How Our Son’s Death Affected Our Daughter

by | Sep 3, 2021 | Uncategorized | 15 comments

How Tragedy affects children's developmental stages
Merchandise is Here!

Tomorrow will be the 25th anniversary of my son Christopher’s death.

Every year I like to write something about grief and honor him in some way, even if just to mention him or remember. I honestly am okay, I just get sad around this time of year.

My oldest daughter Rebecca and I were talking on a walk this week, and she said something to me that I had never really understood before.

We were talking about anxiety, and she laughed and said something like,

 

Oh, I had all the developmental trust and attachment stuff down because that happened before 18 months, but then the things you’re supposed to learn the next year I’ve always struggled with.

Babies and children go through different developmental stages where they learn about the world and their own autonomy.

When babies are first born, they don’t even realize that the world is separate from them. They think Mommy is part of “me”–though they don’t really have a concept of “me”. As they grow, they begin to differentiate themselves from their parents and from others and learn their place in the world.

In infancy, babies are learning basic “trust vs mistrust”, or whether or not I will get my needs met when I call. Can I rely on others to care about me and care for me? (That’s one reason, by the way, that it’s very important not to spank babies, even though many Christian books advocate it. And it’s wise to consider the research into spanking overall).

In toddlerhood, they turn to autonomy vs. shame and doubt. They want to do things more independently (like choose their food or clothing). They’re learning to do things on their own.

They’re asking, “can I do things for myself?” They’re trying to figure out whether they have control over the world around them.

Just as Rebecca was entering this stage, her brother was born.

 

 

Why toddlers need to sleep through the night, too!

Here we were in the nursery at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, before he was transferred to the Hospital for Sick Children for surgery.

We used to visit him in the hospital several times a day and just hold him, even though he wasn’t awake very much. His poor little heart was so underdeveloped it took tremendous energy to pump it, and he was tired all the time.

We were hoping we could avoid surgery until he was bigger, but he kept losing weight, and eventually we had no choice.

That was my son the night before his surgery. He lived for four days post-op before he passed away.

I tried to do outings with Rebecca “like usual” as much as I could while Christopher was in the hospital.

We made sure one of us was always there to do her bedtime routine and her breakfast like usual. We tried to keep things normal, but of course nothing was normal. And emotionally we were a mess.

I remember the day of the funeral she just cried and cried, even though nothing was really wrong for her. She was playing in the church nursery, like usual, with people that she liked. But she could just sense that everyone around her was so sad, and she had no idea why. She didn’t know what was happening.

So right as she’s trying to learn to be independent and asking whether she has control over her environment, all of this happens. Little 18 month old Rebecca is learning whether or not the world is safe for her to exert her independence and learning how to control her emotions, and her baby brother dies. Mommy and Daddy are distraught, and Nana is distraught, and everyone seems weird and sad.

I assumed that this would fade into the background of Rebecca’s memory.

She was only 19 months old when he died, after all.

But a year later, Katie was born. Keith took Rebecca to the hospital to visit us twice before it was time to come home. And on the day we were bringing Katie home, Rebecca was so confused. She asked, “The baby is coming to our house?”

It wasn’t just a normal big sister question–“you mean that thing is going to displace me?” No, she thought the baby was going to stay at the hospital, because she remembered the other baby staying at the hospital and never coming home, even though it had been a year earlier.

How developmental toddler stages affect us

Rebecca’s always had more anxiety than most of our family.

(She knows I’m writing this by the way and has no problem talking about it. She may even talk about it on a podcast soon!). But her anxiety is often focused on just feeling paralyzed and feeling unable to make a decision. She laughs that she’s stuck at 18 months.

The other developmental stages she sailed through, and she’s actually quite a well-rounded person. But that one basic question: “Can I control my environment and take initiative?” is one she tends to have trouble with.

Why am I telling you this today? Because sometimes stuff happens and it affects us and it isn’t our fault.

Looking back on those days after Christopher died, I was a mess, but I still fed Rebecca and hugged her and gave her baths. We really did the best we could do, and objectively we did pretty well. But we were still grieving, and she knew that. She just couldn’t understand why. And it coloured how she grew up.

She’s had a few more challenges than the rest of us in emotional regulation. She likely would have had a lot of that anyway–that’s also her personality–but this definitely gave her more challenges.

But it wasn’t her fault.

Sometimes life just happens. Some people are going to have more to deal with than others. Or some people are going to have one particular “thorn in the flesh” that’s just hard. This is a broken world.

And I guess I wanted to tell you all that today. Sometimes our kids have things that affect them, and we wish that they didn’t, but we couldn’t do anything about it.

That’s when we need to give ourselves grace. I couldn’t have not grieved in those days. I was barely hanging on. I did the best I could. Keith did the best he could. We all did the best we could, and we’re still doing that. Sometimes our best means that things still aren’t perfect.

But that’s part of life, and life is messy.

And into that messiness, Jesus chose to come. He lived it. He understands it. And He doesn’t expect us to do anything more than we can do.

(our family last year at Christopher’s grave)

Miscarriage and Chrissy Teigen
Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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15 Comments

  1. Chris

    I hesitate to say that I “like” the posts you do about Christopher because they are so sad and heartbreaking, but you write so well that I can feel all the emotions.

    My mom was 8 when her younger brother died of leukemia. She blamed herself for that. I have often wondered how exactly that affected her. As in, how would she have been different. This is not to say she was bad or evil or anything, not at all. Just how would she have been different. My grandparents too. I have often wondered.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, and he has a chapter on how a parent’s death causes trauma, yes–but it also builds resiliency in quite a few people. When you look at world leaders, those who lost a parent in childhood are over-represented. Same with leaders in almost any field throughout history. It’s like, traumatic things in childhood are horrible to go through and you wouldn’t wish them on anyone, but they also build resilience in a way that nothing else really can.

      I think I experienced that a bit as an adult, too. It certainly has made me sadder, but it’s also grounded me more and made me more compassionate. But I also think one of the reasons I can take on the fights I do is that I know, whatever people sling at me, it’s nothing compared to what I’ve already gone through.

      Maybe it’s like that with your mom and your grandparents, too. There’s parts that are worse, but there’s also parts that are better. I don’t know. We all react so differently. But that’s what I’ve taken from it.

      Reply
    • Jewel

      I’m so very sorry for the loss of your son. My mom had 3 babies back-to-back and then lost a son through a stillborn/miscarriage (not sure which) halfway through her 4th pregnancy. I can’t imagine that grief now that I’m a mom. But she never dealt with it and she buried it and hurried up to get pregnant with another baby, me. I call myself the “replacement child” bc that’s what I was for them (I would NEVER call any other precious rainbow baby that term, this is just a term for myself). The other baby is never talked about, I’m sure bc of pain and grief, but I was raised differently than my 3 older siblings and still feel separate from them. I always had higher expectations from my parents bc I had to fill the emptiness of their loss. I’m not the only one who has observed this but my mom has a weird resentment of me and I still don’t feel like she knows or likes me. My dad also never saw me as a girl and was treated differently than my 2 sisters. Letting yourself grieve is healthy for your current and future children. I really have no idea what this did to my older siblings. They were 2, 3, and 4 at the time but this baby is not talked about. And I still live with feeling guilty that I’m here when he was wanted so badly and feeling like I’m a disappointment. I do have compassion, though, for my mom bc my narcissistic dad was likely not very comforting. She lost her dad as a teenager and has issues from that herself. Even though I wasn’t alive yet I feel like I carry her grief. I’m in therapy trying to sort out how this has altered my brain and trying to see how God can use this. This broken world can be devastating at times.

      Reply
  2. Stephanie

    When I was born, my brother (20 months old), was ripped from his community and flown hallway around the world. I was in and out of the hospital a lot for my first few years of life, and my sister was born when I was 25 months old. I think according to the birth order book the middle child is supposed to be the peacemaker, but my younger sister got that, and I got the characteristics associated with the youngest.

    Now I’m curious to send this to my parents and say… ok, how did my birth and toddler years affect my siblings?

    Reply
  3. Jen

    I was eight when my mom had a stillborn baby. She was devastated and forever changed by her grief. I developed school phobia, separation anxiety, and panic attacks. She actually did a great job helping me through. I, though, still suffer from whatever area of development was interrupted. The world is not a safe place for me, especially when you add in emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of my brother, my mom’s early death, my dad’s abandonment of me when he remarried, and my husband’s betrayal. Understanding these early, developmental traumas is helping me heal from the betrayal trauma.

    Thanks for sharing this. It helps to look back and actually see what was happening.

    Reply
  4. Natalie L

    Wow, this is so interesting. Just before my first was born, my husband injured his back. That set him on a course for fibromyalgia and caused his underlying depression to manifest. Now we have 4 children, none of them have ever seen their daddy before his injury. My oldest especially is dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety herself. But both the next two seem to also get overly anxious often too. The youngest is only 3, so we don’t know yet how he will respond.

    Reply
  5. Exwifeofasexaddict

    Oh wow. My daughter was 18-19 months when her dad was deployed for the first time. She was so angry at him for just disappearing… I explained as much as I could, but there is only so much a toddler can understand. And I was very depressed that year… to the point I only ate and slept because I had her to care for. That could explain a lot of her personality now.

    Reply
  6. Elissa

    One of my younger brothers was just over 2 when the youngest brother was born. The baby had a lot of food allergies and dietary problems that took my mom months to totally figure out. She was pretty stressed and distracted during that time and most of her attention had to go to the baby. I thought about that years later when I learned about Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, and all of a sudden it made a lot more sense why the (then) 2 year old brother has always struggled with emotional regulation and especially decision making! I’m sure it also didn’t help that at the same time my parents were experimenting with some Mike and Debbie Pearl parenting strategies, which certainly do NOT encourage autonomy in young children!!

    Reply
  7. E.A. Brown

    Hey Sheila,
    I read Dr Gabor Maté’s book, In the realm of hungry ghosts. He treats poor people in Vancouver, many of whom have childhood trauma.
    The book includes an anecdote about a doctor doing house visits to Jewish families during one of the Nazi crackdowns in the 1930s. (From memory: recommend reading it yrself)
    ‘Why is the baby screaming?’ He was asked.
    ‘Madam, all the Jewish babies are screaming,’ he said. He had call after call to visit distressed infants and toddlers.
    And effectively, they were all reacting to the collective terror that they felt, but didn’t understand, from their families.
    Dr Maté was born into that setting, and feels it drives him now as an adult.

    Thank you for your post Sheila. Best wishes to you and Keith.

    Regards

    E.A.Brown

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      OH, wow. Isn’t that heartbreaking but also really illuminating? I’ll have to take a look!

      Reply
  8. Lisa M

    Thank you for sharing your system with us each year. I love seeing the photos of Christopher.

    My husband almost died, several times, when our first four children were very young. There was a period of 3 years that were touch and go. The stress was unbelievable. And once he was out of imminent danger, he was exhausted, I was exhausted, but I had to carry on. I know it affected all of us but especially our young children. It has taught me to never assume I know why someone is behaving the way they are.

    Reply
    • Lisa M

      Ugh, I hate auto correct!!

      Thank you for sharing your story with us each year.

      Reply
  9. Noel

    I have wondered about this with my eldest. She was 19 mos when her sister died at 36 days. She was 3 when her brother was stillborn. Since then I have had two miscarriages besides two living children. I have no idea how it has affected her. I cannot imagine the anxiety she might have if she eventually is pregnant.

    Reply
  10. Ruth

    Thanks for processing these things with us. Are there any books you would recommend that help with understanding early childhood development and trauma and how those things intersect? My three kiddos lost their biological mom to cancer about two and a half years ago. They would have been 2, 4 and 5 at the time, roughly. I’m trying to learn what I can to help them as they grow and develop, knowing that they each had significant disruption in their early lives, in different developmental phases. Thank you!

    Reply

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