Is our second child still a “little sister” if our first child passed away?

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By: Aaron LoganCC BY 2.0
I am about to have my second daughter. Most people will look at my daughter and see her as an only child, but I cannot help but think of her as a little sister. Her big sister passed away almost a year ago.

While on a recent shopping trip with a friend we spotted an “I’m a Little Sister” onesie, and my friend said, “Oh, I want to get that for the baby.” I immediately loved my friend a little more.

My question is: because most people won’t know the story of how our eldest child passed away, what challenges might we encounter if we introduce our second child as a “little sister?” — Laura

Comments on Is our second child still a “little sister” if our first child passed away?

  1. well, i think that this all depends on how you frame things, and how you look at things vs. how your child will view things.

    i think that to you, as the mother, she will obviously always be the younger sister. if you do refer to her as that, which i dont think is weird or anything, you will just have to explain to people that her older sibling died, and thats why X is a younger sister.

    to your child, though, i think it might be a little different. she likely will never truly feel like a younger sister because in her life, she will never experience it. even though she will know all about her older sibling, she will never experience having her in her life as you got to… if that makes sense.

    my younger brother died when i was like… 2. and after that my mom had my sister, so for my mother, im sure that my sister is her third child, and is identified as such, because thats true. to me, i have little to no memory of sam, and so my sister is my only sibling, because that is how i have experienced my life. when people ask me, or when i am talking about my family, sometimes i remember about sam, and ill be like “oh yea, actually i did have a brother at one time, but he died as a baby, so i guess i have 2 siblings.”

    i have a good friend who lost her baby, also a second child, and has since had another daughter. she very openly talks about her three children, how ema is the third, ect. the whole situation with the second sibling dying was a very public thing, so i dont know if she even got a choice in the matter, but that is how she frames it.

    framing it in a way that works for you will just work for you. maybe you wont want to tell a ton of people about your first child, so you will just nod your head when they call her an only child… maybe they will ask questions when you call her a younger sibling, and you will openly tell them how/why you frame your life that way. i dont think there is a right or wrong answer here, just truth, and how much of that you want to expose others to.

  2. Coming from a situation where I am an only child and my parents had a baby who died 2 years before I was born I have found this hard on me also. I am glad my parents told me about this baby, but I would have hated to be thought of as a younger sibling to a dead baby. Being pregnant now myself I have more of an understanding of how awful the situation was and is for my parents…but even being seen as an only child I often felt growing up, a resentment towards me having been the only surviving child. Heap all your love on the (sadly) one child you have and make her feel the centre of your world.

    • I didn’t find out about my miscarried sister until I was 26. I always felt her loss even though I didn’t know who was missing. Simply acknowledging her existence would have filled that uncomfortable space for me and made me feel less alone as an “only” child. I yearned for a sibling.

  3. My mom died 2 years ago and no one would question that I am still a daughter. I say she’s a little sister and you don’t even owe an explanation unless you want to give it. 🙂

  4. Yes she is! As she grows up hearing about her big sister, it will all feel very natural to her. Although some people will be ignorant of how your family is structured, she will know, and you will know. If someone calls her an only, and that feels wrong to you, remind them that she is your second child. People close to you should wise up. Bring up your older daughter in conversation as much as you want. Do not avoid talking of her. People who understand grief will be comfortable with that. Other people will either grow comfortable or fade away.

  5. I say more power to you. She is a little sister. You may have lost a child, but she was still your baby. You would never say you weren’t a mother just because you lost a child, so why would your other child not be a sister?
    I will say this: be prepared to explain. People are nosey and will ask questions if they only see one child. If you are uncomfortable going into details or asking people to mind their business then it may be something to think about.
    I lost a sister when I was young. When I tell people that I have five siblings they automatically count and come up one short then ask all sorts of questions.
    Best of luck on your beautiful family!

  6. I remember you writing in your other post about how there were no good words in English to identify a mother who has lost a child. And there’s no good word in English for a sister who has lost/never knew her older sister. I wish there were words, because I think the other posters are right that there’s just so much EXPLAINING that ends up taking place. And I would guess that maybe sometimes you want to explain, and sometimes you just want a quick empathetic acknowledgement that the family a new acquaintance sees is not your whole family.

    I’m an atheist, but one of the most understandable phrases others in your situation have used with me when we’ve been introduced is “angel baby.” As in “I’m a mom of two. That’s Emily and then there’s Zoe, our angel baby.” I’ve usually known not to pry, but I’ve gotten the full picture.

  7. My little sister died when we were both young adults, but most people in my life now never met her. I still feel like an older sister, and refer to her sometimes in conversation (“my sister and I used to…”), but I also know that I now have the role of only child in my family. It’s a weird path for everyone, but I appreciate how my parents have handled it. We acknowledge her without dwelling on her passing. In some ways your child will feel like an only child, or an older sister if you ever have more kids. As much as you loved your first daughter, your second daughter will have never known her and so doesn’t have that attachment, and like a previous commenter wrote it might be hard for her to understand at first. I think it’s also important to acknowledge the previous child, and let your second daughter know that your love for your first daughter is what inspired you to have her (if that’s true). Congratulations on your new child, and blessings for the joy your first daughter obviously gave you. 🙂

    • Thank you for this. I was hoping to hear from people who grew up with having lost a sibling. I am first off sorry for your loss, and secondly thankful that you wrote.

      My first daughter definatly inspired me to have my second child, and if everything work out someday I hope to have another child so she will have a sibling.

    • A friend of mine died suddenly from a very fast and aggressive brain tumour at 21, and his younger brother is still very much a little brother. The younger brother is now 22, and I remember his Facebook statuses when he reached the age his brother was when he died, and then surpassed it. Even now, older than his big brother ever was, he is still 100% a little brother.
      OP – Obviously its a different situation for the sibling to have grown up with someone and then lost them, but for the parent it is no different. You are a parent of 2, but one was lost. You will no doubt find yourself explaining that to people many times in your life, so you have plenty of time to find what feels best for you, what makes the most sense and conveys the message you want. There are some really good suggestions in these comments. Big love and mama hugs to you, I can’t even begin to fathom the pain in loosing a child. xo

  8. A friend of mine had twins a bit too early, and one of them did not make it. Their son will always be a twin, even though his brother passed away before they were able to take him home. Their family friend wrote and illustrated a story book for their son — it’s a sweet fable-style story of the twins’ journey to be here with their parents & why only one could stay. I don’t know about how to handle sharing this information with others, but this might be something you or a friend of yours could write for your daughter to explain why her older sister isn’t around to play but is still very much a part of the family.

  9. I always feel like honesty is the best policy. Although I know this isn’t quite the same – I put my first baby up for adoption. The adoption is pretty much closed at this point.. My daughter knows there is an older child somewhere out there. I call my technically middle daughter my oldest – unless I’m specifically talking about the adoption. She is three now and sometimes says “I have a big sister named Hannah.” It’s confusing now. Really, I think it’s more confusing and troublesome for me than it is for her. But I figure it will get less confusing as time goes on and I can answer more questions for her.

  10. I have a (male) cousin who is technically the oldest grandchild on my mom’s side of the family, but he was stillborn and the whole experience was hard on my family. One of my surviving cousins (also male) has referred to Adam as his brother once and he along with his sister both are fully aware what happened to Adam and have even visited his grave.

    I don’t think it really matters if they are dead or alive. All that matters is that you will always remember and acknowledge them as your child, your sibling, your cousin, etc. and that they are still with you in spirit.

  11. I recently lost a child through miscarriage and I have one that was given up for adoption 7 years ago, and while not the same, I’ve been struggling with similar thoughts myself. Is my daughter a little sister? Is she a big sister? I think the most important thing is to aknowledge that they are your child, and if you feel like your daughter is the little sister, then yeah, she is.

    • I had a miscarriage prior to loosing my daughter, and someone just said to me, “Well Zoë was a little sister too.” That made me love my friend even more…and made me realize that my daughter is not only the youngest to one, but to two.

    • Did I post under a different name? lol
      I’ve lost 2 babies last year through miscarriages and now currently 17 weeks along with my 4th child. My first I placed for adoption 7 years ago too.
      For me any kids I have will always know “C” as their older sister. “C” adoptive parents are going to let her decided what she refers to them as though I would like for her to also think of them as younger siblings.

      Its always a bit awkward when people assume this is my first child because I never felt alright basically denying my first child. Only to family and friends will the miscarriages be brought up, because they were my babies too, but to strangers I’m already giving them one sob story.
      Mainly now I’ve just gotten used to saying “This is our first parenting child” and if they ask questions I’ll tell them. I’m an open book, and I like sharing my story to help give light on adoptions and that we are all not drugged up whores who are secretly plotting to steal our babies back; I digress, but when you are pregnant it seems as if you are a magnet to strangers who want every detail.

      OP I say your daughter is a little sister, she will handle it how she will/wants when she is older but it won’t change the fact that she is.

  12. My living child is my eldest but not my firstborn, which is how I’m phrasing it now that my second is almost 2 and his brother’s passing is almost 3 years ago now.

    We talk about my firstborn but not all the time. I explain when I have the mental energy but sometimes I let it slide, knowing that it changes nothing about how I feel about my first child. This is a messy path and it’s up to you to define how you want to travel it.

    As we decide to have more kids, I will have my firstborn, my eldest and my younger (yet to happen) kids. I think that will hopefully happily straddle the land between what is and what we had hoped it would be.

    Peace on your journey – I look forward to when your second baby is earth-side.

    • “I explain when I have the mental energy but sometimes I let it slide, knowing that it changes nothing about how I feel about my first child.”

      WOW! This statement is so…

      Thank you.

    • Yes, this.

      My first was stillborn. My living sons know about their big brother, but the fact is there’s a lot of work involved in saying “No, he’s not my first. I had a baby that died.” and then people want to say something sympathetic and since, more than seven years later, I no longer ache on a daily basis, I just prefer not to deal with other people’s feelings about a baby that happened before they knew me.

  13. This is really an issue that is between your family – you can do what you please! Family is defined among its members – not by outside people or forces (well, ideally, anyway). You will always think of your daughter as the younger of your two kids – and nobody has the right to tell you otherwise. I used to have clients who I’d say this to: Just because a person is no longer here does not mean the relationship goes with them. Your daughter didn’t cease to have a sister because her sister passed before they got to meet. She HAS a sister (present tense) who is no longer here. I don’t know whether you have any religious or theological beliefs about the soul, what happens after death, etc. But if you do, they can be comforting or helpful in how to frame stuff like this.

    Short answer is this: You should totally feel free to refer to your daughter as “little sister.” People who already know your story will know why you do this. If a person doesn’t know and asks where the big sister is, you can be as detailed or general as you like. A simple “her sister isn’t here now” is perfectly fine, as well as “her sister passed on” or anything else you feel like saying. You do not owe them any particulat explanation, rationale or anything else. They are not in your shoes, they do not get a say. Do whatever you need to that will work for you and your daughter.

  14. I think, at the end of the day, you do what’s comfortable for you and your family. As she gets older, some people may find it confronting hearing it from your 2nd child when she gets older – but that’s a hurdle to cross when you come to it.
    You are going to have 2 daughters – that’s something to be proud of – one for you to hold, and an angel watching over you

  15. It sounds like identifying your second daughter as a little sister is really important to you. My guess (I don’t want to make assumptions) is that this is because it is a way of remembering and acknowledging and honoring your first child.

    If you introduce your apparently only child explicitly as a little sister, I think you need to prepared to respond to questions about that. You don’t necessarily owe people answers, but you should realize that some people will be confused or curious and that other people will make assumptions and be prepared to deal with this in a way that works for you.

    Also, I think you need to be prepared to the possibility that your second daughter will think of herself as an only child, not a little sister. Maybe she wont. I have no idea. But she might and you should try no to be angry with her about it if she does or to feel like it is a dismissal of your first child. It is just a description of her experience. Remember that big sister/little sister is a relationship between the children

    • It’s partly a relationship descriptor, but “sister” is also a biological status – any two daughters of the same parent are sisters. Even if a person does not feel a relationship, connection or affection towards his or her parent’s other child, that only negates the personal sibling relationship. Of course, many siblings are not bound by biology, but rather through a common home, parents or the like. I don’t get the impression the author is trying to push any sort of relationship, but it trying to emphasize that links between family (even the merely genetic) are not lost when a life is lost. Those links are forever.

      • Thank you for writting. You are correct in that I don’t expect my daughter to have anymore than an understanding that prior to her I had another child. I understand that she will never “know” her sister. But I do hope that someday when asked about her family structure she will count my first as one of her siblings.

  16. While not the same thing as death, I was adopted out of my family, which means that I have 2 maternal and 2 paternal 1/2 siblings that I wasn’t raised with PLUS the two adoptive siblings I was raised with…and then add siblings-in-law.

    So, when people ask “how many siblings do you have” it honestly depends on the day. Two is my go-to automatic, but I usually end up answering “between two and six, depending on the day.” Follow up questions let me explain.

    So I think that you should be honest, but then also let the situation change and shift and your child might have different views on different days and that is okay. You can always say that you have had 2 kids, but your daughter might not want to acknowledge a dead siblings as a ‘real’ sibling.

    • I’m in a similar situation. I have two paternal half brothers, one who I’ve met and have a relationship with. The other I saw once when he was a newborn, but haven’t had any contact with since then (he’s about 18 now). When asked, I always tell people I have two younger brothers. If they ask about our relationship I always say, “we never lived together, so I was raised as an only child.” Usually that’s enough for people to leave it alone.

      OP: I am so sorry for your loss.

  17. People refer to their dogs as “big brother” and the new baby as “little sister”. Its how you feel in your heart of hearts. Even if you dont want to explain it to anyone, she will know and greve for her lost sister. As an only child the thought of having an older sibling was sad even though I never had the opportunity of sed imaginary sibling! But besides that, when will you really need ot explain? Family and Friends know and love your first Daughter. Who cares if stagers see you with one kid wearing a Lil’ sis shirt. Who’s to say big sis isn’t at school, all grown up, or an animal! The hard part will be the random acquaintances, but explain your story of carrying her for 9 months and loosing her after 6. Its not bizar, its life. Even of they havent experienced such a loss, they should understand.

  18. I’m a triplet. That’s how I identify myself to most other people when the topic of siblings comes up. But I’m actually a quad. And we actually have an older brother as well.

    We learned about our quad when we were old enough to understand – I can’t remember what age, I’ll call it 7ish – but she wasn’t our little sister or big sister. Obviously, being quads, big sister and little sister are somewhat irrelevant (or they should be, but I could write a whole article about that) so she’s “sister” not “big/little sister”.

    We were all born very premature, most with health problems, but our sister passed away the next day. We weren’t expected to survive, either, being so premature, so we were incredibly lucky.

    We didn’t learn about our older brother until much later (maybe 17?). I don’t think it was something hidden; I think that my mum might have found it too upsetting to talk about, but that’s just me speculating.

    My brother passed away not long after being born, but due to (possibly avoidable) complications. I didn’t want to ask specifics at the time, because it was clear that it still upset my mum and I didn’t want to upset her further. I’m sure she’d answer my questions, but it didn’t seem necessary to find out the specifics, if the conversation would upset her.

    We were always introduced as triplets, not younger siblings or quads. My mum said once that she’d like to tell people that she has five children, which of course, she does, but having to explain was too draining, and going from meeting someone new to, “Some of my children are dead,” was more than a little awkward.

    The fact that my older brother and sister passed away as babies is, and I don’t mean to belittle their memories, a sad fact. I don’t grieve for them, and my mum wouldn’t want us to. It was always presented to us as more of a sad fact, not a part of our identity, not, “You are actually younger siblings.” We were, and are, triplets. If anything, I’d say that we’re triplets socially and quads (for lack of a better word) biologically.

    One day, I slipped and said that I was a quad, but people can count and someone thought I’d forgotten to mention a sibling. They made this (not maliciously) into a joke, not realising that they were digging a hole. We tried to avoid it, but I eventually had to say, “No, I didn’t forget a sibling; our sister passed away after we were born.”

    And they felt terrible. They were upset. They thought they’d really offended me, but I wasn’t of course, because they couldn’t have known and, hey, someone actually miscounting their siblings would be pretty funny.

    Only today, I mentioned my sister and my friend was actually a little upset on my behalf (it’s a sad thought, a sibling passing away) and I had to reassure him that I was fine mentioning her and that it was alright.

    Personally, I think that introducing your child as a younger sibling, then possibly needing to explain the absence of the elder sibling, could just get confusing for all involved.

    I think that, most of all, there could be a risk of your child grieving for someone she never knew, and I don’t think you want that. Acknowledgment is one thing, but a child being upset over something they may not fully understand is something entirely different.

  19. I have always been very open that I have 3 children and only one living and that yes one was a miscarriage & yes he counts. Some people, even family members don’t always agree with this or understand it but those that do really do. I think it says a lot about how our society handles grief and death and especially when it involves a child. We have a tendency to put it away in a sense & ignore it. I myself made peace with the fact that that’s not healthy for me. No matter how small the time my boys had with me was they were real. It important to remember them and on some level I think its an important part of teaching my son respect for the dead & how to grieve and support others. His brothers have been part of his life from the beginning. It’s not something that he is constantly surrounded with but we have done things in their memory. We have visited my oldest’s grave (my youngest knocked on the place marker & asked brother if he wanted to play & my heart broke & sore at once). We go to an annual mass/service for families that have lost little ones and my son carries two roses for his brothers. We have cake and ice cream & let balloons off on my oldest’s birthday (my son “helps” brother blow out the candles). My son also wore little brother shirts & took a picture holding my oldest’s picture (the grandparents thought it was creepy until they all saw it cried and asked for a copy). No matter what you do just remember it’s your family & your process. Everyone else doesn’t have say.

    • Thank you Nichole for telling me about your family. I am also very happy that your family is supporting you in the best way that they know how. Death is just not dealt well with in our country, and I think it is a shame that it cannot be talked about in a loving and open way.

      I love the idea of your son wearing a little brother shirt and holding a photo of his oldest brother. These types of memorials and images are not meant for the general public, they are for you, and your family. As much as people in our situation might not understand I am growing to understand that it is not a creepy thing for me, so why not do what feels right.

  20. my daughter died 4 years ago and now we have a little boy and he is the little brother, he always will be . i dont share it with the world every day or have him wear the little bro stuff because i wasnt raised to do it, i grew up as an only child to anyone who saw the family but i have 3 older brothers that all died before i was a year old though stories and memories my parents had of them made it feel like they were always there , as a way to comfort me my mom told me they are my gaurdian angels and that they will always be with me so i never have to feel alone. hope this helps someone out there. bless you all

  21. We have this struggle with our boys, who have a brother they didn’t get to meet who died before he was born. I think it’s a wonderful way to honour your older daughter to communicate that your second born is her sister; that your first daughter doesn’t just “go away” because she’s not with you anymore.

    I have a friend (a “sister through grief”, whose first son died when he was new) whose very articulate preschooler explained (over and over) “I already AM a sister; my other brother is in heaven” when her mum was expecting. She’s a kid who wants to talk about it– and they are a family who want people to know– so it’s been a fine arrangement.

    All love and grace to you as this next part of your story takes shape.

  22. one of my sisters was born 4 years before me. she died at 2 years old. because she was so young when she died, my parents told me i had a “little sister” when they told me about her. “did you know you have a little sister? she was born before you but she died when she was two.” that was the start of the conversation. i was 4 and i was so excited to be able to say i had a little sister! because of this endearment, i love my “little” sister that i never knew. and my heart aches that i never had her physically in my life, but she was always there spiritually. your first daughter is a part of your life, and will be a part of your second daughters life. there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that relationship. it’s a good way to pay tribute to that little light that was and is.

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