When Randy died, my kids were 7 years old, almost 5 years old, and 7 months old. I hoped the older two would remember their dad, but I knew there was no chance for my 7 month old to ever know her dad.
The oldest, Kayla, remembers certain things about her dad. She even remembers things I don’t. Her perspective was different from mine. She noticed things that I took for granted. When we compare notes, it’s interesting to see the differences. Together, we create a whole picture. Her memory wasn’t always so clear. After her dad died, she placed him on pedestal higher than God. No, really, she did. He was the best at everything and bad at nothing.
No one could measure up, not even me. Out of frustration, or maybe jealousy, and sometimes out of wanting a good chuckle, I would mention something about him that was not so flattering. Like, I might mention that he was really great at annoying people. So much so,his dad referred to him as ‘annoying man’. Randy would sit and flip the remote over and over or tap his fingers or whistle or anything he thought might grate on your nerves the tiniest bit…then he’d giggle. That was enough to send Kayla off the deep end. I would have to listen to all kinds of negative talk about how I must be glad he was gone and how I just wanted to date (it all stemmed back to that time period when we weren’t getting along). Eventually, as she healed, Randy joined the land of the mortals and the pedestal came tumbling down. Now, 11 years later, she can talk about the good, the annoying, and even some of his bad habits with honesty and a smile.
The important thing is, she has a whole picture. He mattered and I want her to know it, but I want her to have a healthy memory. If she left him on that pedestal, she would never be happy with a step-father, or probably any man. I didn’t want her to turn away boyfriends because she compared everyone to this unrealistic image of her father.
Brendan was just days away from his 5th birthday when Randy was killed. In fact, his party was supposed to be that day. Because Brendan was so young, I worried about his memories. I know that I remember very little from when I was four and five. I worried he would only remember the traumatic memories. I worried they would trump the good memories. I was right, they have. He remembers one or two things about his dad. What he remembers how it felt losing him, what it was like looking at him in the casket, and other things I wish he could forget.
Brendan is quieter than his siblings, much like his father. He rarely says anything, but when he does, it’s because it is important to him. Occasionally, he will ask something about his dad that we haven’t talked about. When Kayla and I talk about Randy, he is always listening. He gets very emotionally, very fast, whereas Kayla usually is a little calmer. We all have our moments, but his emotional responses come much faster. When they come, he’s done talking. His response has stayed fairly consistent since I told him his dad died.
When I told him Randy was dead, he intentionally fell asleep. It still hurts bad enough, that when emotions surface, he is out of there. There have been moments when he has asked me questions and finished the conversation, even through the tears. I see very gradual change in him. He functions well and we have had no problems with him. I do wish he had more memories and I hope if we talk about Randy enough, he will be able to picture it in his head and at least have some non-traumatic memories. Poor Emily has no memories at all.
Emily was only 7 months when Randy died. In some ways she is the luckiest of all, and in others, the most impaired. She doesn’t know the pain we knew. She doesn’t remember how terrible it was to walk that path. That’s the good and the bad news.
I often wondered as she was growing up when she would ask about Randy. When, or if, she would ever grieve him. Would she be the crazy kid who fought the law and parents her whole life because she never heard my incessant speeches about compassion, strength, and faith? Would she end up pregnant at 16 to fill the void of her dad?
I got remarried to my current husband in April 2004. It had been 3 years since Randy died. Tim entered our lives, as a friend first, when Emily was only about 16 months old. No one told any of the kids to call him dad. No one told Tim he had to be their dad. The two pieces just fell together. All of the kids think of him as dad. They tell everyone else he is their dad. When we are at home, usually the older two call him Tim. He doesn’t take place of their dad, but he is one of their dads. How lucky are they to have not only ONE dad who loved them, but to have TWO? That is amazing. I know that Randy and his family are happy to know there is a man out there, here on earth, who loves them and treats them as if they were always his. Everyone needs a dad and Tim makes a great one. Emily and Brendan do not remember a time when he wasn’t their dad. We differentiate between the two when we need to by using the names ‘Daddy Randy’ and ‘Daddy Tim’.
Since we think of Randy as their dad in Heaven and Tim as their dad on earth, we feel no need to clarify to others. Tim isn’t a step-dad and Randy isn’t the biological dad. They are both dads. How that came to be is no one’s business, but ours. When we mention ‘dad’ or ‘daddy’ to others, usually it refers to Tim.
One summer, when Emily was about 8 years old, she started talking about death a lot. She also started asking question after question about her dad. We spent every day at the pool because she was on summer swim team. One day I go strolling into the pool, sun shining bright, with the intent to grab a chair and soak up some morning sun during their two-hour practice. Before I could even get comfortable one of the other moms hurried towards me. I waited for her since it seemed important. She placed her hand on my arm with concern and said, “Oh my gosh! Emily told me her dad died.”
“What?” I said, quite confused.
“She said he was killed in car wreck.”
“Ohhhh!” I replied with a small smile.
I explained the situation. I think that mom was more concerned about Emily’s strange e obsession with her dad’s death after the explanation. I don’t think she understood what was going on with Emily.
To me, it suddenly made sense. Emily had told everyone about Randy’s death. All the concern and fascination about death and Randy all made sense. It had been almost 8 years since his death and she was grieving. Apparently, she was telling everyone we knew that her dad had died. She was going through all the questions the kids had been through. Just like Kayla and Brendan, she was concerned I would die too. She needed to picture that sad time in her mind and work through all the exact issues that the other kids had already mastered.
I worried about her, often. I wondered if I should take her to counseling, like I did with the other kids. We spent hours talking. Sometimes the topic came up at strange times, but we always talked. I answered her questions, we talked about her concerns. We talked about how it was okay to go through this and that it all would work out. I offered her the chance to go to counseling and she declined. Eventually, the topic subsided and she was content with her knowledge. The stage lasted for about 6 months.
At 12 years old, there is much unknown about her future, but some of my questions are answered. She will grieve him just like the other kids did and she will work through it and heal just like the other kids did.
Even kids walk their own path when it comes to grief. It’s our job to support them. Try not to be shocked by what they say. Kids are very direct. They are trying to figure the world out and decide how they feel about it. They are not big picture thinkers. They have little or no thought about how their words might hurt someone else. So, keep up your armor when talking to them about sensitive subjects. Talking about it might be painful for you, too. Doing it together might allow you to learn something about your child or yourself. It also might help you heal a bit more. It was always easier for me to deal with my own grief when it seemed like my kids were healing too.
However you do it, remember there are no right or wrong answers. There are no hard and fast rules. And, whatever the age of your child, they might experience their own grief and will need your support. Together, you can do anything.