Four years ago, I lost my husband to a horrible disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis which basically means something caused a hardening of the lungs until he suffocated to death. I remember walking my 2 and 5-year old daughters through a long hospital corridor to say good-bye to their father. I thought that was the toughest day of my life.
Throughout the 4-year healing period, we have gone to therapist and have had our “team” to support us. My therapist warned me that kids have a different grieving cycle. One that dips in and out throughout their whole entire childhood feeling the same intensity at any age rather than like an adult that experiences it more intensely at the beginning and then it becomes less painful over time.
My youngest was only 2-years old when we lost her father. She doesn’t have memories from 2-years old. She is angry. She wasn’t given a memory to take with her, at least a consolation prize for me and my oldest daughter. My youngest didn’t realize what she had lost until she turned five, once the realization of permanence had set in. I noticed her starting to act in defiance and anger, similar to a two or three year old who is declaring their independence but with anger and hate in their eyes. I worried about her and reached out to psychologist, play therapist and teachers to get her the help she needed.
It was her time to face grief, to work through it, to feel all that pain, so that she could get to the other side. My oldest and I had gone through it, and we wanted to support her and let he know she wasn’t alone. I knew I needed to equip her with the right tools for the journey, so that she may handle the turbulence with the least amount of injuries. I’m very lucky to be able to afford resources and have a great community supporting us, but no matter who you are, the same work has to be done.
My youngest started interpreting her grief as her identity and it made her feel alone and unworthy. She began writing notes to me and her teacher saying “I am stupid. I am worthless. I want to die. I want to kill myself.” Tough words for a 6-year old to write and tough words for me to read. When you have kids, the grieving of death isn’t over after a year, you as the surviving parent continue to deal with it day in and day out as a caregiver. Three years later it hurts my heart to hear those words from my child as much as walking down the hospital corridor. In both situations, there is nothing I can do to fix it, to make it go away. I can only hold her, listen to her cries and love her.
When I went to the therapist to discuss what to do and how best to help my child, the therapist said, “Your child is associating her identity with the grief. She feels alone because she is the girl without the father. We have to make sure she understands it’s something that happened to her, not who she is. She isn’t a weirdo because her father is dead, and we need to help her understand that. She is not alone. Others have lost a parent. Then, that will address her self-esteem.”
So away we went and began working on it with weekly play therapy, “Girl Talk” weekly talks with me and the two girls about our feelings, 1-1s monthly so each girl has time with me, reading books to help me and the teacher be better, empathetic listeners, and play dates with others who had lost someone too. Over many months of hard work and dealing with feelings, my youngest notes started to change from self-deprecation to happiness and pictures illustrating our vacation. She was working through it. All those things we had done were helping. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw a happy note one day and began to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Last night when I got home from a long day of work and asked my oldest daughter how her day was, she broke into tears and said “a boy called me a weirdo because I didn’t have a dad.”