I am often asked what Short Stack remembers of her father, and how much she understands about his death. Family and friends sought reassurance and I didn’t find much authoritative material on toddler grieving, so I thought I’d, as usual, share.
Grieving is complicated even for grownups; it's deep, lumpy, unpredictable, sticky (“Non-linear” is such a genteel way to put it). I've written about the unanticipated feelings it can stir up and about how death is such a common topic for me that I can laugh like a loon. But a post by Snickollet reminds me how much mining I have to do here -- even superficial excavations turn up ore.
Phase 1. Short Stack was 2 and a half when Gavin died. For a week or two, she asked, "Where Daddy go?" because he'd been in the hospital, and then in hospice, for several weeks before he died. First thing in the morning, and several more times, every day. I’d remember how just a few days before, the answer had been, “Daddy is in a special hospital where special doctors can take extra-good care of him.” But now. I'd say, "Oh honey, Daddy died. He went away and we can't see him any more."
"Want go visit him!" she'd say. "Oh honey, we can't, Daddy died. His body got very, very, very, very, very sick. The doctors gave him very, very, very, very, very strong medicine but it didn't cure his sickness and so his body broke and we can't see him any more." "But I want to see him." "I'm sorry, honey, it makes me very, very sad, but we can't go see him. Your Daddy loved you and me and Grandma very, very, very much and he didn't want to leave us. But his body broke and his body had to leave us." (Then I would start to cry, and she would flip out a little, "DON' C'Y, MOMMY!" "Protocol" says not to shield your kids from your expressions of emotion... but it was too heartbreaking to see her little face fall apart and reassemble with adult concern. So on this, I ignored the experts until I saw signs she could handle it.)
Some things that happened during this time:
-- (Looking out her bedroom window): "Mommy, look! I see Daddy in dat tree over dere!" "What's he doing?" "He smiling." (she laughs).
-- (To Gavin’s mother, one of her key caregivers): "Gramma, where Daddy go?" I break in: "Honey..." "No. GRAMMA!" "Honey, your Daddy had to go away." "What he doing now?" "Honey, I don't know, but I think if he could see you right now he'd be smiling."
-- (On a trip out of town) "I want go home! I want my Daddy come home!"
Phase 2. "Why can't I go see Daddy?" (Same story). "But why he body break?" "The sickness was very, very, very, very, very strong and he went to see many, many, many doctors and they gave him a lot, lot, lot, lot of very, very, very, very, very strong medicine. But the medicine could not fix the sickness and so after a long time Daddy's body broke. Your Daddy did not want to leave you, he loved you and me and Grandma, but he had to leave us."
For a while she insisted that he lived in "our other house." I don't know if this is some natural thing because kids this age don't understand permanence, or whether it’s because he was well known for drawings of suburban houses. I would say, "No honey, we don't have another house, Daddy's body died and we can't see it anymore" but she was pretty confident she was right.
Phase 3. "Why did my Daddy get sick and die?" "No one knows why someone gets that kind of very, very, very, very, very bad sickness. It’s very different from little sicknesses, like when someone sneezes or coughs." (Repeat earlier themes). Around this time it was growing less painful for me to look at snapshots. Family pictures and artwork were on my iPod and around the house.I experimented with bringing him up casually: “Your Daddy’s friend Cathy made this picture just for you when you were born.” “Your Daddy loved chino pants.” “I bet your Daddy would be so proud to see you using that fork so nicely.”
Phase 4. After daycare one day she told me, “My Daddy got a crack in his butt so he die.” I don’t know where this idea came from, but definitely from the peer group. I mean, I get the "body broke" part but does she know about plumbers' crack already? I was worried about the horror-movie image she in her mind, but she seemed pretty calm. I briefly tried to reframe what had happened but she was adamant so I let it stand.
(I don't think I ever understood how important it is to "choose your battles" until I had a kid.)
Phase 5. As I came to terms with loss and widowhood and single parenting, I resolved to find a resting place for his cremated remains. Looking around his studio for a few minutes, the idea brightened. On the first anniversary of his birthday after his death (he had a birthday RIGHT after he died, so this was one year plus a little later) I placed the powder in an Acoma pot that his grandmother, who raised him, used to burn palm leaves in during thunderstorms. He’d always said this was the one valuable Indian thing his family had, except that the (Catholic) palm soot had probably ruined it for collectors. I was proud to place this reliquary next to the Buddha's head in his unchanged studio.
And Short Stack knew, somehow. One day she came out with: "Where Daddy body go?"
Deep breath. I can do this. “Well, after Daddy’s body was already completely broken and his spirit and memories and feelings weren’t in it any more… people do a special process where they send the body to a special place and it gets turned into powder.”
“What they do to he body?” I knew not to talk about fire. That’s supposed to freak kids out. That, and being buried in the dirt, you’re not supposed to mention till later. (When? I don’t know yet).
“Honey, they did a special thing to it, kind of like magic, and his whole body turned into a special powder.”
“Magic Powder!!!! I want some!”
Hoo boy. Yeah, that went well.
Phase 6. During her fourth year, Short Stack was gaining awareness that other people had died, and meeting kids who’d lost a pet, or a grandparent. She’d always been pretty articulate about her feelings (I overcompensated for my own deficient upbringing) but she still was taking great leaps in understanding them. Once in a while we’d talk about Daddy or death but I couldn’t see dramatic shifts in her awareness and there were no remarkable stories. Her ideas seemed fuzzy but they were changing.
One day for circle time, her Sunday school class read 2 or 3 age-appropriate books about death, dying, and ways to remember someone. Afterwards the teacher took me aside and told me how articulate SS had been and how she had been okay, but she wanted me to know in case further questions came up. She described it so clearly: Short Stack shared that her Daddy had died. That he can never come back. She was clear that she would never see him again. (This was the first time I’d heard this.) She also mentioned his artwork and the pictures of him as ways to remember her Daddy.
Phase 7. This area of inquiry is a bit fuzzy for me during her fourth/fifth year. She was learning tremendous amounts at preschool, where she was also learning letters, numbers, dinosaurs, insects. She was able to play on her own more and blossoming in many ways. Bringing ideas home, bigger ones, faster, with more kids to test and talk and listen to and in a more consistent, challenging, structured environment. I was dating and then settling down with Mr. Fresh. She adored him. The crisis was over. I was tired, and probably not listening as closely.
Mr. Fresh and AA’s Dad took the kids apple-picking (both age 4.5+):
AA: Short Stack! I’m really happy that you got a new Daddy!
SS: He’s not my Daddy.
AA: Yeah, but because your real Daddy died, isn’t it great that you were able to get a new one?
Phase 8. Lately Short Stack is asking much more mature questions and death is one of many interesting topics. She's not fazed when characters on TV die, and if they come back to life, she understands that it’s for pretend. (Lots of questions around age 4.5 concerned what is “in this world” vs. what is “only in movies.”) She adores Scooby (Dooby) Doo and doesn’t seem threatened by ghosts, Frankensteins, talking skeletons, or witchcraft, even though the etiology of zombies that I provided was probably too cautious. I suppose these TV scenarios are not very scary (especially since 70s clothes seem to be permanently back in style) since the spook is always exposed as a jewel thief or an old man trying to get the oilman off his land. Nonetheless monsters do seem to provide some training in ideas about mortality. How many adults do you know who have a much better handle on this stuff than Shaggy, Daphne or Velma?
She’s starting to understand age (even though she still thinks “fifty-five sixty-six one thousand” is the largest number there is) and sequence. "Mommy, you going to die before me?" "Is Gramma E.R. going to die before you?" "Am I going to die before Noma (her best friend, 2 years younger)?" I know it’s a cliché, but you really can see the little wheels turn around in her head.
-- She clearly remembers her Dad, not just as sense-memory – I believe she remembers more than the feel of his hug.
-- She is beginning to understand that these huge forces exist.
-- She seems not very interested in the spiritual aspect, but that could be the way I color our conversations.
-- She is strong-willed and imaginative, as she is in all things.
-- She asks questions, but is pretty sure she already has all the answers.
And last week I overheard this:
SS: Noma, you know what a stepdaddy is?
Noma: What dat?
SS: It’s if someone has a Daddy who dies, and then they get another Daddy, then they will be that kid’s stepdaddy.
If you listen, and if you wait, the heart does begin to heal.
I received some practical advice and guidance from these books: Helping A Child Cope with the Loss of a Loved One and Guiding Your Child Through Grief.
(Read part 2 here).
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