Family Matters


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Photo by Brandon Montrone on

Is it ever acceptable to discuss the physical comparison of a living child with a child who has died?

Even in the context of a well meaning family, if the mother of the living child finds this discussion of resemblance upsetting – should not the conversation cease immediately, without any attempt at justification?

As a young mother I found myself in this very situation. My husband’s parents are very loving and dedicated family people.  In the spare bedroom of their home, a photo of a sweet faced young girl in ponytails and school uniform was set on the dresser and remained there until very recently. When our first child – a gorgeous girl, reached school age and would be visiting for Christmas holidays, my mother-in-law began to raise the idea that our daughter looked very much like the little girl who had died. I never agreed and still don’t and secretly the comparison upset me. More so, I felt very guilty that I was distressed as it seemed disrespectful to the dear girl who had died and to her family. As though that is not bad enough, I also had to chase away the superstitious feeling that because of these comparisons my own child might develop the same hideous illness. Yes, more shame on my part.

I spoke to my own mother about my feelings. A practical Scottish woman with zero tact, she told me to tell my husband’s mother not to say this anymore.  I didn’t. My mother-in-law is a kind woman, always means the best and I did not want to appear rude.

Though I always denied the resemblance, I never expressed my feelings openly to my husband’s family. Years came and went, there were many more children in the family including another girl and a boy for us. When our daughter became older than the girl in the photo, the fear disappeared for me and with busy lives and more people around, the whole business became an event of the past.

At least I thought so.

Recently late one night I checked a ping on my phone to see a photo added to my husband’s chat group with his family.  I had set this chat up so he did not have to rely on my profile to talk with his brothers and sisters. I rarely access it but as chance would have it, I had been sending photographs of our house renovations to engage his Mum in our latest happenings.

There on the screen was a communion photo of a little girl with the prompt of – Who does this look like?  I thought it was one of the sisters – it was not long before the pings indicated it was another younger photo of the precious girl who had passed. I found myself watching a pinging conversation about my daughters. Crazy, how in a matter of minutes all those old fears and certainly the guilt, came flooding back.

But this time, I felt I had the right to a voice.

I stated that the comparison had always been upsetting to me due to the tragic circumstance.

By now all this had brought on late night emotions and some tears – for my girls, for the child who had died so young – and for three wonderful Mothers in my life who had each somehow survived the loss of their child.  I heard the phone pinging but chose to ignore it.

When I woke, of course the upset had passed – there is nothing like daylight to erase the emotional spillage that comes far too easily in the late hours.

A call from our builder about the exact position of our way too expensive fancy black sink had my full attention.

Looking to forward on the pics – I rolled down, not up and thus caught a glimpse of a message aimed at me.

The messages I had ignored the night before had indeed moved on to a whole new topic.

Except one.

One stung.

One message responded to my ‘voice’ claiming the right of justification.  These are not the words.

I deleted the message the moment I read it.

It went along the lines of – “Well, sorry if it upsets you, but comparing family resemblances is to be enjoyed as part of family life and how delighted would the mother of the little girl be to know of all this.”

I disagree strongly and return to my first question.  I believe that once a parent has been honest enough, and trusting enough in the relationship to say – this is upsetting to me, then all public discussion ends and no justification is ever warranted.

I wondered if I was being oversensitive.

There are wise and wonderfully rounded parents in my life whom I adore and respect so I reached out to them for their opinion.

All, indicated that they too would find a comparison (no matter how kindly intended) of their living child to a deceased child, unwelcome.

All, found any justification once a parental distress was shared – unacceptable, no matter the words.

Who has not had Granny tell them their new born looks just like great, great Aunt Bertha?

Who has not looked at family baby photos and squealed at the likenesses?

Who has not compared a niece or nephew to a movie star?

These are certainly joyful, loving comparisons which embody family ties.

As for the comfort of a Mother – if discussions which do not include me (and why would they) bring her some peace and joy in the memory of her dear girl then what a wonderful blessing that would be.

This subject matter is deeply distressing and if only there could be no lost family members, especially children to mourn.

Words are like toothpaste, once you squeeze some out – you won’t ever be able to put it all back.  Just like the paste, the impact of words can linger no matter how much you try to take them back.

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