Today Sophie is 6 years, 7 months and 8 days old. The exact age that Jessica was on the day she died. Today Sophie is the same age that Jessica will always be; tomorrow, she will become my eldest child. Not my first-born, but my eldest. Overtaking her big sister. The little sister will become the older sister. From tomorrow, we will be treading a new path where Sophie leads the way instead of Jessica.
I have anticipated this moment for some time; its shadow has been hanging over us. It will come and go with tears and anguish, like all such moments, and then life will settle back into its new normal again.
When Jessica died, in some ways it felt like the clock suddenly set itself back by two years. We went from life with a six-year-old and a four-year-old, to just having a four-year-old. All the things that Jessica could do that Sophie couldn’t do disappeared overnight. And then, as Sophie learned to do them, there was that bittersweet memory of Jessica doing all those things.
In some ways, Sophie has been overtaking Jessica for a while. She’s been doing various activities for longer than Jessica did; she’s already moved beyond the level Jessica reached at school. But this feels like the big milestone. One of many difficult milestones that come with having to live life without your child.
There are the obvious ones of course – birthdays, the anniversary of their death and of their funeral, Christmas etc. And then there are the other little dates which others are less aware of – siblings overtaking, the moment when you have lived more days since your child’s death than you had with them – those kinds of milestones. Today is one of them. There will be more to come. And they will all be hard days, days that we wish we could hold off from coming, but still they come – that ever-present reminder that time keeps moving on relentlessly, leaving your life with your child further and further behind you.
Living through child loss is something that nothing can ever prepare you for. The things that were normal are turned upside-down and inside-out; broken and battered before being re-formed in a new way. Everything is changed, forever altered as it is now viewed through the filter of losing your child. It colours everything – memories, day-to-day experiences, even the words you use.
It’s there in the way I always pause before answering questions like “how many children do you have?” because while the answer is always three, the way I phrase it will depend on how likely I am to encounter that person again. The way that “how old are your children” becomes a hard question to answer. What age do I give for Jessica? The age she should be or the age she was when she died? Do I still say that Jessica is my eldest daughter when Sophie is older than her sister lived to be? Or do I simply say that Jessica is my first-born? Is Jessica still Thomas’s “biggest sister” or is that now Sophie? Because the words, the sibling order – all the little things that many families take for granted – are no longer simple.
As with everything else on this journey of having to live life without Jessica, we muddle along and find our own way through. Navigating the unknown as best we can. And here we are again, about to step into unknown territory once more. Acknowledging that while seeing Sophie grow and thrive is a precious and beautiful gift, it also comes with a hefty side order of sorrow because we were denied similar moments with Jessica. Celebrating Sophie’s successes as best we can without allowing our sorrow to take anything from her; whilst also having to allow ourselves space to grieve too. It’s a delicate balancing act at times. Another thing we have to learn to navigate as best we can.
Earlier this week, I had a little moment that stopped me in my tracks. I’d ordered Sophie a skirt and some reversible trousers from one of my favourite brands. The trousers were out of stock and they called me to ask if I would like to substitute them with a skirt instead. I didn’t check which of the skirts it was – I knew Sophie would love it whatever the print. And then it arrived; I opened the parcel and pulled out a skirt that I remembered very well. A skirt I’d bought for Jessica for her last Christmas. The skirt that was part of the outfit we chose for her to be buried in because it was one she loved.
Having Sophie receive an identical one through the post so unexpectedly at the start of the week in which she will overtake her sister, felt like a sign from Jessica in a way. Perhaps it is her way of reminding us that it is okay. That just because Sophie is overtaking her in age doesn’t mean that we are leaving her behind. No matter how relentless time moving on may feel, that is one thing I hold on to. Jessica is never left behind. She is always with us, in every moment of every day, in our thoughts and in our hearts. We keep moving forward, bringing Jessica with us wherever we may go.