Helping a Toddler Grieve
posted on 8/26/10 by Lisa Belkin
Daniel Cho was a cellist. He said good-bye to his wife, Julia, and his 22-month-old daughter, Audrey, when he left on a European tour in June — a few weeks of touring with Regina Spektor. He was making his mark in the music world after years of working two jobs and chasing a dream. The day before he was to appear with Spektor at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, he went to Lake Geneva, showed friends some videos of Audrey that he carried on his iPhone, left his phone and wallet on a towel and went for a swim. What happened next is not clear, perhaps never will be, but somehow Dan, who was a strong swimmer, drowned. He was 33.
Julia, a writer, has been chronicling her grief on a blog, Dear Miss Audrey, trying to capture all her memories of Dan as a gift for Audrey, who won’t have many, if any, memories of her own. But Audrey remembers him now. And her mother is struggling with how to help a not-quite-2-year-old handle grief.
Below is a post she has given me permission to reprint, about the impossibility of explaining to a toddler things you can not comprehend yourself.
Writing this post has me in tears before I even begin.
How do I explain to a 22-month-old little girl who loves her dad that she will never see him again? This is the most heartbreaking thing I deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Audrey is bright (and I’m not just saying that because I’m her mom). She has a tremendous understanding of things and an amazing memory. She is always listening to what I say — even if I’m on the phone or in an adult conversation — and chiming in to talk about what she hears me talking about. Her memory is astounding She remembers things from six months ago. If I ask her what she had for lunch last Wednesday, she tells me, which is kind of frightening.
So she is not at all clueless to what is going on as some might believe. Her world has changed- our routine has changed and many, many more people have been coming by. Besides her intelligence and memory, she and I are very closely bonded. She is in tune with my emotions and though I do my best to remain bright and steady with her, she knows very well that I am sad. I have told her. She witnessed me receiving the phone call on July 6. I remember seeing her out of the corner of my eye kind of standing on tippy-toe and cocking her head to one side looking concerned.
So I have been reminded of something I gave a lot of thought to when I was pregnant — circumcision. Why? Because Dan and I wanted to be surprised and we thought we were having a boy. Every person on the street told me I was having a boy by the way I was carrying. “Girls steal all your beauty,” a woman in a health-food store told me, “and you look great. You’re having a boy.” Then there was the fact that we thought our doctor slipped once referring to the baby as “him” and quickly covering up saying “Well, we refer to all babies as him.” And then there was an ultrasound — and it must have been a finger, but we swore…
So I found myself giving this a lot of thought and asking lots of the doctor lots of questions. I wanted to know if there would be any anesthetic administered, and I wanted to know if I could be with him and hold his hand during the minor surgery. The answers to both were no. No anesthetic and no, I could not be present in the room.
But I felt — just because he is an infant — how can that mean he will feel no pain? We would never do that to a child or an adult, but something about infancy and even childhood, it seems we do all the painful things then, imagining since it will all be forgotten later, it’s as though it never happened. Even though it does happen and an infant is an infant — a brand new human, not a subhuman.
I keep thinking about this because I feel that way about Audrey now. I treat her very much as an equal in a lot of ways and have great respect for her — the independence she’s shown as she practices getting each shoe on while balancing and holding on to the entryway table over and over again until she gets it; the embarrassment she now feels if she goes in her diaper because she knows how to use the potty now; the twinkle in her eye when she’s being funny by pointing at different people in books and saying that they’re me, or saying her name is grandpa. “My name granpa!”
And so I know, that she is not immune to grief just because she is small or just because she happily pointed to the picture of Dan above his casket at the memorial service or because in a few years she may have forgotten him completely — none of that makes the grief she will feel any less real. So, I will be looking for signs, the way I hear her mumbling in her crib before bed: “Appa, Appa, God.” Or on a day when she seems particularly hyper or difficult, or when she climbs onto my bed (where I usually am these days) and just hugs me.
I tell her things. She loves the moon and proudly spots it even on a sunny day — a little white wisp in the blue sky. And I’ve told her in the past that God is kind of like the moon — sometimes we see more than others or sometimes we don’t see him at all, but he’s always there, just like the moon. So, I’ve told her that appa is with God now and, like the moon, sometimes, we won’t see him anymore — but he is always there. I’ve also told her that he became a beautiful butterfly. O.K., maybe she’ll need therapy, but it’s hard to put death into words that a 22-month-old child can possibly grasp when I myself cannot grasp it. And yet, this is the task before me.
Yesterday, she was looking at a craft she made with Dan in the church nursery before he left. We remembered together when he helped her make it. Then she started to walk away. I asked her to come back, and I looked her in the eye and told her that she has a great memory, and she has to remember her appa. “Remember him, O.K.? It will be hard, but I think you can do it.” She listened intently and then I hugged her. As an active toddler, she doesn’t usually stay in one place for very long, but she leaned her head on my shoulder and we hugged for a long time.
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