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Grieving children need your ‘I’m sorry,’ too

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Last February, my 6-year-old son lost his father to cancer. His stepbrother, 12, and stepsister, 16, lost an amazingly present and enthusiastic stepdad.

And though I know their losses are as great, if not greater than mine, it took me until the evening of the memorial service one month after Brian’s death, around a bonfire with Brian’s high school friends who had traveled hours to be with us, to realize something. Very few adults had offered my children condolences.

The older children still have a father who is very much in their lives, with whom they live half the week. And yet, it is likely, I realized that night at the fire, that the older ones had received more grief offerings than the littlest, for whom Brian was the only father. The reason? Maybe it’s because people want to believe that the youngest aren’t aware of what’s going on. Or maybe it just makes adults uncomfortable to face fresh youth with the admission that tragedy happens.

The kinds of things people said to Cypress, after they hugged me long and hard, expressed their anger and sadness, held me and searched my tearful eyes, went along these lines: “Hey, buddy, how’s kindergarten going? Are you learning to read? Into any sports?”

And, feeling as relieved as they probably did to have gotten through the reflection of grief, I would look upon this beautiful boy, this vital version of Brian, and revel in him, and never once think to say, “He’s so sad his dad is gone.”

Instead, I might say something like, “You should have seen how quickly he put together that Lego set!” or “He’s really getting good at the guitar.”

I failed to give anyone a clue or a cue, until that too-late night at the fire.

Looking into those flames, I remembered that when Brian was dying he had said, referring to the many turns my life had taken, to our short seven years together, “For you, this is just another chapter.” I would smack him on the arm, remind him of his standing as the love of my life.

And yet, compared with Cypress’s experience, mine with Brian really is a chapter. I likely have about 30 more years to go. Cypress and the bigger kids can expect many more years with this loss.

There is nothing chapter-like about losing your father. It’s a major theme of the entire book. It creates you, forms you, it is the always of your identity. I know because it was one of Brian’s major struggles. His father died when he was a baby, and it was something he grappled with forever.

In many ways, Brian and his siblings had turned their father’s death into a story about their mother’s suffering and persistence, about her difficult lot in raising all four of them with no father. She was the brave mother going it alone with these helpless dependents. The horrifying loss that the children also experienced seemed to be missing from the narrative.

And so, that night, as it hit me, I turned to a good friend of Brian’s, and I said: “I’m worried about Cypress. Will you please tell him how sorry you are? Will you tell the other kids, too?”

That friend promised, but that was one person.

About a week after the memorial service, I asked Cypress how many adults had told him they were sorry about his dad. In a tone beyond his years, he said, “Not very many, that’s for sure.”

A good friend of mine called to check in. “How’s he doing?” she asked about Cypress. I told her that he seemed mostly to be okay, and that I tried to talk to him when I could about the loss. “He probably doesn’t understand,” she said. “Does he think his dad will come back?”

There is no question in my mind that he knows his dad will not return. Minutes after Brian’s death, my sister, who had driven seven hours only to see Brian alive for one, urged me to wake the kids, and in my haze of disbelief, I could think to do nothing but follow her instructions. I am so grateful that I did. We sat on the bed next to his dead body and wept for 20 minutes. Cypress howled like a coyote. He made me think of a little lost animal, lost in a way that is irretrievable.

So, yes, Cypress knows. They all know that he won’t return.

He quieted that night, we breathed together in our little unit, and then somehow we knew it was time to go back to bed. I told the kids that people would soon come and remove the body, that it wasn’t important for them to see more.

They obeyed and returned to bed. They slept. In the morning, the month’s worth of visitors and the parade of cards and comfort food would begin. And few visitors would give the children more than a sympathetic smile.

I know now that if I see a child who has lost in the worst way, I will get down to eye level, and I will say the difficult words: “I am so, so sorry. This is terrible what has happened to you. You have lost someone very special.”

I hope to spare another kid the bleak silence, the fake bubble of oblivion people seem to want there to protect the kids. That bubble is our wishful thinking. And it’s a dangerous, horrible wish that can leave lasting damage. Loss deserves its honor. Children deserve to be a part of that honor.

Bannan is the author of short story collection Inventing Victor. Her novel-in-progress was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarter-finalist. She finished her MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 2014.

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More reading:

There is no normal when it comes to kids and grief

My husband died, this his best friends saved my life — and my daughter’s

A letter to my dead husband, as I’m building a new family