When I left Florida bound for home, I knew things would never be the same for me.
My dad was gone.
Thankfully, I was able to say goodbye to him. I was sad, heartbroken and found myself leaning on my daughters, Alexa, 22 and Maria, 21 – who’d been by my side during those precious last days with the patriarch of our family. Both girls were strong for me, though I could see their heartbreak.
I was headed home to my husband and our babies, Emma, 6 and Ella Grace, 3. Florida, that hospital, that time – it was all too much. It wasn’t the place for those little babies. They are filled with life – and I didn’t want them around death.
On the plane ride home, wrapped in my dad’s favorite sweater, I thought about my dad, our loss, and my little ones. My heart hurt knowing what was coming next. The baby wouldn’t really understand, but I knew telling Emma that her Papa passed away would be difficult. She’s a very perceptive 6-year-old with a huge heart.
She’s an old soul, and despite the many miles between them, Emma and her Papa had an incredible bond. In fact, when Emma was 2, she’d walk around with two things, her Barney doll and a photograph of my dad.
Our flight touched down and my anxiety rose up.
This was one of the most difficult weeks of my life. I knew I’d find the strength to tell Emma, but as a parent, my job is to protect my children from pain.
I waited until we were home and with my husband by my side and I told Emma that I needed to talk with her. She looked me and said, “Papa passed away, didn’t he?
Enter waterworks. Despite thinking I had no tears left, I could not stop crying. I hugged her and told her that was true. She looked sad; her big brown eyes getting misty. I was expecting a breakdown, but it didn’t come.
That was it. She hugged me and went about her normal business of barbies and books. She seemed fine.
I felt better thinking she was clearly too young to absorb this momentous life moment.
I was wrong.
I started to notice things here and there.
She would pick up the baby’s toy cell phone and say, “Hi Papa.”
And she’d bring his name up out of the blue – like once we saw a huge American flag flying and she said, “Oh mom, Papa would love that flag. We should take a picture and send it to him,” then she paused and finished, “Never mind, he passed away.”
She did okay at his funeral, in fact, she enjoyed spending time with her cousins. She was sad at times, but I think that was a reflection of seeing her mother and aunts and uncle so upset. I found her to be very observant the entire day, though.
I soon started to get red flags that told me Emma may have been struggling.
I found a memorial prayer card in her backpack. I found her picking up my dad’s urn and talking to him.
And then one day at dinner, out of the blue, she began crying, saying she couldn’t remember what her Papa’s voice sounded like. I was heartbroken. For Emma. And for me. I immediately pulled up old voice messages that I had saved on my phone. We listened to those messages over and over for a good 45 minutes. We laughed. We cried. We remembered.
I realized then and there – that Emma was worried about the same thing everyone who loses someone worries about – forgetting that person or fearing others would forget. I realized that instead of NOT talking about dad for fear that she may get upset, we should talk MORE about him.
I talked with West Seneca couple and family therapist, Darcy Thiel, MA, LMHC, about children and grief. I told her my scenario and asked if kids really ‘get it’. She said it’s too hard to say, “I’m not sure what age kids understand finality; I don’t know that humans at any age truly grasp the concept; from pretty young on though, they can at least understand the concept of “not coming back”; so your six year old is “fine”, she just has moments of more acute grief; that is totally normal; it doesn’t consume her, but sometimes things will hit her; you handled it great with the recorded voice.”
Thiel says using drawing is a great way to get at feelings. Things like, one of my favorite memories is when… and they can draw their feelings. I’ve done this with Emma and it is amazing what she remembers.
It’s a balancing act. I talk freely and emotionally with my older girls about our loss. It’s really a struggle for us. But, to be honest, Emma makes it easier for all of us to remember those fun and special times. She helps us think about his life more and his death less. That is a gift.
Thiel says the important thing is to be honest, “I am a big believer in telling kids the truth, no matter what their age; you try to use age appropriate language, but telling them the truth helps them grasp mortality from the beginning; I know in my house, we made sure it was “allowable” to talk about my husband; family freely said his name and told stories when something came up; that way, my son (who was 8 when his dad died) knew he could remember him and miss him whenever he wanted.”
Loss or even change can be incredibly difficult for us and for our children. We have to remember those sweet little ones have a heart, have feelings, and we wouldn’t want them to have to keep it all inside. Thiel says when it comes to children and grief, times can be tough,
“Any loss can be difficult for a child, depending mostly on the relationship the child had with it; if they are close to their goldfish, that loss can be devastating; grandparents tend to have fun relationships with their grandchildren so that can be very hard; I remember being surprised when my son said he was worried because he knew his dad was only 48 and his grandparents died in their 50s before he was even born; he figured out he might die early too; the biggest thing is to just let them talk about whatever they need; sometimes we do that by example; let them see you laugh, cry, remember.”
So that is what we do. We laugh. We cry. And we remember. We will always remember.