My husband Troy took his life when our daughter was 16 months old. We stayed in a hotel for 10 days, moved into a new apartment and did the best we could to move forward. She was only slightly verbal at that point so the extent to which she understood what was happening, was her walking around saying “dada” and looking for him in the usual places. I told her “daddy’s not here” and that seemed to placate her.
I started driving his car and she’d say, “dada’s car” whenever we’d get in and I’d tell her, “yep, mommy is driving daddy’s car.” Around this time the car song game started to become a part of our routine. She’d yell out a word and I’d make up a silly song about whatever that word was, “grandma”, “milk”, “baby”, whatever, all to the same tune, of course, because I’m just not that creative. One day she asked me to sing “the dada song” and I was gutted. I had promised him though when we did the viewing before he was cremated, that I would tell her about him every day, so I took a deep breath, and came up with a song to tell her about her daddy. The first dozen times she requested it, it made me want to puke, but I sang it all the same. She eventually stopped asking.
I had enough child development classes to know that children will ask questions to the degree to which they can understand. I had been telling her, “daddy’s not here” when she’d been obviously concerned about where he was, and that was enough, until the day it wasn’t.
I don’t even really remember what she asked or said, but I remember it was right before her second birthday and I just knew that “daddy’s not here” wasn’t cutting it. I held her in my lap and said something to the effect of, “we’re not going to see daddy anymore”. And I watched as our beautiful perfect child had her world collapse. She cried and cried and cried, and I held her and did all that I could not to throw up. I composed myself and told her, “it’s okay to be sad, mommy feels sad too.” As time went on, I’d repeat, “we’re not going to see daddy anymore”, “it’s okay to feel sad, mommy feels sad too” and “even though we can’t see him, we can feel his love” and “we can talk about daddy and look at his pictures.”
I saw a therapist specializing in children and loss the week after I told her that we weren’t going to see her daddy anymore. I saw her for a few sessions on my own to insure that I was saying the right things and she assured me that I was. She told me that children don’t understand death until about 4, and to, as I had done, answer her questions to the extent that she asked them.
Around this time, I put up all the pictures of him in her room. When we’d moved I had stashed them in the closet but hanging them in her room seemed like the right place for them. The wedding photos and all the photos of us together were hung. It became our ritual. When she’d get upset, we’d go to her room and I’d tell her a story about her dad. Sometimes when she was sad about daddy, and I told her I was sad too, she’d say, “don’t worry mama, we can look at his pictures.”
And of course, my beautiful, sweet strong little 2 1/2 year old girl has an extraordinary emotional bandwidth. She picks up on how others are feeling. She can tell you when she’s mad, sad, frustrated, nervous, happy etc., and ask you how you’re feeling and respond appropriately. All very good things that I’m so proud of.
But the books and the research says 4. Kids don’t understand death until 4. And tonight, my sweet child asked me where her dad was. She asked if he was at work. And I tried what I had been saying, “we’re not going to see daddy anymore”, “it’s okay to be sad, it makes mommy sad too, but we can talk about him and look at his pictures.”
I looked back at her face reflecting in the mirror positioned in front of her car seat and she said, “I want my daddy to come out of the pictures.”
Me too sweet girl, me too.