The grief of a 5 year old brother, 12 months on.

Ashton meeting Elliott

For nearly three weeks my mornings have started with Ashton waking up and the first thing he says is “I miss Elliott”. There are no triggers, no reacting to an environment or us, he just wakes up missing him. The day continues with “I miss Elliott”, “I wish he didn’t die”, “I want my brother”, “I wish he could come back to life one day” throughout the WHOLE day he is with me. It usually ends in the same words while he gets a cuddle to bed.

There’s hardly any time to breathe in between.

No chance to let your mask down because you have to be strong.

No chance to attempt to soothe your aching heart for a moment as it’s ripped out over and over again with short sentences filled with heartache from someone barely out of being a baby himself.

Every time I hear these words I want to fall to my knees crying but I don’t. I’ve developed superhero powers of suppressing tears, which is probably a good thing or I’d be crying all day. Instead, I hold it in and say “I know mate I do too”. If anything is going to break me, it’s seeing how much loss he feels and not being able to stop it.

Sometimes he wants more of a response and we discuss how we hold him in our heart, feel him around us and what can we do that will help him feel better (cuddle, doing a drawing to Elliott, a trip to the beach to calm). Most of the time he just needs to say it out loud to someone. He mostly says it to me but he also says it to Adam, to his sister, to his grandparents and to his auntie. A few days ago he branched out and told staff from Sids and Kids and my own staff members. On a few occasions he has told a couple of his friends and their mums, his teacher and even strangers “my baby brother is dead”. Sometimes he says it softly, sometimes he yells it out. It can be in conversation or as soon as he sees them before saying anything else. I’m guessing he does this to process it all, release what’s inside or just to make sure everyone knows.

I’m pretty sure he wanted Elliott as much as we did. I’m pretty sure he had as many plans as we did. I’m completely sure he loved him from the moment he found out, as much as we did. While it warms me to know how big his heart is and how strong the bond he formed is, it kills me inside that he can’t love his brother the way he should be able to.

We shouldn’t have been so surprised by the loss he feels. He’s always been naturally drawn to babies with a strong paternal instinct. If there is a baby in a room I could almost guarantee he’s right next to them, tickling them and talking to them. I see the love in his eyes and the happiness on his face when he is with them. I love watching him be so beautiful with them but at the same time it hurts so much. I sometimes think of ho  he should be playing with his brother and making him laugh. How he should be kissing him and holding him. Instead he draws pictures for him and puts them in a little box and hopes Elliott knows what he has drawn for him. Instead he cuddles Elliott’s toys and puts his own on Elliott’s shelf, like a little offering and his way of interacting with him. He says “hello Elliott” when a butterfly flies by, keeping his spirit in his heart. So often i say to myself, he should be living with his brother, not mourning him.

He took one of Elliott’s toys into Show and Tell this week, something he’d been asking to do for a few weeks. I was hesitant so mentioned it to his teacher who was very supportive, understanding and had no issues with it. She told me that the children are at the age where other people’s lives are removed from their own so it’s almost not real to them. I know it was the right decision when i saw how happy he was in the morning to bring the toy. I think these things help him to show other people his brother is real, something HE needs to do and I know it’s a way to express his love.

Unfortunately Ashton has been revisiting the angry stage off and on over the last few months and for a while has been regressing again. He tries to put on nappies saying “I want to be a baby because Elliott was a baby”. He’s started running away on us in shopping centres. He screams “I hate you” to us before coming back to us crying telling us he’s sorry and he loves us. At times he’s totally out of control. Yesterday I had to carry him kicking out of my shop and physically force him into the car, locking the door instantly because he was trying to get out of the car on the road. It’s not always like this and no matter what hes the most beautiful, sweet and loving boy. Some of his behavior isn’t grief related at all but regardless during the hard times it’s exhausting and very hard to parent through.

On a positive side (i’m guessing?) he has said goodbye to his imaginary friend Bear. One day he simply said to me “Bear has gone now, i can remember him and he can come in my dreams but he doesn’t come to me when i am awake anymore”. A while after this conversation we were cleaning his room together and i found a bear Emma had made him from a toilet roll. He quickly took it from my hands saying “that’s for me to remember bear” and told me he hid it because he was worried someone would steal it and he would forget his friend. We put his little memento back safely in his hidden spot and he has hardly spoken of him since.

I’m not sure if it’s because he is also another year older and his mind is expanding seeking information or if its Elliott’s birthday triggering him but as it nears he’s become confused about death. He’s been asking questions he’s never asked before such as “Is he actually one and does he grow up??” Questions I don’t have real answers for and have to start is “i don’t know but i think…”. He’s even said “when lily (his cousin) was dead…” and I had to say “Lily was never dead” to which he replied “but she wasn’t here before then she was so maybe then Elliott can be here again” and I had to try explain life and death. Along with the new questions he’s begun asking again if one day he will come back. When I say no he always replies “but I WISH he did”. One day at the beach he asked if he could throw rocks into the sea and make wishes for Elliott. I said yes and held his hand as he threw them as hard as he could shouting

“I love you Elliott! I wish you could come back alive!”

Up and down he ran throwing rocks in the sea over and over again saying “I wish you could come alive!” After a while I gently said to him “darling even though we want him to come back, do you know he can’t?” (despite having that conversation so many times before). He simply said “But I haven’t finished my wishes yet” as if he did it enough, he’d prove me wrong. Over and over we now have to gently reinforce the reality of death and every time it hurts so much. It’s hard enough learning to accepting the length of forever and permanency of death as an adult but i’m finding it harder trying to help our child who’s struggling to understand it all to accept it. Every time Ashton says these things i remind myself how good it is that he’s not suppressing anything and how important it is that he feels safe enough to say anything he wants and needs to. That doesn’t make it any easier to hear the things he says. Every time we go through the hard times (like now) i remind myself its all love and his big heart, but it doesn’t make it less painful to see.

Sometimes it’s hard to get people to believe what we’re going through as children can flip from one extreme to the next within minutes and are quick to develop walls and masks to the public just as adults do so they don’t see what we see every day. Many just don’t believe a child could have their own grief for a little life they didn’t know for long and think it’s something WE’RE doing or did that’s causing their struggles. People assume our lives are consumed and centered around Elliott (which its not) and the other children are being forgotten about (which is ridiculous). They question if talking about him is healthy but don’t realise that our conversations around Elliott with our children are mostly instigated by them. Yes he has an active role in our lives, but that is just as much for our children and their wants and needs as it is for ours. I’ve lost many nights of sleep wondering if those people were right, questioning if our children have reacted the way they have to Elliott’s loss because of something we’ve done or are doing. I have to remind myself that I’ve read every thing i can about childhood grief and everything says their reactions are normal and expected. I have to keep telling myself that all the professional advise has supported the things we do as a family and for our children. Most importantly i need to have confidence in myself that we know our children and what works best for them and their needs best.

There’s nothing wrong with our children, they are simply grieving and need to be let to do so.


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