There's no better or worse in death. I've wondered sometimes if it's "better" to lose a spouse to a wretched, prolonged illness (thus giving you the chance to say goodbye and get your affairs in order [what a strange expression]) or to a sudden, unexpected incident (thus sparing you from being witness to the suffering, but not giving you any time to ready yourself, as if you even can, for what's to come). The bottom line is that your spouse is dead, and it sucks not matter how it happens.
Being an adult, I've at least had some kind of method for managing The Suck since John died. I call friends, go to therapy, eat and drink too much, throw stuff at the wall, and so on and so forth. I have made, and continue to make, some healthy choices in how I handle my grief and some terrible choices. But I have awareness and, thus, choices to make
Maddie and Riley were nine months old when John died. They were babies, practically infants. As "luck" (cruel fate? ironic geographical placement?) would have it, the house where John died was easy walking distance from an established center for child and family bereavement, the Children's Room. I looked into their programs shortly after John died, but their services are intended for kids aged 3+. I didn't do much research into what kind of impact loss of a parent has on infants, but I watched, and I wondered. As I struggled to deal with my own grief, my lack of understanding of how Maddie and Riley might be grieving was easy enough to push to the side. I worried more about how I would eventually need to explain John's absence and the concept of death and less about how to manage the emotions of a grief-stricken toddler.
I have never shied away from talking about John with Maddie and Riley. I like to be honest, and they deserve to know as much about their dad as I can give them since they were too young to build many (any?) memories before he died. Plus, I like to talk about him. I think about him all the time and I like to remember him. I refer to John as Daddy, and Maddie and Riley can identify him in pictures. They can recount certain stories about him. They have infequently asked where he is, and I've answered vaguely, but truthfully, with things like, "I'm not really sure," or "He's dead." While I'm all about honesty, I'm also all about giving three-year-olds information on a need-to-know basis, so I've never pushed the inquiries about where John is or what it means to be dead. They ask, I tell. If they don't ask, I'm not offering.
I'm convinced that Maddie has her own memories of John, although I think that Riley's memories are just a pastiche of images and stories that I've given to him. In both cases, I've been surprised that, given the highly inquisitive and extremely verbal nature of both of them, neither Maddie or Riley has ever pushed me for an explanation of what dead means, or where John is. I've head them say, "Daddy died" in a relatively matter-of-fact way that I assumed came from a lack of real understanding of the idea of death. They've just been parroting back words that I've said to them.
But the pieces are starting to come together. Our nanny takes Maddie and Riley to the library once or twice a week, and we've read a few books this summer about kids who have a pet who dies. The twins are three now, and are getting more emotionally mature every day. Our preschool is aware that John is dead, and I've given the director and teachers permission to talk freely about the subject should it come up. But much like the shock of death itself, nothing could prepare me for the moment when one of my children actually understood what had happend to her father.
To be honest, I can't even remember how we started talking about it. Somehow, during story time on the couch, Riley said, "My daddy did die?"
"Yes," I replied.
Maddie's immediately turned her gaze to me. "My daddy is dead?" she asked, eyes brimming with tears, lip quivering.
"Yes, sweetie, he's dead."
"All dead, or just a little dead? Dead forever? Is he in a box? Is he in the dirt?" The questions came faster than I could answer them.
"I'M SO SAD!" she declared, and grabbed me, crying. "I'm a little bit dead, I'm so sad! Why is he dead?"
In true toddler fashion, moments into her outburst, her attention was grabbed by something else, and she moved on. But the idea that John was "forever dead" came up a few more times during our evening, and Maddie's bedtime banter alternated between how excited she was to get M&M's (her choice) as a treat for giving up her binky to how it could not possibly be true that John was, in fact, dead. Forever.
Riley was a pretty silent partner in all of this, although when I said that I was not sure where John was, his reply was, "He's helping kids!" If he's doing anything, that's probably it, so I found that to be pretty perceptive. At one point, I had both kids on my lap and we were all crying, the first time we've cried about John together. Must remember to add that first to the baby books.
I don't know how toddlers grieve, how kids who may or may not really remember their deceased parent grieve, how to answer the questions they have and will continue to have. But they are three now, the age at which grief support seems to begin, and as more geographical fate would have it, we now live within easy access of the Dougy Center, another pioneer in child bereavement. I think it's time for me to call. I'm not good at asking for help, but this is something I'm happy to admit that I can't do alone. But I want to do this with Maddie and Riley and I want for us to help each other. I want to remember John, and I want to help Maddie and Riley remember John. I want the twins to know how to be sad, and to learn how sad and happy can coexist.