Imogen never had a new dress until her brother died.
She was five years old and although she had plenty of pretty clothes, she’d never had a dress chosen especially for her, a dress that hadn’t previously been worn by her older sister or cousins. It was a very special day, the day we went to town to buy Imogen her first brand new dress.
As soon as we entered the children’s boutique, we saw the perfect dress. Imogen held it up under her chin, her eyes large, her smile wide. It was pale pink with puffed sleeves and the skirt was perfect for swirling. A Briar Rose dress. A real little girl dress.
The shop assistant hurried up to us. “Oh, you will look so pretty in that dress. Is it for a special occasion?”
“Yes,” Imogen replied. “It’s for my brother’s funeral.”
Thomas’ death was not a sad time for Imogen. She was the only member of our family who didn’t cry during those traumatic days. The photographs show her smile beaming out amidst the tears of her siblings and her parents.
Shortly after Thomas died, we gathered together our other children and explained that Thomas was now in heaven with God. Imogen replied, “Then why are you crying? It’s good. Thomas is alive with God. Don’t you want to go to heaven and be with God?” I remember wondering how Thomas’ death could be good. It didn’t feel good. Perhaps all that about heaven and going to God was just a pretence: something said to comfort bereaved parents.
There wasn’t a lot we could do for our son. Unlike other newborn babies, he didn’t need us. But we could give him a beautiful funeral. This would be the last event of his short life on earth and I was determined to make the most of it. Of course, it was very distressing farewelling a baby we’d only had with us for a day. We’d had such hopes for his future and now there was no future. But even though I couldn’t prevent the constant flow of tears, I didn’t want his funeral to pass in a blur of sorrow. I wanted to remember every moment. I wanted it to go on forever. However, like all events it came to an end and before we knew it, we were processing towards his open grave.
Father Francis carried Thomas’ tiny coffin. He held it so reverently as if he were carrying something very precious. Afterwards, he confided to us what an honour it was carrying our son; he could feel a special presence; he was carrying a saint.
There were many families at Thomas’ funeral. Children of all ages gathered around the grave. There were little girls everywhere, skipping among the tombstones like pretty butterflies, their pastel dresses swirling, their hair ribbons fluttering, their hair streaming out behind them in the breeze. Despite severe frowns from solemn parents, single flowers were gathered from graves until each little girl had a beautiful posy. And surrounded by all her fellow butterflies Imogen was having a perfect day. There she was in her new pink dress with all her friends, enjoying the spring sunshine as if she were on a picnic.
Thomas’ funeral was beautiful. So many friends and members of family shared this painful but special day with us. The charming old church was full; the music was hauntingly stirring; the homily was moving. But one of the most beautiful of all my memories is that of Imogen dancing between the graves as if she were celebrating the short life and death of her tiny brother.
Death is a normal part of life. It is extremely sorrowful, excruciatingly painful. However, it is not something dark, something to be hidden away. While we were mourning the loss of our son, it was so consoling to be reminded that there was still beauty in life: a glimmer of hope for the future.
A few years after Thomas’ death, Imogen’s goldfish died. She cried as if her heart were breaking. I was a bit bemused. “You didn’t cry when your brother died, “I remarked. “Why are you so sad now?”
“I didn’t understand then, Mum. Even though Thomas was going to God it was still sad. I would have cried if I’d been older”. She wouldn’t have thought only of her new dress.
We have still got that dress. We call it The Thomas Dress. Imogen loved that pale pink creation. Charlotte in her turn wore it. Although she had only been two when Thomas died, she knew it was a very special dress. The dress is a little faded now. Sophie and Gemma-Rose will not get to wear it. But we will keep the dress. It connects a sister to a brother. I will always remember Imogen skipping along in it, a ray of sunshine falling on that day of grief.