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Ghosts of children passed


Child silhouetteSmall ghosts trail behind so many families, invisible to the naked eye.

Rena bustles around her son's birthday party, passing food and welcoming guests. During a lull, we chat. 'Did you ever think of having a second child?' I ask. 'Oh, we did,' she says, 'but he died. He was eight weeks old. He got an infection, it entered his heart, and he died.'

I place my hand on her shoulder. There are no words.

So often, life is extinguished too soon: 12 weeks after conception; during an impossible birth; after a few short weeks of life. A two-year-old drowns. A three-year-old falls ill. So many families carry these little ones around. There are no words.

These are the invisible children. They hover around their parents at the kinder gates. They are the fleeting shadow in their siblings' eyes.

'Did I have a brother once?' asks a little boy, looking at my youngest and no longer sure. As his mother's eyes fill with tears, I master the lump in my own throat: 'Yes, darling, yes you did. A long time ago, you had a baby brother of your own.' He shouts triumphantly, 'I did have a brother!' and runs off. We mothers glance at each other, then look away. There are no words.

As each year rolls around, there are new things to grieve. It is the first day of school, and there is a small ghost at the end of a line where a living girl ought to be. It is Christmas, and a quiet space sits at the end of the table. It is a birthday, and a father avoids eyes in the lunchroom. The child is gone; no one here knows; he doesn't want to chat. There are no words.

And yet remembering is so important for understanding and healing. A grief unspoken turns inwards and suffocates. It isolates people, deadens them.

So how should we remember these children? Do we mark their birthdays or the day that they died? Do we talk about them in conversation, or sit with friends in silent solidarity, letting them know only that we, too, share in their loss?

Do we name them during All Saints services, and provide the chance to talk about them afterwards? How do we celebrate them?

One family I know has a meal each year on the birthday of their son. Last year he would have turned 21. Around the table they tell old stories, dusted off for the event; they dig out faded photographs.

Another has a quiet corner with a chair, some photographs, a kinder painting, a favourite teddy. When memories bubble up, they go there and sit.

Fifteen years late, a friend sews gifts for her daughters; neither saw the light of day, but the grief is still there, raw and painful and finally coming out. Each stitch is a step in the paradoxical journey of remembering and letting go. Each stitch is a move towards healing.

As friends our role is ambiguous. With families we know well, it is more straightforward: we listen, we reminisce, we might help mark a particular occasion. We send a card or flowers on what should be a first day of school. We send a hamper to a couple whose baby dies soon after birth.

But for newer friends, met after their loss? The biggest gift we can give is to slow down enough to notice the small ghosts, and to ask who they might be. Notice the gaps in a family. Notice the glistening eyes on the first day of school in the mother who has no one starting that year. Notice the reluctance of some parents to hold a baby, or chat with a two-year-old.

Allow acquaintances to avoid us as our children move into a particular age loaded with comparisons, and welcome them back when they are ready. Let them tell stories if they offer them, and accept them as sacred gifts of trust. Remember the dates. Birth, death, first day of school: these are the days when, year after year, a gentle smile or small remembrance might be welcome.

And reflect on the ghosts. Some are sleeping peacefully; others crawl; still others run after their fathers hooting with silent laughter. They are always there, a great cloud tumbling around every school and kinder gate, playing touch-last with the wind. It is up to us to observe them. It is up to us to celebrate their time on earth. It is up to us to help their families mourn.


Alison SampsonAlison Sampson is the mother of three girls. She studied theology at Whitley College is a blogger and a regular contributor to Zadok Perspectives.

Topic tags: Alison Sampson, All Saints



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Existing comments

Can we spare a moment to think about all the children who have died at the hands of an abusive parent - often because of cruel inhumane Family Law decisions? Feel sad for all the children who have been separated from loving protective parents and from brothers and sisters because they're not allowed to see them. These children are often refused counselling or any support when they are removed from a loving home and made to live with abusers. Please help them - make sure the Family FV Bill 2011 passes now as a first step.

Ariel | 02 November 2011  

Thanks Alison for a beautiful reflection on children who are gone.

It's easy to reminisce about children held, named, loved, seen, but anniversary symptoms are so much harder when the child/children have been intentionally aborted, because these parents (and they are definitely parents) feels they can't and dont have a right to speak about such pain after the decision they made in a moment of fear and panic, and now wander "looking for" and silently remembering "what he/she might have looked like" or " He would have been 4 this year" (one of my post abortive clients recently).

It's not the ghosts who haunt us, they are with God at peace but at times our guilt and always our sorrow that they have gone long before they should have.

Anne Lastman | 02 November 2011  

Nothing can replace the loss of young children. My younger brother died at three and then five years later my sister died at three while my mother was about to give birth to another child, my little sister.

My mother and father never spoke of them to me and when I asked they would break down and sob so much they couldn't continue, so I remain uncertain of what happened.

But both my brother and sister were baptised and died at three so our family knows they are in Heaven and they remain in our prayers everyday as we struggle each day to save our own souls in order to be reunited with them one day in Heaven with God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Mary and all the saints and angels forever.

Trent | 02 November 2011  

Thank you,Alison. I have forwarded it to a family relative who has gone through this devastating situation.

Re Ariel's comment: readers may like to know that the newly elected President of Ireland was sent away at the age of five to live with his uncle because his parents were unable to provide for him.

Frankf | 02 November 2011  

Think of how many ghosts must hover over developing countries. Storm clouds of them. At least in Australia any child born has a fighting chance. (Less of a chance, admittedly, if they're born in a remote community.)

Anne Lastman, I think that you should focus on those babies born overseas, lost because of poverty and misdirection of resources, not attribute guilt to women who have had an abortion.

Penelope | 02 November 2011  

Thank you,Alison. I have forwarded it to a family relative who has gone through this devastating situation.

Re Ariel's comment: readers may like to know that the newly elected President of Ireland was sent away at the age of five to live with his uncle because his parents were unable to provide for him.

Frankf | 02 November 2011  

Thanks to you for a very beautiful article. Touches the heart of all.
Rosemary Keenan

Rosemary Keenan | 02 November 2011  

Thank you Alison. I like the image of the ghosts trailing along behind - it makes the lost ones more present - a reminder of eternity. Mine was not so little - 23. It helps to know people like you are able to notice others' pain.

Jan | 02 November 2011  

Penelope, I think about the children who die of hunger all the time and I and my husband do something about it. But I also work with and deal with people who made a decision which they later regretted and whilst society encourages abortion, then that same society tells the man/woman to "get a life. You made the decision" I don't give the woman the guilts. I help her recover and move on. Thank you very much.

Anne Lastman | 02 November 2011  

How comforting for someone to see the things that are not there... a most moving and insightful piece.

Donna Lamont | 02 November 2011  

Dear Alison,
Thank you for your thoughtful article. As a parent who gave up a child for adoption and later lost our eldest daughter in a car accident I can attest to the importance of being able to grieve openly. It was only when my daughter was killed at 19 tha I ws free to grieve not only her loss but the loss of my first born. With this came the beginning of healing.
Thank you again

jean Sietzema-Dickson | 02 November 2011  

My only brother,Ian, was born when I was 12. Despite prayers and the best medics available, he lived only seven days, in intensive care. I never met him, but that day will come. Thank you, Alison, for giving words to my feelings, unexpressed for 58 years.

Alan | 03 November 2011  

Thank you Alison, It is good to read thoughtful words in areas that I would usually overlook.

Tony Holdway | 07 November 2011  

Alison, and you for a touching article. I have shared the same thoughts myself as a mother who has lost a two day old baby. He would be six this year and I felt the hole where he should have been waiting for the bus for the first day of school, each year we watch his siblings grow and wonder what he would be like right now playing along with them. We are fortunate to have a wonderful caring support group who is there to listen whenever I need to talk about my son. It is true that you pause at certain questions like "how many children do you have?" from new acquaintances. I choose to share my story when I feel it is appropropriate most often saying I have 3, though I only have two on earth. Thank you for sharing this story. I have found friends will reach out to me when one of their friends is going through a tragic loss. It is helpful for me to know I can help other parents through this journey.

Jennie | 12 November 2011  

I am a mummy to 3 tiny angels passed to soon, bethany who was delievered at 18 weeks gestation & my princess Ella-M<ae who was delivered at 25+2 as i had severe pre-eclampsia....my little fighter fought too hard & 3 days later she passed away in my arms :'( Your beautiful writing has left me with little flutterings all over my face, i know that is Ella-Mae coming close to me, to show love. She often does this when i talk about her or do things in her memory....i would love to share your wonderful work on my FB page, i have one page that has my angel friends & families & the other is Angel memories where we come together to share wonderful groups with each other...i also make personalised babyloss & health awareness jewellery. Sending you so much love & thanks for sharing such beautiful words xxx

Shelly Gleed | 20 November 2011  

Thank you for a very well written article that effectively shared what those of us that have these ghosts following us would like others to know.

Erika Landon | 21 November 2011  

Thank you for a very well written article that effectively shared what those of us that have these ghosts following us would like others to know.

erika | 22 November 2011  

Our son (4 1/2y) drowned 6weeks ago. We plan on being married on his birthday so that we can celabrate his birthday and our wedding together with family and friends

Angela | 22 November 2011  

Thanks Alison for a beautifully written article. There are some kinds of loss that need a deft touch when writing about them, and you have it.

Tony | 23 November 2011  

I have never attended a rally or protest in my life. Next Sunday 4th of December I will be for the first time, to validate mothers, out of respect to all children, who as adults have committed suicide due to abuse by clergy. To date, over thirty six, from just two diocese in Victoria. Sometimes prayer is just not enough. As by product, it can't help bring to mind clergy near and far who out of conscience tried to do something about it.

L Newington | 27 November 2011  

Thank you so much for this article. Our son, Dexter, died 11 hours after he was born. A tiny life that never left a hospital room. It was amazing that about a week after the funeral.. I was asked, "Why are you sad?" when someone asked me how I was & answered truthfully. Since then we had our "rainbow baby" (a baby after a loss, terminology that is frequent in the pregnancy & infant loss community) & despite being over joyed he is here.. every small milestone he passes can feel bittersweet. His big brother never did. Our family will always have a hole where he should be. & while I still get sad, hearing someone mention him or remember his birthday gives me heart a little piece of joy knowing that someone else realizes how important he was to us.

Leslie Matteson | 28 November 2011  

Leslie, and that is how it is. Someone else knowing just how important he is, all of them always children.

This is such an appropriate time for this perspective, the 1st of November, although some postings may be later, there's no time in eternity.

L Newington | 29 November 2011  

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