This past Thursday, my nephew Drake would have turned two years old. The loss of that baby boy turned my safe little world upside down and rocked me in ways I didn’t know possible. Before this I was nearly emotionally invincible, nothing could touch me on my best days. I had my health and family. Everything else was secondary and still is. Even at two years after the sadness of his loss, I still carry pieces of that time with me… in everything I do.
Every time I see his perfect little sister, I think of him.
My daughter shares some of the sadness, though she was still young when he was born. The story that nearly broke me was told to me by her kindergarten teacher after I’d joined her for lunch this past Friday. I guess during class they are now having a somewhat ‘open mic’ time where the kids can get up and talk about anything they wish for 10 seconds. Think “I got a new puppy”, “My tooth is wiggly” or “I brought an oatmeal cream pie in my lunchbox”. Well, my reserved (doesn’t talk in front of the class) daughter brought herself to come in front of the class and announce that “Today is Drake’s birthday and he is my cousin”. To you, that may not sound like a lot, but it just made me swell with pride, yet sink with tears.
It was no surprise that my daughter wanted to have full control (imagine that) of the cake we’d make for Drake’s 2nd birthday. Last year, I took the reins and fully enjoyed spending hours making the perfect cake. This year, she wanted to have a cake she could decorate and it needed “white frosting that tasted like ice cream” and chocolate for the cake. Easy enough right? The cake came together perfectly, as usual. The Hershey’s Cocoa “Black Magic Cake” is the only chocolate cake recipe I use. I put it in a half sheet pan and bake it at 400 degrees for 15-17 minutes. This cake is wonderful and moist.
The frosting I chose was simple “Swiss Meringue Buttercream”. This frosting is my favorite, EVER. I love mine lightly chocolate, but my daughter insisted on white frosting. This frosting is delicate and fluffy, and not too sweet. It is made by cooking egg whites and sugar to 160 degrees, whipping the heck out of that mixture until cool and thick like marshmallow cream, then adding cool/yet soft butter 1 TBSP at a time until all incorporated. The end result is fluffy, nearly marshmallow-like frosting. I could, did and will continue to eat this with a spoon. It is perfect. Much like my sweet little nephew.
Her cake decorations were simple, a few sprinkles and sugar pearls and we were done. I thought it would be full of candy, sprinkles, frosting blobs, etc. Not this year, she had a vision of course. A thoughtful pinch here and there worked perfectly for her. We all enjoyed it, even though that day is the saddest day of the year.
My favorite part of the day each year is going to the cemetery and releasing balloons. This year we wrote on them with a marker, I really liked that. If you have a tradition for a time like this, would you share it in the comments?
Supporting Families Who Have Suffered the Loss of their Child
No one ever writes about how to support people when they lose a child. No one. There is no manual, no handbook and the shock of the situation can send a normal, good hearted person into a complete tailspin. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the last couple of years that may help you. (These are simply my opinions as the support person, take them as you wish. I have not lost a biological child, but losing my nephew is as close as that will ever feel for me.)
If you’ve lost a child, know that I’m in your corner, and I’ll fight for you and be your person if you need me. No one should ever have to endure the loss of a child. No one. Everyone thinks that I am the ‘tough’ person in my family, with broad shoulders to carry the emotional ‘burden’ of others. I may be this, but let me tell you… my sister is the tough one and she honors her son with grace and dignity every single day. That, friends, is the definition of tough.
(I would like to thank my friends Rob and Tiffany for being there for me and helping me know what to say and do in the days immediately following the loss of my nephew. Going through the loss of a child themselves and then choosing to help me is something I’ll forever be grateful for. And I’ll always remember their precious daughter Madilynn 1-10-08)
#1. Words are powerful. Choose them wisely. Less is more. *Saying things like: “Oh, your baby is in a better place, in heaven.” or “God had bigger plans for your child”, isn’t really the best thing to say in the immediate times after a loss. To the parents, the best place for their child is in their arms, healthy and alive. Also, refrain from asking “Oh what happened?!” as this is pretty invasive, if you ask me. Even if the sentiment is well intentioned it isn’t the most appropriate question. Explaining things this painful over and over (even for me as a support person) is extremely difficult. Short phrases like “I’m thinking of you” or “I’m deeply sorry” fit just as well and leave the opening for the giving of more information up to the parents, if they desire.
#2. Just be there. *Once I realized this was not a situation I could do anything about, or ‘fix’, I simply did anything I could to make things easier. Lend an ear, snag some groceries, clean the house, make a meal. Let your ‘help’ be your work, not always just your words, advice and so on. It felt good to accomplish something that I knew would help my sister to feel better. The burden of regular chores becomes greater when grief sets in. Having those done was a weight lifted. Also, friends sending meals was so wonderful. I still remember every meal that showed up, exactly what was in it and who provided it. I will never forget and continue to be thankful to those people.
#3. Don’t forget. *I still take time to visit the cemetery regularly, my children write notes to their cousin and we take them there. We also buy a small real fir tree from the local tree farm and my children decorate it for Christmas in December. On his birthday each year, I buy him a pair of basketball shoes in the size I think he’d be for the specific age. I plan to do this for as long as I’m alive. Sending a card to the family on the birthday is always appreciated. It is nice to know that people remember the life of the child, I know this because I see how delighted my sister is to receive notes. Even in the darkest times, a message of hope can lift a person’s spirits quickly.
#4. How many kids do you have? Understand that after there is a loss of a pregnancy, infant or child that the family wants you to recognize their angel. I have two nieces and two nephews (3 on earth, 1 angel)… in casual conversation I don’t go into the story, but I never forget to include Drake in my mentions of family. And… just because a family has been blessed with another child/children after a loss, this does anything but ‘make it better’. There is no magical recovery, especially when another child is added. It is a blessing, though still painful at the same time.
#5. If you are ‘the person’, find yourself a ‘person’. If you are the trusted person in the position of being the ‘strong one’ to hold up someone through this type of difficult time, find a person that you can count on to be there for you too. You will need it. Being brave, supportive and tough all the time for others can become pretty unhealthy if you don’t allow yourself to grieve too. My husband, kids, Mom, Dad and dear friends helped me immensely. My struggle in my eyes was nothing to compare to being a Mom and losing a child. (Since I was the sister to the mother who had lost a child.) So I passed my sadness off quite a bit, which ended up being the WRONG thing to do.
#6. Find some therapy. Any healthy kind of therapy.
If you need to talk to someone, do it. If you need to crochet blankets, find a soft chair and crochet-away. Bake a million pies or write a million words. If you notice, I started this blog about 6 months after this event in my life. Writing and sharing recipes = my therapy. You read my therapy every time you open my blog. So, thank you for doing that. Thank you.
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- 4 large egg whites at room temperature
- 1 1/4 cup Granulated Sugar
- 2 1/2 sticks Butter at room temperature
- 1 1/4 tsp Vanilla Extract
- In a stainless steel or glass bowl over a pot of simmering water, add egg whites and sugar. Whisk until mixture reaches 160 degrees.
- Whip warm egg white and sugar mixture until completely cooled, about 10 minutes. The mixture will be stiff like marshmallow cream.
- Add butter, one tablespoon at a time while mixer is on high. Mix until each addition is incorporated before adding the next. Add vanilla. If frosting is somewhat loose at this point (likely wasn't all the way cool when you added the butter) chill in the refrigerator for 15 or 20 minutes to firm up before spreading.
- Spread over cooled cake. Decorate as desired. Keep this cake in a cool place (room temperature is fine), as the frosting is a bit delicate. *Don't make this for a 4th of July cake that will sit in the sun.