An 8-Year-Old Mourns a Much-Loved Sister

By Suzanne Leigh
Published on Mothering

Last night we were watching a video of Natasha and her sister rollicking in a hotel swimming pool. It was taken days after an MRI had showed evidence of recurrent disease following a hiatus of 31 months of “tumor free-dom.” I was struck by two things: the images of Natasha that were wildly out of whack with the results of the scan – she is loud, laughing and ebullient, running around the rim of the pool, long strong limbs flying, stopping only to ham it up for the camera. The only tell-tale sign that something is amiss is the glimpses of fiducials on her neck and back – stick-on markers that her radiology team will need to plan the craniospinal radiation that we were told might be her best chance of extending her life.

The second surprise was the face of Marissa, then 6, looking at her older sister with beaming adulation. When Natasha was well, she was the performer and Marissa was the rapt observer, and when she was sick, which was almost a constant in varying degrees in the two-and-a-half years following that video, her younger sister was the protector. The three of us would walk together linking arms tightly, with mom on one side of Natasha and Marissa on the other.

My first daughter is (was) remarkable. My second daughter is remarkable, too.

How is Marissa coping? It’s complicated. She has eschewed the sympathy hugs and condolence letters, because at age 8 she wants to disengage from pain. Sometimes the mention of Natasha’s name will upset her profoundly.

Outwardly Marissa is enjoying the normalcy that she remembers from the time before her sister’s re-diagnosis, which ignited her long and lonely pain-filled descent. Last week was spring break. Unlike her classmates, we didn’t plan trips away; we didn’t plan anything special at all (“special” is emotionally challenging this first year of mourning). But we took her for a walk on the beach with a friend and her dog, a walk in a park with another friend, a trip to the movies. When I asked her if she enjoyed spring break, she told me it was “awesome.”

The “awesome” caught me off guard, until I remembered her last spring break, when we were cloistered in the hospital at Natasha’s bedside. And the spring break of the year before: another joy-less  period with frequent extended visits to the hospital clinic, where Marissa’s presence was overlooked by her anxious mom and the over-extended nurses and social workers attending to young cancer patients.

Marissa is making the same painful transition as her parents; life may resemble that of her classmates, now that the need to be on red-alert is no more, but the loss of Natasha creates an all-encompassing sadness. Talking with Marissa, “sad” might not be a word that springs to mind. She is a joyful kid, who I hope is destined for a happy life, thanks to her sunny disposition. But grief in children can be tricky to identify.

During a recent visit to the playground, I was thumbing through her notebook as she performed acrobatics on the monkey bars. There, among the list of invitation candidates for her ninth birthday party, the sketches of BFFs and names of favorite Disney channel stars, was a drawing of a girl with tears the size of rocks running down both cheeks. Under the picture she had written, “We miss Natasha.”

My younger daughter hurts for the sister she loves and lost.  She’s not ready yet, but I think she’ll talk about her loss a lot one day.

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