Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Doll's House

Bella's somehow survived almost four years on (a superfluity of) stuffed animals and trains, but no dolls. Something must have flitted across her radar because in the past few months there have been some infrequent "look mom!"'s and plaintive, whiney desires for an assortment of plastic formed females. Some quite scary. I like to think I'm hip, but what the fuck is the with the oversized heads and eyes and heavily made-up figurines? I decided to do a preemptive strike and purchase her an age-appropriate doll of my choosing before the extended relatives got wind of the questionable wishes.

She quickly named her doll Maya? Mia? Well, it changes, and this is the age frankly where if she walked in today and announced that her doll was now to be referred to as "Word Girl," "Tucker -- 'cause he's my favorite cat," or "What's that guy's name again? Oh right, OABAMA," I wouldn't blink. She's much more into the pets this doll possesses than the doll itself, which I suppose is just fine with me. And the doll doesn't get a lot of play time, save for mornings and evenings when she gets dressed for the day/night. A lot of wardrobe decisions, and then Mia/Maya/Little Miss President gets parked while we swing, climb trees, and play Bingo.

Last night I was walking her through her (Bella's, people) bedtime routine out-loud as I am wont when I suspect a bit of lollygagging: praised her for the exhibition of oral hygiene, reminded her of the next step of selecting her own nighttime wardrobe, and skipping ahead yet another step in the process, looked around her room and said,

Now where's Maddy?

Yes. I did. I did slip and call a plastic inanimate fresh-faced girl doll by my deadbaby's name. Um hmm.

And I don't think I've ever seen Bella dumbstruck, but damn if she wasn't. Eyes wide, mouth agape, staring at me, the silence of those milliseconds hanging over us like a cloud with it's own barometric pressure reading. "SILLY MOMMY!" I said in that horrified/self-deprecating tone one takes when we fuck up slightly in front of our children, "MAYA/MIA! Here you are! Time for bed!"

Which got me thinking . . . . Do I talk about Maddy enough?


I've been trying for, well, months really, to start and finish a post on Bella and this grief business. Because I read things like this and this and think, wow, Bella would never do that. Not in a million years. And then I remind myself that she's younger than these kids, and tra-la-la my way over to Wonkette, and then am suddenly alerted that no, actually, kids younger than Bella speak of their dead siblings, even kids who weren't alive yet. And then I read stuff like this and figure I'm really making a mess of things.

We don't have a gravestone to visit around which to elicit such conversation, and I guess when I think about it, I don't talk about Maddy that much in the course of my daily grind. Except, you know, here. I'm not one to wander into a room and sigh and say out loud, "Ahh. I'm missing Maddy right now. Should we draw the blinds, put on some ambient music, sit down and close our eyes and contemplate her for a few?" Really not my style. But should it be?

Work-friends of Mr. ABF planted a tree for Maddy in a nearby park. I used to run over there to visit, but obviously haven't been running in quite some time, and our daily traffic patterns don't take us over there. But one day, rather out of the blue, I said to Bella on the way home from school, "let's go drive by Maddy's tree and see how it's doing." And that was it, we never left the car, I pointed it out, and then moved on to some lawn sculpture that Bella's fond of. Now that this cube of ice is broken, I do this trip a bit more frequently. But I guess I don't often initiate the Maddy-speak, I usually enter it in response to something already said. And if Mr. ABF and I have a discussion in front of Bella, it's usually about "it" not "her" (as in, "Can you believe they're already planning for the December candlelight service?" or "YOUR FATHER SAID WHAT??").

So I start these posts in my head about how this is unhealthy and terrible and then mid-mental-sentence-forming, Bella, out of the blue, brings her up -- like Murphy's Law. A week or so ago there was the instance of watering Maddy's Lilac, and just a few nights ago, with zero prompting, she turned to me and said, "Maddy's name is on your bracelet, right? Can I see it?" And we talked through spelling her name, and what a "nickname" is. We went over why I wear it all the time, and that yes, Daddy wears his (blue plastic) bracelet with her name on it all the time, too.

I tend to let Bella lead in this ongoing conversation. If she asks me to read her one of her "I'm a Big Sister!" books, I do. But I don't push anything on her at the end. I figure if she asks, I'll tell. Ditto with her death books. I guess I do blurt out Maddy's name here and there subconsciously (whoops), and I'm stupid to think she doesn't pick up on it or won't remember.

I don't want to shape her grief, I don't want to have a sit down with a four year old (who will barely sit down long enough to put on her shoes in the morning) about her sister, but I don't want to ignore it, either. I walk some fine line here, that sometimes feels like I'm doing a disservice, and other times surprises me with a reward. When I read Marita's piece at GITW, my first reaction was "crap, I bet Bella's ALREADY scared to ask me these things, that's she's already made the association between the spoken word 'Maddy' and a complete sobbing collapse on my part." But I think we're both improving a bit. Bella brings her up with a bit more frequency, and hopefully I'm responding with a bit less of the dumbstruck, deer-in-the-headlights look myself.

Now, any advice on what to do if Bella proclaims her doll to be named "Maddy?" Because you just know that's coming.


luna said...

what a beautifully honest post, tash. it must be such a delicate dance of managing your own grief while trying to protect bella from your experience yet also searching for some way that she might process her own authentic experience...

I can't offer any advice here, but I know there is no one right way. each child and situation is different. I have a sense that if you haven't already, you will find the right way for you and bella, as you do every day, slip-ups and all...

Coggy said...

Its difficult for me to know how I'd deal with all this if J had a sibling. After reading your post I was struck with the feeling that it would be very similar. I don't think its right or wrong to deal with this in an in your face let's talk way or a sit back and let the subject lie till its ready. I think it just is as it is.

I actually thing you are handling things in the way that is best for you and Bella. You let her bring things up and then spend time answering her questions. I think she's working through things in her own way. You certainly don't sound like your doing a bad job of any of this.

As for the potential doll name change. Jeez. I have no idea. Grit your teeth maybe and quickly change the subject. Fingers crossed Bella doesn't go there.

janis said...

Oh Tash... ... (hug)
I don't think you are screwing anything up at all. Every kid is different, and every child's relationship with their dead sibling is different, and it is NOT stagnant.
You know, it made my heart stopped, and ached, when I read that you called Bella's doll Maddy.
And if she chooses to let her doll have an incarnation as Maddy... I will just play along, and see what comes out of it. Perhaps she wants to see how you would react; perhaps she simply wishes to pretend to have a doll named Maddy; perhaps she wonders what it is like to have a Maddy in her life. I know you will deal with it, as always, in your own phenomenal manner.

Dayna said...

My own opinion (and seriously, what the crap do I know about any of this? I feel bad even giving an opinion - feel free to tell me to shut up at any time) is that if Bella ever calls her doll "Maddy" it will be out of need -- whether that's a need to remember her sister in her own, four-year-old way or a need to see how Mommy will react, I don't know. But if she does I think you should go along with it as best you can and honor it as Bella's way of grieving? I know it will be hard. (How pathetically understated.) But just as you are feeling your own way through this, Bella is feeling hers.

Tash, your posts are like poetry. Always so insightful, too.

BTW I don't know if you know Angie over at but if you want to add another intelligent, insightful woman to your blog roll you might want to check her out...

All the best.

CLC said...

I have no advice for you. But it sounds like you are doing ok walking this line with her. Every kid is different, as is every person's grief. So there's no need to compare Bella to others and wondering if you are doing the wrong thing. I don't think you can shove it down a child's throat (not that you would want to) so waiting for her lead sounds appropriate. And I know it would he heartbreaking for you if she named her doll Maddy, but I think it's sweet that she is still thinking about her sister.

loribeth said...

I have friends who have lost babies but have other children, & I admire them so much for the way they have made their lost siblings a part of their lives. They have pictures & other mementos on display in their homes, & take their children to memorial events, like the butterfly release & picnic I blogged about last week. The children tend to be very matter of fact about it all (& it's really cool when we all get together to see them playing together & talking about their brothers & sisters to each other). It is a challenge, but it sounds to me like you are doing a good job already.

Oh, & one of my friends had her daughter name a doll after her sister. It kind of spooked the mom out, but she didn't make a big deal out of it.

sweetsalty kate said...

tash, you're right on track. You're following her cues, you're finding your own feet about it, you're giving her (and you) calm, relatively everyday ways of entering maddy's space, like going briefly to look at her tree.

When bella's ready, she'll ask you about maddy in more sophisticated ways, and you can answer in more sophisticated ways. And eventually she'll be more your companion than your dependant - and that's when you can share with her, woman-to-woman, your journey and maddy's, if you choose to. And you can tell her what it meant to have bella with you, lighting up your life.

Won't that be something. I know I'm looking forward to thanking our kids someday for everything they've been for us, through all this. Although perhaps not after today. Today I almost strung Evan up by his $&*#^%$*$.

Bon said...

oy on the doll. :)

and, having no clue about this stuff and how to go about it in any kind of natural way myself, i feel you on wondering about the shoulds. but i figure, really, there aren't any that apply, because if you or i or anyone try to grieve like someone we're not, even for the sake of our children, that will do more harm than good.

i do think about what i want O to come out knowing about his brother, and try to make access to those things available...very occasionally, as it happens, maybe a little more as he gets older.
i dunno.

you WILL end up shaping Bella's grief, though. you may shape her entire understanding of what it is to grieve, can't help it. she will grow up knowing that you survived this, and the how of it will be a model for her.

heavy, the same time, kind of amazing. because what we choose to share with our living kids may actually give them the chance to be one of those rare people who doesn't melt at the first sign of someone's grief. or so i can hope?

Lisa b said...

I think following bella's lead is the best thing you can do. My greatest fear with Julia was what I was going to have to tell her sister if she didn't survive. I catch my breath and stop short just to think of you having to do that.

debbie said...

I also don't have any answers here, just a few thoughts. Having no children yet, the only thing I can only relate to is the aftermath of my dad's death. I know the most important thing I needed in my house was the ability to feel like I could talk about it whenever I wanted to. Most people in my house tried to avoid it and that was really hard for me. My aunt, on the other hand, always let me bring it up. So, from my perspective, I think you need to just keep making it perfectly okay for Bella to bring it up whenever and however she wants to. Even with the deer/headlight eyes, your body language and your tone are telling her it's okay, I'm just sure of it. Just keep doing what you're doing.

As for the doll, if she names it Maddy, I suppose you could use it as a way to talk about her feelings--that's what all the experts seem to do. or not, just let her be organic about it, like you're doing.

For you, I think it sounds as if you feel a little guilty for not having some kind of memorial for Maddy. Maybe the tree just doesn't work for you, so why don't you try and come up with one that feels like you. Even if it's a special piece of stained glass or a framed poem or painting, why don't you try and make something in your house a tribute to Maddy? I know you think of her every day, but maybe this could help the dialogue for you and Bella. You have the bracelet, maybe she needs something to look at every day too--maybe that will somehow make it easier to move in and out of talking about it if necessary. Just my thoughts.

c. said...

OMG. I can just imagine the look on your face when you called the doll Maddy - which I assure you is no small feat being that I've never seen your face.

I think we do the best we can, Tash. There are no manuals that describe how to mourn our dead babies in the presence of our live ones. We just have to sort through this as best we can. There's no right or wrong. There just isn't.

I think by remaining open to the cues Bella puts out there is all you can do. And that fact that you wear Maddy's name around your wrist, that is also such a strong and powerful message. Bella will want to know more, will want to say more, in time.

I can say with much certitude that you will mother both of your girls the very best way you can. Knowing HOW to do this, I think, only comes with time as well.

missing_one said...

I say "why not?"

I think Maddy lives on whenever someone speaks or thinks her name.
there is remembrance....

At least that's why I think anyway

thanks for this post


Brooke said...

I am in a similar position, except my son is older. I have read some posts from different people about their children's reactions and actions, and I just think "wow. Rory never did anything like that".

He does take toys to Caden when we visit the memorial garden, but he never mentions him, and I dont know how to bring him up, or whether I should.

I do know that one of my best friends had a little brother who was stillborn, and even though he was very young, it affected him greatly. All I can think is that in years to come perhaps Rory will have more questions. At this stage, I am leaving it up to him, and taking my cues from him. I think that is all we can do.

niobe said...

You know you don't want my advice, because I've got my own, uh, not exactly mainstream way of dealing with this stuff. As in stick-my-fingers-in-my-ears denial. I really, really don't want my son to think of the twins as his siblings or to have a relationship with them or to integrate them into his life. So we don't talk about it. Ever.

I think that, whether you bring it up or not, that you are going to shape Bella's grief. Children -- even teenagers like my son -- take cues on these kind of things from their parents. The fact that you have a tree, a lilac, a bracelet is going to naturally create opportunities to discuss Maddy and your feelings about her.

iheartchocolate said...

I saw you on mommywantsvodka...The Rt 7 intersection I know well (used to work at Seven Corners AH) and I wanted to say I could not believe there was a child roaming around there! I wouldn't walk in that area, the traffic is horrible! Then when I popped over here, I read your post and my heart broke. I am sorry. I do want to come back and read from the beginning..but just had to say that I was very moved by this post.

MsPrufrock said...

I'll be honest - I feel absolutely ridiculous commenting on your grief-based posts because I have no frame of reference and would just come off as trite.

However, I do want you to know that I'm reading, nodding my head, and getting teary-eyed every time. Your writing is so honest, beautiful, and moving. Thank you.

Kymberli said...

msprufrock said it way better than I could have. I do not feel like I could ever offer advice, but your words always slow me down and make me think. It seems that you are finding your way, though, and with that, I think Bella will find hers, also.

Which Box said...

I think this really depends on how you really want Maddy integrated into your life. Some people prefer to let it go and be in the past. Others keep it front and center forever, and then there's a wide spectrum in between. I think that you probably don't want Bella to feel it is a taboo subject, so answering her questions and bringing it up occasionally yourself probably works well for you. But maybe you want Maddy more integrated into your, and Bella's lives. In which case maybe you want a picture of Maddy, perhaps even in Bella's room. I think you don't want her to grow in Maddy's shadow, so it is a delicate balance. you do the best you can.

I also think your situation is different from many others. In your case, I wish you had a better genetic answer, because what you can't tell Bella is how much it may impact her reproductive choices. And that really stinks.

In my case, when I called my mom last year to tell her of my loss, she told me she had a miscarriage when I was about 5 - she actually couldn't remember exactly, and I was in no shape to ask her about it. So, approximately 33 years later, I find out this piece of info about my mom - I had no idea. None at all. But that was fine, and my daughter will probably only find out pieces of my story when she tries to reproduce herself. I think it's easier when there are siblings - you don't get the same questions about why don't I have brothers or sisters. I'm sorry this is hard/confusing for Bella - and you too.

kate said...

I think i am really making a mess of things too. I absolutely thought that when i read the yellow flowers post at GITW. I really don't know what to do -- i mean it seems ridiculous to harp on the dead brother thing but on the other hand, Nicolas was born 5 years ago and as such we almost never talk about him anymore. It's not that i don't *want* to talk about him, but it is simply that there is not much to *say*. So yeah, i think i am doing poorly with that whole thing.

k@lakly said...

I think what is hard for me is that I just don't know how my children grieve. What I mean here is that I don't think they feel the loss at all the same way that I do and I also don't think they are really grieving a lost little brother, more that idea of a lost little brother. Like you, my kids never saw Caleb, eventho here our stories are vastly different given your time with Maddy here, I wonder if for Bella it is the same thing, the idea of a sister who isn't quite real to her. And in that sense, for my kids I feel that they are mourning the dream of the baby not the actual baby. Even after that post of mine, my son said to me, when I had made a comment about never wanting to have to ever deal with the loss of another child(long story), son said, you haven't lost one of your children. And I had to explain that losing Caleb was losing one of my children, which he understood but not until I told him my perspective. That illuminated for me, his view that Caleb, for him is more of an illusion, something he misses, something that makes him sad but not in the way I thought it did.
All we can do is let them lead us I guess, as it seems none of us really knows where we are headed....

Julia said...

Argh.... blogger just freaked out on me. Let me try again.

I think there is nothing to do but follow their lead. It is likely to be uncomfortable for you in one way or another, but it is the organic thing to do. IMHO, of course.

Monkey is older, but there is also the time before A where she was asking for a sibling. So he was her dream come true, and I think this is what accounts for the depth of her attachment and her grief. The flip side. Always fun.

Amanda said...

I think for her to call her doll Maddy is just fine. Her sister will live within her in a way that you can neither define, nor truly shape. It is her memory, her interpretation. What you can do is honor her working it out. Seems like you've done a pretty great job. Just trust.