I told my daughter that her dad was dying in the little kitchen on the palliative floor of the hospital. His doctors had told me that he was too sick to come home, where we wanted him to die. He may not have survived the ambulance ride.
I remember the fluorescent lights, flickering. I remember the ice machine that she thought was the coolest thing in the world. I remember the smell. Microwaved food and antiseptic. The windowsill, where I had sat the night before, looking down at the bustling city streets below. The shocked disbelief mixed with panic and something else too vast to even name.
I remember the way she looked at me. Her eyes. How she reached out for my shaking hand, comforting me for the first time.
I remember I told her that we would be okay. Of this, I am sure.
“We have each other,” I said. And I remember how her hand gripped mine tighter.
“I understand, Mama,” she said, in a voice so serious it almost sounded comical coming from such a small child.
She didn’t cry. She didn’t smile. She didn’t turn away.
She just held my hand and repeated back, “We have each other.”
She was about to turn three. Her dad’s name was Brian and he was the best. He was the best for me and he was the best for her. We were all so in love.
When the cancer came, it really came. My strong runner, my tall, beautiful man, lived for seven weeks within a body being ravaged by this horrible disease.
Those seven weeks were a whirlwind in the worst possible way. We didn’t officially know that he was dying until days before he did, although looking back now, it was obvious. We held on to hope because the doctors didn’t have the heart or the will to tell us the truth. We held on to hope because we didn’t know what else to do.
While he was sick, our daughter was mostly cared for by our family members. I remember coming home from the hospital, where I’d been sobbing on the edge of my love’s bed all day, and lie with my daughter, already tucked into bed.
She was still nursing at the time and so I’d give her what I could, although I wasn’t sleeping or eating much at the time. She’d sigh and roll over, so sweet. Her dad loved her with such a depth and it broke my heart that our family was being torn apart in this way. Life and death, I held them both in those moments.
Telling her that her dad had died was one of the worst moments of my life. It’s a task that I wouldn’t wish upon my very worst enemy.
I was lucky to be connected with some helpful resources about childhood grief right away, but I know that many people don’t have this luxury.
I learned early on that while we as adults often experience our grief in “waves,” children “puddle jump” through their grief. When they’re in that puddle, their grief is just as immense, as vast, as overwhelming as ours. But they can jump out of their grief and back into the moment in an instant in a way that we as adults can’t. That is their super power.
Because of this ability - because of their joy, their play, that lives alongside their grief – it’s easy for us to look away and pretend that they aren’t grieving. Since the beginning of this journey, I have been an advocate for my daughter’s grief. Her grief is real, it’s big, and it’s one of my most important life purposes, to help guide her through it.
As the years have passed, our grief has changed and flowed along with the course of our lives.
I’ve learned that children re-grieve through each new developmental stage. My daughter’s comprehension of the immensity of our loss reveals itself more and more as her brain continues to develop. As her awareness of the world and of life grows, her grief grows too.
Children don’t grieve on command. Her grieving doesn’t happen when I want it to or when it’s convenient. It happens in real time, real life, in every day moments.
I’ve stopped trying to figure out what is grief and what isn’t. It doesn’t matter.
Her grief is interwoven into the fabric of her life.
As time has ticked on, I’ve noticed how important rituals are for us both, but especially for her.
She loves watching videos of her dad playing drums, listening to the albums he recorded, and repeating the phrases he loved to say.
She has told me that she worries she’s forgetting him. And so, we tell stories over and over. And we write down memories as much as we can.
Remembering A Life has a beautiful Self-Care Box, which has been such a wonderful, tangible addition to our grief support toolbox. Simple things that make such a difference within the devastation of grief: a candle, water bottle, and dragonfly keychain with a special story to accompany it.
My daughter especially loves the memory jar. We write down stories of Dada whenever we think of them, fold them up and add them to the jar. She loves walking past and seeing them all in there, our collection growing as we write more. And when she’s missing him, or feeling extra “griefy,” we open up the jar and pick one out. She loves the surprise of it.
We have also found the conversation cards from Remembering a Life to be a great way to remind ourselves of the importance of continuing to build bonds within our little family. We are especially fond of the children’s deck, which is both silly and serious, and we plan on bringing it with us the next we visit Brian’s mom – so that my daughter can play with her grandmother.
Remembering a Life is doing such good work in the world. Their website, www.RememberingALife.com, is judgement-free and full of practical and thoughtful advice and supports for grievers. I wish I had known about it in the early days after my husband’s death.
Children’s grief is so easy to sweep under the rug. We don’t want to admit that our sweet, innocent children are grieving and so, often we don’t. But the reality is that they are, and ignoring it doesn’t do them any good.
Remembering a Life is a resource that actively encourages including children in the family grieving process. If only more people understood the importance of this. I am hopeful that together, we can start to move the needle in a positive direction.
I am grateful for the work that Remembering a Life is doing to change our societal narratives around children’s grief.
Children love, so children grieve.