I thought the worst news I would ever have to break to my oldest (five-year-old Charlie), was that we couldn’t go to Chik-fil-a because they are not open on Sundays. This might sound trivial to you, but you try to keep your cool when you’re jonesing for some nuggets and waffle fries on the Lord’s day and your freakin’ mom says you can’t have them. Its devastating, especially if you’re five. I’d listen to him lament about the injustice and ask me “WHY” fifty seven times and complain and go through all the stages of grief, and then we’d go to McDonalds and all would be well again. For the most part our kids’ problems, while they definitely feel huge and Earth-shattering to them, are not. There’s the temper tantrum when they want to blue spoon but the blue spoon is in the dishwasher, so they have to use the red spoon. Its annoying and they might scream and cry and yell, but they get their frustration out, there’s some kind of conclusion, for better or worse, you laugh at the drama of it all, and eventually everyone can move on. I long for those small problems. Don’t get me wrong, we still have plenty of those. Just this morning Charlie opened a vanilla yogurt for breakfast, dumped an overflowing heap of granola on top of it, and then decided that he actually wanted peach. I’m a dick and told him he had to eat the one that he already opened, sorry dude. Cue all the tears, calling me the meanest mom ever, laying on the floor crying, etc. (important update: he ate the vanilla yogurt and we have since reconciled.)
So what do you do when the problems aren’t small, aren’t easily fixed with a temper tantrum or a new yogurt? What if they have no choice but to experience more loss and pain than most adults ever will? It’s not fair that my small children have to learn to live without one of their parents. Its not fair that they have to navigate deep, unexpected grief before they’ve even started kindergarten. Its not fair that they have to explain to their friends that their dad wont be picking them up from school anymore, or he can’t take us trick-or-treating, because he’s dead. Its not fair that someday, when they are older, they will learn a broader truth about what happened that night. They will grieve all over again, but this time over the facts that they couldn’t handle as preschoolers. Yes, its still true that Dad was sick in his brain, and he died as a result of that, but that vague explanation is only going to hold them for so long until they figure out that there is much more to it that they don’t know. Eventually they’ll know the truth of how he died, and where, and why. I can push it off for a few years, a decade or maybe more until they’re teenagers, but not forever.
It was Thursday and we had been staying at my parents’ house for the last few nights. James was still on life support awaiting his organ donation surgery, my house was torn apart, and at that point I couldn’t imagine ever stepping foot back in that house again. So, we stayed at Jojo and PopPop’s house. I felt ok about this, as OK as I could at that moment, but my kids, especially Charlie, had some questions. And as always, he needed his answer YESTERDAY. He drives a hard bargain and demands answers, I can only imagine that this will benefit him greatly in a future career, and hopefully not in a prison gang.
“Why are we still here?”
“Why can’t we go home?”
“I want to play with my friends.”
“Why are people brining us presents and food?”
And most confusing and pressing to him was, “Why is everyone crying?”
I knew my smart as a whip preschooler was not going to take any more of the bullshit answers I had been giving him the last couple days. This was obviously not a “fun sleepover” and people were not constantly pouring into the house with gifts “just because they love us.” Per usual, he could see right through me.
On that Thursday night my parents and sisters and I (and a few others, sorry if I forgot you) were all sitting around my parents’ long dining room table, when Charlie appeared on the other side of the table and locked eyes with me. Interrupting everyone with his booming voice, he said “Mom, why we are still here? Tell me right now.” My heart sank. It sank because I knew this moment was inevitable but I also dreamed that maybe somehow I could avoid it. I’d let them think that their Dad was “at the Army,” as they liked to say, and then eventually we’d move on in blissful ignoranc. I like to call these Denial Fantasies. My Denial Fantasies also include, “if I ignore my pain long enough it will go away”, and “James is going to walk through the back door any minute and explain how this has been the wildest misunderstanding EVER.”
I stood up from the table and picked up my sweet boy. He was heavy, he has always been heavy, but in that moment I wanted to hold him and protect him the way you only can when you have a sweet, fresh newborn who is still unaware of the reality of pain and loss and injustice. I carried him across the living room and into the master bedroom, where I plopped him next to me on the bed. My mom came with me for moral support and Josie came too, but she was completely uninterested in what we were talking about and eventually wandered back out to join everyone else. Oh, to be three.
“I know you have been noticing that there are a lot of people here, and we are sad, and we haven’t been home in a few days…” I took a deep breath, “and that’s because Daddy was sick. He was very sick in his mind, and he was so sick that he died.”
His little body started shaking, he yelled at me first, “no he’s not! Dad isn’t dead!” He buried his face in my chest and cried like I’d never seen before, or since. I felt his warm tears running down my chest as he told me that he wanted his Dad back, he wasn’t really dead, he’s going to come back, “I KNOW he’s coming back,” he told me. In a heartbreaking effort to make this situation less confusing for him, I had to tell him that Daddy really is dead. He is not coming back. It felt cruel at the time, like if I let him hold on to a sliver of hope that his Dad would come back from the grave, maybe this would be slightly more digestible for him. Like when a family dog dies and the parents get a new, identical one and cross their fingers that maybe the kids wont notice and will be able to avoid the pain of loss. Thats a little more tricky to do with a human. I told him the truth, in an age appropriate way, and it sucked. Dad is dead, really dead. He’s not coming back. We want him back, but that’s not how it works. I am very sad just like you are. We can talk about being sad, or mad, or how we miss Daddy. We can give hugs or ask for hugs whenever we need them. You can talk about Daddy whenever and wherever you want to, you don’t need to keep him a secret or pretend that you don’t think about him.
After a few minutes, I had said all that I could say to comfort him, he cried, I cried, and in my limited experience with consoling a grieving child, we called it good for the moment. This was only the first of many tear-filled conversations we’d have in the weeks and months to come. We held hands and walked back out the rest of the family. Charlie went around the table, one by one, asking each person “Are you sad my Dad is in heaven?” And one by one we all melted with his sweet sincerity. James was still dead, we were all still reeling, but my heart swelled watching him and as one by one, each person told him “yes, I’m sad about your Daddy too.”
Kids tell the truth, especially the little ones. We haven’t ruined their transparency yet by telling them to be quiet, polite, not to make people feel uncomfortable, to stay away from taboo topics. They don’t have a filter to weed out all of the things that might make people feel awkward, they just go for it, awkwardness be damned. They don’t waste time formulating an eloquent Facebook comment or searching for the perfect Bible verse for their grieving family member. They don’t dance around complicated issues or avoid hard conversations, they jump straight in with both feet. I see you’re crying, are you sad about my Dad too?
I hope for your sake that you never have to tell your preschoolers that their Dad died. It truly sucks, 0/10, do not recommend. But if you do, be honest with them. Don’t give them a look when they bring up their complicated and real feelings in public. Let them talk openly about how angry, confused, sad, lonely or OK they are.
Charlie tells me some days that he doesn’t really miss his Dad, “today I feel OK, I’m not really sad.” Awesome, thank you for telling me, I’m glad you’re having a good day. Other days I can tell by his mood that he’s hurting, he needs extra grace and room to breathe. Both are normal and OK. My three-year-old Josie talks about James every night when I’m tucking her in. Like clockwork, we lay down and she looks up at her wall where there are several pictures of James and Josie together and of our family. She tells me, “look! It’s Daddy and baby Josie!” or “that’s my Dad, his name is James, I love him, he is in heaven, and his beard is very scratchy.” We have so much to learn from the way kids grieve and process loss. I subconsciously omit parts of my grief and trauma, because its awkward, it can be uncomfortable, some people will move toward me in compassion and some won’t be able to cope with being so close to someone who has had this big of a loss. I’m slowly learning that its not my responsibility to protect you all from my pain so that maybe you will feel more at ease being around me. I’m learning that its much better to be like a kid, to tell the truth, to let the chips fall where they may. To have good days and not feel guilty about being happy, to have bad days and not be apprehensive about telling the people who love me. Today I am ok. I got all three kids up, fed, dressed, out the door and the big two to school by 9 am. I got a giant coffee, which I downed on my way to the Y, my safe haven. I dropped my littlest off in childcare and now I get to spend a couple hours by myself and enjoy the simple pleasure of being alone to work out or pay bills or look at my phone or take a nap. The hole in my heart doesn’t ache too terribly today, and that is a gift I will gladly accept.