28 September 2009

Toddler Grief

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.


CV said...

Snick, you haven't made me cry in a while.. you got me this time! Those reactions are so true to maddie and riley, I can just imagine how that went down. It seems really IMPORTANT that you got all those tough questions at once. As if there's no way to deny now that maddie gets it. Well, you know 'get it' is relative. But they have a framework now of understanding.

You did an awesome job. I wish I could be there for a hug.

yatima said...

Oh, Maddie. I am so sorry.

Vanessa said...

It's amazing what kids can understand. My daughter was seven when her dad died, and I was braced for her be confused, to ask if he could come back, etc., as I had heard children often did. I was startled that she understood it at once and completely, with an adult sense of finality and resignation that was almost eerie in a little girl who had just finished the first grade. I wondered at the time whether her dad had talked to her about the possibility when I wasn't around (it was the sort of thing he would have done) but I didn't want to ask, and she's never said.

I am so sorry that Maddie and Riley have to deal with this, and that you have to watch. It's not something anyone should ever have to do when they're three, or thirty-seven for that matter.

Haitian-American Family of Three said...

I am so sorry.
Hug those kiddos tight.

Crash Course Widow said...

I sure don't have any helpful answers for you, Snick. I know that Anna's understanding of "dead" (and "forever dead"...although she never said it that way) certainly started to ramp up and mean something shortly before she turned 3. Every few months or a year or so, her understanding jumps again, and what she says changes. For better or worse, she's seen 2 beloved pets die or be dead and had 2 beloved great-grandparents die. She's been to funerals, listened to what her mommy has said over the years, and knows plenty about her daddy. Does she "grieve"? I still don't really know. Even with our dog's death this summer--which has much more immediacy to her than her father's ever has--she hasn't "grieved" much like I've expected her to. She says she misses him, occasionally reacts in the present tense as she remembers something about seeing him, but otherwise she's accepted it all rather matter-of-factly. I can never decide if it's weird, healthy, normal, to be expected since she's had the "practice" with death for 4 years now, etc.

I've been waiting to see when it'll be the supposed right time to start taking her to the Dougy Center too. So far we haven't done anything about it yet, but I don't know if it's out of laziness, procrastination, or simply endless waiting. Anna's never cried at all about her daddy, nor about Chase (except for maybe that first day or two, albeit briefly).

Kids/toddlers/preschoolers with infant grief is such a garbled thing. Glad I have company and sounding boards with friends like you as we muddle our way through.

Hugs, as always.

tree town gal said...

Oh Snick - I'm crying with you all. The reactions are so pure for children. Your ability to be honest and present for your children is amazing. When my father died, my mother had such a difficult time that she sort of closed off memories to me. At seven, I found this to double my loss. You have done a remarkable job at giving your children a beautiful picture of their father while making them feel safe to grieve. Incredibly handled, Snick.

Jennifer said...

What a hard topic to explain to kids when many adults (myself included) don't understand it themselves.

Krys72599 said...

"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."

Sad and happy CAN coexist. It takes time. As an adult who's lost so many loved ones I can understand this. But it's hard to explain this to someone who hasn't suffered this kind of loss (and I'm amazed at how many people my age - 48 - have been blessed enough to have not lost anyone yet! I feel like I've been attending funerals all my life!).

If you can help your children remember their dad, love their dad, and miss their dad, be both sad and happy and understand this, you've given them such a gift as they move on in their lives...

Mo and Will said...

Oh, what a beautiful, heartwrenching post. I am so glad the twins have a mom like you. In that respect, they are VERY lucky.


Cari said...

Wow, I'm crying at work. Major e-hugs to you, Maddie and Riley.

Jordan said...

I've been reading for a while now, and honestly never thought about Riley and Maddie grieving because they were so young when John died. It breaks my heart to think about them being sad, but I know you will get them through this.

Sadia said...

Snick, tears here for all of you too. I know that the impact my husband's (only 15-month) absense had on one of my then 5-month-olds, and I simply can't imagine what your family has to go through.

I'm so sorry. Your children are fortunate to have such a wonderful mother.

Pam said...

Awww, Snick. Big HUGS to you and the twins. My Grandmother died when I was 4 and I remember my Mom crying, going to her funeral, but totally not understanding what dead meant. I am glad there is a resource close to you. Like a PP said, death is hard for adults to understand too. I think it's good you are able to talk about it with them. From what I know, John was a great husband and Daddy and you are making sure the twins know that.

Kerrie said...

My heart aches for you all...

I sometimes speak with my (now 13yo) stepson about his Mum...she died when he was 18 months old. He is unsure if he remembers her or whether his "memories" are an amalgam of photos & stories his Dad and other people have passed on. His older brother was 10 and so remembers her very differently. The boys have grieved and will continue to grieve differently at different times in their lives, just as their Dad does. For him, grief is more cyclical than linear. He doesn't believe that as time goes by, he gets further from his loss. From time to time, he revisits the deep anguish.

It sounds like Maddie & Riley are at a point where their grief is acute and they are now able to express how they are feeling..."dead forever" is so final and so harsh.

After the boys Mum died, one of her friends collected together letters, memories, stories & photos from family & friends and had them compiled into a book for the boys so they would know more about their Mum. Perhaps you or someone close to you could do something similar for Maddie & Riley.

Seeking help for the children is an excellent idea and doing it alone would be so very hard, you are a wise woman to seek help. I hope it goes well for you all.

Your children are beautiful...such sensitive, precious little souls they are. I will be keeping you in my thoughts and holding you close to my heart.

Wishing you peace...

Jen said...

Ah Snick, I'm so sorry you are having to deal with this. Your openness and honesty with Maddie and Riley will serve them so well as they grow, though it can be so hard on you now.

My daughter is the same age as your kids, and I lost my husband suddenly when she was 21 months. I too try to talk about Daddy often and matter-of-factly, crying sometimes and laughing sometimes. Just the other night at bedtime Anna asked me, "If you die, will Daddy come back?" "No", I said. "When someone dies, they can never come back. But I won't die until you are all grown up, with children of your own." (It occurs to me now that I could have helped her put words to her fear: "Are you afraid I will die and there will be no one to take care of you?") She hasn't cried about losing Daddy, but I too am watching and waiting for her to be old enough to participate in Kara activities, our local grief support program.

Take care, Snick. It does really Suck, and it's so very hard, but maybe together we can all help each other through.

BethGo said...

I'm so sorry you have to go through this.

Lee C. Thomas said...

Honey, I'm so sorry. I've got tears here as well. For you, for M&R, and for John. Wish I were there to give you an extra hug today.

Keen said...

"There is no bettor or worse in death." Amen to that.

What an intense post. Your kids are such smart, wonderful little people, and they're so lucky to have you to guide them.

And that center looks wonderful, I'm so glad you have that as a resource.

Amelie said...

I'm so sorry that you, M and R have to go through this. It sounds incredibly hard.

LadyBug said...

What a powerful entry. My son was 4 when my father passed away and he ended up comforting me - its amazing what children are capable of - even mature emotions when dealing with death. My heart and thoughts are with you all - you are very strong - and together you all will get through this!

Danielle said...

I never comment, but I always read. And now I'm crying. Children are beautiful, and their understanding of things can be so enlightening and heart wrenching. Keep parenting and living the way you do, and all will be good. They will remember John with you.

Christa said...

Crying at work. I don't know how you do it, but you do it with such courage and compassion. Your kids are lucky to have you.

caramama said...

I just wanted to send you some virtual hugs and say that I think it's great you are going to call the center and get help. They are the experts and will hopefully help you all learn how to go through this together.

I wish I had better words or support. I do think you are doing a fantastic job raising your kids!

Anonymous said...

My guess is that the kids will have to come to terms with their dad's death at each developmental stage, so I imagine you'll repeat that basic scene many times. And it sounds like you handled it beautifully.

Bless you!


django's mommy said...

Yeah, I have a friend who talks about 'different flavors of Suck' to describe different widow situations, and that about sums it up.

We have dealt with our children in a similar way. Sometimes the stuff that Nathan comes out with takes my breath away. I am waiting for him to be old enough to do some 'official' counseling, groups, whatever (he is now 4 1/2). In the meantime, we just talk about his dad a lot.

Lals said...

Awww, Snick; you're an amazing mother! ((hugs))

My mum sent us to the Dougy Center after my father passed away. Unlike Maddie and Riley, we had been just old enough to understand what was going on through-out his short illness, but not really old enough (Is anyone ever old enough?) to deal with it well. The Dougy Center made a huge difference in our lives. I hope it will help you, too.

Sylvie said...

Oh, poor little Maddie! How do such little people process such big feelings and concepts. I'm sure they grieve in some way, it's pretty incredible that she was able to get out some good tears about it.

clstigger said...

Snick, I have read your blog for awhile now but I think this is the first time I have ever posted anything. I highly encourage you to make that phone call to the Dougy Center. I am the Coordinator for the McClean Center in Mississippi that was based on the Dougy Center and their staff came out and trained our orginal staff 10 years ago. I think it will be helpful not only for M & R but also for you as you journey through raising your children without your spouse. Please let me know if I can answer any questions for you before you make that phone call. clstigger7@aol.com
I will be praying for you as you walk through this journey. You are doing the right things for your family. Jen

Supa Dupa Fresh said...

Sounds like you're doing everything right, and you remind me that Short Stack is now old enough for Grieving camp out here. I've heard great things about the Dougy Center!

Maddie's quite advanced (as you know...). Shortie didn't understand the permanence, not even a little bit, until around 4. (I know you saw it, but if you want to go back, my detailed post is at http://freshwidow.blogspot.com/2009/05/what-short-stack-gets.html).

HUGS to you all!



Roads said...

Well, I think some reassurance is in order. You're handling this fine. And not just fine, actually, but bloody wonderfully.

Kids ask questions, and in some ways perhaps this is just the beginning. It goes on. It's distressing for you, but although they can get upset from time to time, I don't think it's routinely distressing for them.

Over time, my children adapted to what was their 'normal'. They realised slowly that this was different from other kids', but that didn't make it any less normal to them.

Your answers and your softly-softly yet honest approach sound exactly right to me. If you need to change that, you'll sense it better than anyone else will know.

Grief counsellors are great -- I went to one myself -- but in the end, I asked myself: had she ever faced the same problems?

The answer was no. I stuck with it for a while, because I appreciated the opportunity to talk it over and to try out new lines on her, before I shared them with the kids, or with other people for that matter.

But finally, I realised that the expert on handling grief in our home wasn't the woman at the centre. It was actually me, just like it is most certainly you.

Best wishes and much admiration from London. Attagirl!

OTRgirl said...

You are doing such a great job as a parent. No matter how many bad days you may feel you have, overall your kids sound amazing and your relationship with them seems really healthy. I'm glad you have another easy-access resource and I'm so glad you're going to use it.

Overall though, I wish you didn't need it...

Lyndsay said...

You're such a great mom - I'm sorry that you and the kiddos are having to deal with this. Their little minds have so much to figure out and deal with. I'm glad there are supports close to you - I hope they are a good fit for you and Maddie and Riley!

mames said...

you are such a strong woman and such a good mama. and i think you are teaching them by example that happy and sad can exist in one space. hugs.

Anonymous said...


i think you are one amazing mum!

the above is a great website from a brilliant charity here in uk - is there a us equivalent? - who have lots of sensible advise and ideas re bereavement for children.

hope it may help you. mags x

Anonymous said...

You are doing a great job handling this with Maddie and Riley.

My father died when I was 5, suddently, although he had been sick off and on with a bad heart, so not completely shocking.

That was nearly 41 years ago. Such things were dealth with very differently. I went back to kindergarten after being out for however many days for my father's wake and funeral. As I recall, no one said a word to me. My teacher did not acknowledge that my father had died. No one offered me condolences or offered to talk to me about it. I recall that in the days after I returned to school, we had to make rhyming words, and the word I picked was "wake" having just been through my father's wake. There was an awkward silence. I barely shed a tear.

I don't think anyone thought much about how I was grieving. I think probably people changed the subject if they were talking about my father when I walked in the room.

I have very few memories of my father, almost none, shocking to me since my own children are not that much older than I was when my father died. I cannot imagine them having so few memories of me if I were to die. We are so intertwined, we love each other so much, we have such a history. I know I had that with my father. How could I not remember?

I think part of why I have so few memories is that people didn't talk about him, and how we fit together, very much, if at all, and the memories faded away. No one made any effort to keep those memories alive for me. It was like losing him twice.

When my mother talked about him to me, she always referred to him as "your father," and I stopped thinking of him as "daddy." I always felt awkward asking about him, because I felt funny calling him "daddy," but how could I call him "my father?" To this day, it is awkward for me to ask my mother about my father. It is sort of the way it is awkward for me to talk to my in-laws, because they want me to call them mom and dad, and I don't want to, I want to call them by their first names, but they are not comfortable with that, and would prefer Mr. and Mrs. if I can't say "mom" or "dad." So I don't call them anything.

You are doing everything right, and how wonderful that you shared tears with your children over John. That is healthy, and healing, and I envy it, even after all these years.


cluelesscarolinagirl said...

Oh Snick, Oh. My kids are 9 and 11 and have had very little experience with death. They have both grandparents on the paternal side, and my dad died years ago. The hard thing is that my mom was one of those Sooper Dooper grandmothers but began to deteriorate from Alzheimer's when they were 3 and 5, I guess. Now they see her as a lifeless lump in a wheelchair, staring at nothing, and I wonder what is going through their heads. Thank God I'm adopted, and so are they for that matter.

They remember the screaming fights I had with her when she deteriorated into Horrible Bitch mode, and that disturbs me..I tried to conceal them, but it's a small house, and you know how kids are always everywhere they aren't supposed to be. Sigh..

Vee said...

I am a recent lurker of your blog. I am dealing with my husbands deterioration due to a rare cancer and a newborn. I often wonder about losing your spouse suddenly or to the ugly disease, I don't think I can answer it but your are right it sucks either way!

I wonder how I will cope and your story has helped me understand it a bit better. Thank you.
I think you are doing an amazing job with twins and how you have dealt with such a difficult topic.

June said...

You precious, dear, loving Mother....you never cease to amaze me with your knowledge in learning day-by-day how to express your grief with your children. You are an EXCELLENT Mom. When Maddie & Riley are grown, they can only have mounds of love & respect for you in how you helped them deal with losing their Dad. I can't say this enough, John would be so very proud of you. Hang in there, but also remember there are many of us 'older' folk learning lessons from you on how to deal with death. I've lost 4 siblings--each one to tragic illnesses--& let me tell you, just because I'm grown it doesn't make it any better in understanding what death is all about. I admire your wisdom in handling these type situations as they arise. You are a jewel, & I send you my love & compassion. You are awesome! Hugs to you & the kiddos.

Molly said...

You are an amazing mom. For reals.

Anonymous said...

I was going to suggest the Dougy Center. I've known people who have gone there and it has been wonderful for them.

I have been reading your blog for awhile and I, too, live in Portland so it has been fun to follow your journey. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

Melina said...

I'm so sorry for all of you. I'm so glad you all have each other.

Anonymous said...

Ugh. I am so sorry that you have to have this conversation. It stinks, stinks, stinks.

My kids are 3.5 now and we lost my dad a couple of months ago. They have been making the connection with things too - finding a dead mouse outside and asking if it was "dead like my Grandpa is dead." They also ask periodically if he is still dead and say that they miss him. C drew a picture and wanted to give it to the doctor so he could make Grandpa better so he could come and visit us again. And B freaked out when my Mom inadvertantly described how she felt using the same words we had used to describe dealth. (We said that Grandpa was really old and his body stopped working.) Of course, John never got to be really old before his body stopped working.

Sucks, sucks, sucks and I am so sorry.


Tash said...

I'm sorry I'm so, so late to this post: I was told when my younger daughter died, that my older then-toddler daughter would "grow into her grief." And I believe that's exactly what's happening here with your kids, and you're handling it perfectly, according to my judgement, which probably isn't saying much. Honesty, straight-forwardness, answering when they ask but not pressing the situation on them, or taking it farther than they're asking to go (believe me, they'll take you there eventually). As their verbal expression and maturity grows, so will their understanding of the situation. As long as you keep up and let them know they can come to you with questions, it will be as gentle as possible. Children are surprisingly resilient.

Hang tough mom, you're doing awesome. Just awesome. I'm so sorry you're having to do it all, though.