" And at night, "Can't sleep." He'd shuffle into the living room and lie on the floor with my husband and me, where for those first few weeks we attempted to solve intricate puzzles. For hours, night after night, the three of us would work in near silence, picking up and putting down thousands of colored pieces of pressboard, my husband and I obsessed with bringing something to completion.
After a few weeks of jigsaws, I called the school psychologist. "Sleep disturbance and separation anxiety are age-appropriate responses to this loss." I demanded a time frame. "It may take months," she said.
The mystical musings of the 3-year-old were so much easier to accommodate. What the psychologist was telling me was that a 6-year-old's grief is not so different from yours and mine. Along with bearing my own sadness, I would have to bear witness to his too.
We moved from puzzles to books. I would read to Nathaniel -- books from my own childhood -- an activity that demanded nothing more of me than a remembered passion. We'd read pages and pages of whole worlds filled with humor and faith and joy. There were nights when I would think, By the time we get to the end, everything will be all right. We will read our way beyond this grief.
One evening, as we closed a book, I asked Nathaniel what he'd like for his birthday. He'd be turning 7 soon. There was a long silence, and then he hugged me hard and breathed into my ear, "You."
He wanted me back the way I was before we learned that happiness is a flimsy construct. He wanted his fun, enthusiastic mom, not this walking shell of sorrow and domestic duty. He wanted me back in the way that I wanted him back -- untouched by loss. While my children hadn't lost exactly what I had, there was a place where our sadness overlapped. I kissed him and said, "I'm here."
I ask Hannah about the lesson I saw in her classroom. She is at the kitchen table, working on her Venn-diagram math sheet. "It would have been hard to explain, Mom," she says, apologetically. "Kids just don't understand things like that." I nod and look down at the diagram she is drawing, the intersecting circles and the small, precious oval that is created where they meet.
Rachel Basch is the author of the novel Degrees of Love.