What does grief look like in a three year old? I know what it looks like for me: some days it feels as though somebody rolled a wardrobe onto my chest after pumping me full of tranquilizers and whisky. The idea of just getting out of bed seems ridiculous. Get out of bed for what? What can there possibly be left to live for? But the little three year old boy with the giant blue eyes standing next to my bed at 5am reminds me that he needs to wee-wee. And so I throw back the covers…
Seanie last saw his mother on 13 June. So it’s going on two months now for him. For a month after she died, he would not mention her, would not ask about her, would refuse to talk about her if I brought the subject up. I did what the child grief counsellor told me to do: tell him the truth. Tell him mommy died. Tell him she is not here any more, that she stopped breathing, that her heart stopped beating, that she doesn’t talk to anyone any more, that she will not be coming home any longer and that we will never see her again on this earth. One day we will go to her, but she will not come back to us.
For the week Janie was in hospital, every day I told Seanie: “Mommy is sick with a very sore head, but the doctor is helping her. She will be home soon, and she loves you very much.” He accepted what I told him for what it was and never doubted that what I said would come to pass: that he would see his mother before long and everything would be okay.
Oddly enough, to coincide with Janie being in the hospital, Seanie picked up bronchial-pneumonia. I’d never seen him so sick. It was aggravated by the absence of his mother, and so I was rushing him to the doctor’s office and then racing back to the hospital to be with Janie. For her part, Janie was torn apart by how sick he was. A mom to the end. The doctor prescribed antibiotics for him, and not two days after doing so I was back at the doctor’s office with Sophie, who picked up Seanie’s bug. This overlapped with Janie dying, so there was an abundance of doctor action during that period of time. I hope to never see the inside of a doctor’s office again, although I know that is a ridiculous thing to say. Kids get sick. What can ya do?
Like I said earlier, Seanie stopped talking about his mother for a month or so. This behavior began right after I told him mommy died. I started taking him to a child grief counsellor to help him open up about the loss and begin to process his grief. He has mostly done what he had been doing: avoiding the subject. The last time out, he really bonded with the counsellor. I feel that in light of recent developments, he might begin to access and work through his sorrow. But more on that later…
Many people are under the mistaken impression that very small children do not grieve, but this is not the case. Alte Dyregrov in his book Grief in young Children: A Handbook for Adults mentions: “It is not unusual for preschool children not to react [to the news of a loved one’s death], but many parents find this surprising. Straight after having been told what has happened, a child may ask if he or she can go out and play. This kind of reaction may be a sign that the child is pushing thoughts about what has happened to one side, so that they can take them in a little at a time. But this may also reflect the fact that young children are seldom able to grasp the long-term consequences of what has happened until they gradually come to understand that the person who has gone is not coming back.”
When I told Seanie his mommy was dead, he said he wanted to play with his toys. My family was there that day, my mom and dad, brothers Randy and Tomas. I kind of looked at dad and shrugged, figured “well, I’ve told him now.” While I was aware that he probably did not understand “dead,” he would have understood that mommy was not coming home any more. He showed no visible signs of sadness, in fact, he was just his normal, happy self. It was not until much later that the shell cracked.
My mother flew out from the States to help me with the kids when she understood how serious Janie’s condition was. She arrived here in South Africa on the Friday upon which Janie was operated. She left on the 15 July, almost a full month later. The day after she left, Seanie, Sophie and I went down to Ramsgate, a little beach town in southern Kwa Zulu-Natal (the province in which we live) for a vacation with my mother and father in law Al and Sue, sister in law Philippa and her husband Will. We spent a very fun week right on the edge of the ocean, took the kids down twice a day to the water during an unusually cold South African winter, and basically had a good time bonding and the like.
Now, Seanie has always been something of an “ouchy” kid. He has always been very effusive about any ache and pain he’s ever had, in fact the word “sore” was probably his second or third word learnt. Nevertheless, since Janie’s death he began to complain often of having a sore head. “Seanie’s got a sore head, daddy,” was a common refrain in the weeks following her death.
This sat on my mind a bit. One morning while we were at the beach, Seanie complained of having a sore head. So, I asked him: “Seanie, do you say you have a sore head because mommy had a sore head and didn’t come home?” He replied: “yes, mommy has a sore head, Seanie has a sore head. Seanie’s died.”
It’s funny how you forget how a word might be so pregnant with meaning to you, and therefore you simply assume everyone else understands it. I knew Seanie probably didn’t understand “dead” or “died” or “death,” but I suppose I reasoned he would get that death is associated with not coming home, not seeing the person ever again. But how does a child who has no concept of time whatsoever internalize a phrase like “never again?” His days and nights follow the same exact rhythm. He gets up, I feed him, we go to playschool, I fetch him, he has a nap, he gets up, he plays for a while, then it’s bathtime, supper, stories and bedtime. Even throughout this entire heinous ordeal, the rhythm has stayed the same. Routine, routine, routine. How is that mommy suddenly stops coming home at 5 o’clock in the afternoon? Why is daddy driving mommy’s car now and not the bubble car (my sister in law Andi’s old Corsa that we were using for a few months)? Why isn’t mommy helping with bathtime?
Not that he’s ever asked these questions. He accepts what is in front of him; but it doesn’t mean he is without a sense of her absence. Randomly, things escape from his mouth. One day a week or two after Janie’s death, Seanie and I were drawing with chalk on the blackboard outside, and out of nowhere he looks at me and said: “mommy is at the doctor’s office with a sore head, but she’s coming home again soon.” And once again I had to tell him mommy was dead, that mommy wasn’t coming back any more. Oh… pass the red chalk, daddy.
And so it happened that the week after we returned from the beach, on a night when Seanie and Sophie were sleeping over at granny and grandpa’s house, my dear, sweet boy awoke from a dream crying for his mommy. Mommy, mommy, I want my mommy, over and over and over again. My dear mother in law held him and rocked him and told him she loved him and was so sorry time and again, as he wailed and sobbed uncontrollably. He went on like this for ten or so minutes, and eventually fell back asleep.
I found out about it the next day.
As rotten as I felt for not having been there the night the dam finally broke, since then, he’s been very different. He mentions her often. One day on the way back from the Shongweni Farmers Market, he noted that his hair was getting long. I said “ja, your hair is getting long, buddy.” He was quiet for a moment, and then said: “mommy can cut it for me.” And again we go… remember Seanie, mommy is dead. That means she can’t cut your hair any more. “But she cut my hair last week, daddy.” No Seanie, she must have cut your hair about six weeks ago… “Oh… well, you can cut my hair, daddy.” Anyone willing to teach me how to cut hair?
I’ve started telling Seanie now when I’m sad. He’ll ask if I’m happy and I’ll tell him that no, daddy is sad because he misses mommy. Just yesterday Seanie asked me: “daddy, are you happy today?” Yes Seanie, I am happy today. “Are you sad because mommy misses you?” Such a funny way to put it… does mommy miss me? Can she miss me from the place of joy and peace where she waits for me and her beloved children? “Yes Seanie, daddy is sad because daddy misses mommy very much. But daddy is also happy because you and Sophie make daddy very, very happy.” Cue 50,000 megawatt Seanie smile. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.
What a long road this is going to be. I write these things knowing full well how voyeuristic and tacky blogs can become. And still, doesn’t Seanie deserve to have his story told? I think so. A magnificent, boisterous, wonderful chip off his mother’s wonderful block, a spectacular representation of all her good traits and just a really neat kid has lost a major chunk of his soul. But he’s still Seanie. He’s still that gorgeous human being, filled with promise and humour and silliness, still able to light a room with his smile, still able to melt a heart with one look. And thank God, he is beginning to tap into that place where the healing of his beautiful soul will come from. A long road, a sad road, but a good one, through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s a valley, though. He will come out the other side one day. We all will.