Sara’s Invisible Brother

Sara on her bike with her invisible brother in line drawing on the back seatThe first thing I thought when my newborn daughter Sara was put into my arms, was how much she looked like her brother Jacob. Jacob had been born sixteen months earlier, after three agonizing weeks in hospital. I had been diagnosed with preeclampsia when I was only 21 weeks pregnant, unusually early– too early, as it turned out, for Jacob to survive inside the womb. We held him for a long time to say goodbye, and scattered his ashes in a beautiful  place. It was my first experience with grief, and it took courage to get pregnant again.

When I did, I was relieved to find out that I was carrying a girl, so that I would never confuse her with Jacob in my heart and mind. It was only during the last weeks of my pregnancy that I dared to think that Sara might live. But she very much did, a bundle of joy, with a vivid imagination. Three and a half years later a little brother, who looked just like her, completed the family.Sara sitting on the bed with her invisible brother in line drawing comforting her

But my husband and I never forgot Jacob. One day, shortly before Sara started Kindergarten, she overheard us mentioning his name. And when she asked who we were talking about, I told her that we had a baby before her, who died before he was born. Before long Sara brought Jacob back into our family as her imaginary friend–her invisible brother. She played with him throughout Kindergarten, even though she never lacked friends. I was moved and intrigued, and wanted to hear all about her invisible brother. What did he look like? When was he there? What did they do together? But I also wondered how long he would stay. When Sara was ready to leave her imaginary world behind, would she feel guilty, would it make her sad?

That is how my picture book Sara’s Invisible Brother came into being. At first is was just a story for Sara, with Jacob drawn on transparencies. which would make him visible on the left and right when you flipped the page. But tragically, a boy in Sara’s preschool class had died after a year-long illness. He left a little brother behind. I decided I wanted it to be a story for him, too.

Butterfly (spiritual symbol in context of bereavement)

I am not a professional artist, and it took me a year to finish the first draft of the book, using a light box to trace and retrace the drawings, to make them a little bit better each time. It was only after I finished a second version, another year later, that I began to think of submitting it to a publisher. But when I started researching how to do that, it became clear that I was not the only young mother who wanted to write picture books. The message was loud and clear: when you are not a professional artist, forget about illustrating yourself. Nevertheless, the story was accepted by a small, new, publishing company. Sadly, when I was ready to submit the final drawings, the publisher was not able to follow through. It was a bad time for publishing children’s books, and producing a book with transparencies, which required a spiral binding was impractical and costly. After a few more attempts to find another publisher I let it go.

Sara drawing a picture of herself and Jacob with her invisible brother in line drawing standing behind herI recently found the drawings again and have turned them into a small video, narrated by Sara herself, now a  college graduate. At the time, I wrote it as a picture book that could be read on different levels. First and foremost, it was a story about an imaginary friendship, and transitioning to a world without the comfort it provides. On a deeper level it was written for children who grieve a sibling or friend, to reassure them that it is okay to move on. Now, twenty-five years after I lost Jacob, I hope it may also provide comfort to women who experienced the loss of a baby more recently. Just like me, you will never forget. You will always be their mother.

Butterfly (spiritual symbol)


Author: Heleen van Rossum

Heleen is an internationally-published children's book author with a passion for using stories to encourage imagination and make history come alive. Her most recent picture book, The Best Mom in the Universe, was recently published in the Netherlands, and she is currently working on a young adult novel. She lives with her family in New Jersey.

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