The toddler years are a crazy time. Kids this age frequently lose control of their emotions, often at the drop of a hat, and especially if they are tired, hungry, or otherwise off-kilter. They are impulsive, curious, and egocentric. On the other hand, they are delirious with wonder, endlessly desirous of exploration, and in awe of everything in the world. Skyscrapers, tiny ants, baking bread: everything is a miracle to them.
It’s late afternoon and I’m watching my 3 ½ year old daughter pound the living room floor with a plastic hammer. There is a toy tape measure wrapped around her ankle and plastic tools ripple out from her body in concentric waves. We are having a good day. She has not recently dissolved into a flailing, screaming body of fury. I haven’t raised my voice once. These facts are significant, because there are some days when I feel like our life is a constant exchange of rage and despair interspersed here and there with sweetness and love. It hurts to say that, but it’s true. Maybe this is normal. Maybe this is not. I’ve honestly lost the ability to tell.
On top of the inherent challenge of her being 3 and my being the parent of an intense, stubborn toddler, we have both lost something so devastating that all sense of equilibrium has been lost: shortly after our daughter’s third birthday, my husband died at the age of 31.
Toward the end, the brain tumor robbed him of everything: his ability to move, to communicate, to exist with the sense of humor and peace that had buoyed us and lent us momentum through his 4 ½ year battle with cancer. Blissfully pain-free for the vast majority of his diagnosis, his last few weeks were agony: dose after dose of morphine in an attempt to control the attacks of excruciating pain that came more and more frequently as his nervous system began to shut down; lorazepam for the terrible muscle spasms that wracked his body; a fentanyl patch when he could no longer swallow, when he could no longer wake from the fog and fatigue and loss of function, and the last days when the pain never stopped.
The day he died, I watched his hands and feet slowly turn pale and cold and grey as his body fought to keep his vital organs alive. Our home blood pressure cuff read “Error” over and over again as his pulse pressure dropped. At some point I lost his radial pulse. His temperature spiked and his breathing patterns became erratic. Within a few hours he was gone.
And now, so many months later, I sit with my wild child as we try to figure out how to navigate this life together.
Every day, I am grateful for the small things: watching her shriek and dance with delight as she runs through a summer sprinkler; her giggles as I stack the harvested garlic stalks in her thin arms and the dry leaves tickle her skin; a walk in the woods when she steps closer and places her small hand in mine. These moments of joy take some of the anguish away from all the times we lose ourselves in our grief. There is so much peace in watching her pat down the soil at the base of our tomato plants or insist on checking on the well-being of the “lobster,” her designated moniker for the reddish-brown fungus growing from a stump along the path through our woods. I find that these moments bring a most necessary quietude to the frenetic buzz in my head.
I know that things do not always go the way we plan. I know that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we just lose control. We are reduced to our wild, raw roots. It is a brutal rebirth to reconstruct the space around a dead loved one, and the process is often arduous and crippling. Just when you feel like you’ve reached the point of no return or that you are finally starting to manage, another barrage descends.
I feel like a failure as a parent when I lose my temper and yell, however briefly the trespass. It is good to express my grief and I have no qualms about crying in front of my daughter, but I am sometimes astonished and ashamed at my anger. I know that losing it is part of the process, but the regret persists. In the aftermath of such events, all I can do is apologize and remind myself that, between the two of us, the many-headed monster of grief still requires some serious grappling.
Every day is a jungle, and there are so few markers to guide us on this path. I was the youngest person in my six-week bereavement group by nearly 30 years. My daughter’s preschool teacher was distraught as the first post-death Father’s Day approached; in her eight years of teaching preschool, she had never had a child whose parent had died.
This past summer my daughter and I caught a baby turtle in our backyard and kept it in a plastic container for a short time. Sprawled on the back deck, she watched it swim and climb onto its rock to bask in the sunshine, then retract into its shell when she hovered too close. She was devastated when it was time to release it back into the grass along the edge of the woods, but eventually conceded that it was okay, that it was time to let go. As she set it gently in the grass, her face near tears, I thought: this child has already had to let so much go.
The piles of childhood grief literature that accumulated from hospice and bereavement services say that you need to use concrete terms with this age group. You are not supposed to use ambiguous language or figures of speech: tell them the body of their loved one stopped working. Tell them the heart stopped beating, the lungs stopped breathing, the body stopped being alive. Tell them when the body stops working, the body dies.
The first few months flew-dragged by. I began the process of rebuilding our life. I expected a reaction when she helped me scatter some of her Daddy’s ashes on the beach near my grandmother’s home. She danced and sprinkled and gave me kisses. I expected questions about why Daddy’s body was now dust and bits of bone: I received a request to play hide-and-seek. But that’s exactly why this grief is such a bewildering, disorienting thing.
Several months after my husband’s death, our daughter’s behavior suddenly shifted. As each preschool rest time arrived, it was like someone flipped a switch. Some days she screamed for hours on end, sometimes just wailing, and other times screaming for her Daddy or for me. She refused to listen, to follow instructions, or to settle down. Most of the time she was absolutely inconsolable. Some days she woke her classmates and some days she screamed so loudly she woke other classrooms. Her teachers and I tried nearly every manner of positive and negative reinforcement, to little effect.
And so for a long time, it happened nearly every single day. Her teachers were supportive and saintly in their patience. As I got out of my car each afternoon and headed into the building, I would prepare myself for the worst. What had my wild child done today? As these outbursts surfaced, so did questions about Daddy, initiating conversations about Daddy more frequently, and even asking her preschool friends if their daddies were dead, too. “No,” one of them replied, “my Daddy’s at work.”
As we approach the first anniversary of her father’s death, I have grown to appreciate that my daughter was able to let go and react to the needs of her grief in such an unacceptable, yet effective way. She worked things through and over time the all-out scream-fest tantrums during rest time dwindled and stopped. I am grateful that, by default of her developmental age, she had the freedom to unleash everything she was feeling. We adults, however, are expected to hold it together. Someone has to pay the bills, wash the dishes, and stack the wood; someone has to read bedtime stories, fold laundry, and make sure the winter coats fit.
As time goes on, we have been able to get back to the important things: painting majestic masterpieces on paper spread across the living room floor, watching the chickadees and tufted titmice come to the bird feeder, and walking hand in hand into the quiet of our back woods to select the perfect Christmas tree.
The other night we stood next to each other at the kitchen counter kneading pizza dough. The evening light slanted pink through the western windows and our hands moved together quietly for a few minutes. The silence was short-lived as she began to laugh and chatter about the tiny bits of dough that clung stubbornly to her fingers and palms, and the flour that cascaded down her front. I tousled her hair and told her that I loved her and that we were going to make it. “Well, of course, Mama,” she replied, like there was no other possibility in the world.
My daughter has learned at a painfully young age that life will never be easy, and that there is immeasurable pain and loss out there, but also that it only exists alongside immeasurable love and light. We constantly seek that balance in this life. I hope that she finds her own source of peace, be it in trees, words, or the dirt beneath our feet, but I also hope that she forever keeps some of that crazy, wild streak.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney is a writer who lives in central Maine and you can find her work at www.sarahkilchgaffney.com.
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