The Invisible Sibling

Healing a Heart
By Sara Barry


“You’re lucky you don’t have a brother.”

The seven-year-old we had just met on the trail grumbled to my seven-year-old. No response, but the one in my head:

“But she does.”

My girls do have a brother. They just don’t know what it’s like to have one who bickers with them and chases them and bugs them. They have never sputtered in a fit of anger, “I wish I didn’t have a brother.” They also don’t know what it is like to have a brother share his legos or chase them in a game of tag.

My girls do have a brother, and what that looks like has changed and morphed over time.

Back when we changed diapers before bed, my husband would pull a picture of Henry down off the shelf and the girls would say goodnight. Some days they’d ask for the picture. Some days they kissed it. It was a tradition I loved, but I told myself not to get too attached, to let them decide. One day they stopped asking for the picture. We stopped getting dressed in the bathroom or we were rushed and getting to bed late or their ideas changed. Like so many things, it was what we did for a while, and then it wasn’t.

“We have five people in our family. Two boys and three girls,” the little one likes to say. She counts them off on her fingers. “Mom, me, and Kathleen are girls. Plus dad and . . . “ Are you expecting her to say Henry here? It would make a sweet story, but really she says, “Roscoe.” Our dog.

Some days Kathleen will remind her to add Henry. Some days she doesn’t. I can live with this. They know he is part of our family even if he isn’t here to count. I can live with this because they’ve also said, “I’m sad I never got to meet Henry.” I can live with this because I don’t want them to be crushed by his loss, because I can’t expect them to hold the same space for him that I do.

Before they were born, early in my grief, I needed to know Henry wouldn’t be forgotten. I wondered and worried about how I would make him real to kids who had never known him. I looked to other people for their stories. When Kathleen came along, and then Elizabeth, I stopped worrying about how to introduce them to this baby brother they hadn’t met and would never know. We simply talked about him. We showed pictures like we did with lots of family members. “That’s mommy. That’s Nana. That’s Henry.” We named him. We told stories and visited the cemetery. I cried and told them why.

I don’t know what effect having a brother who died before they could meet him has or will have on my kids. I’m curious if his death will hit them some day as their concept of death changes or what being exposed to death so early means for them. I do my best to let them know that I love Henry even though he’s not here and that I love them deeply and all the time. I show them know it is okay to be sad and to express that sadness, and I share the great joy and beauty around us even with sadness. We talk about Henry simply as part of our family.

So when somebody asks, as a friend did not so long ago, “Who’s that baby in that picture?” my girls reply nonchalantly, “That’s Henry. That’s my brother.”

So, little girl on the trail, you’re wrong. My daughters are not lucky they don’t have a brother, because they have one. Even if they don’t really get to know him. But I know what you mean, because I wish they had a chance to wish they didn’t have a brother.

“You’re lucky you don’t have a brother,” still catches my attention, but my mind moved on by the time we caught up with the girls who had rushed ahead. Not so long ago, I would have cried or gotten really quiet. Not so long ago I would have wanted curl up in bed when we got home. Not so long ago, I might have answered that little girl aloud or seethed my answer inside. Instead I quietly acknowledge Henry in my own heart. My son. My girls’ brother.

If you have other kids, how has the loss affected them? How do you feel about the way your living children think about the baby they don’t get to grow up with? What questions or worries or wishes do you have?