My father died on July 19th, 2003. He was
54 years old. He passed away in a car accident on a highway in upstate
New York. People talk about stages of grief, and I think they do exist. Over
the past decade, I have been numb, in denial, furious, suffering, healed,
resigned. I have raged at my father and longed for him and learned how to cope
with his death in the best ways I know how. After more than 10 years, his
absence is like a bruise on a part of my body that I can't see. Sometimes I
walk around without noticing it for days, until suddenly I knock it against
something, and the pain is blinding. Then I grieve and ache, and I accept all
over again that he is gone.
When my daughter was born, I felt the loss of my father in new
ways. He never got to know her, or even the man I married. My dad lost his own
father before I was born, and I remember him expressing the same sadness.
"He would have loved you," my father used to say. "He would
have thought you were the cat's pajamas."
My two-year-old daughter is learning about families. She is fascinated
by her friends' moms and dads, siblings and grandparents. It's exciting
to discover that Grandma Susan is Daddy's mom and Grandma Carol is Mommy's mom.
On a recent morning, after her father left for work, she recited where other
people's daddies had gone.
"My daddy is at work. Emily's daddy is at work. Leo's daddy
is at work. Leila's daddy is at her house. Leila's mommy is at work." Then she looked at me casually and asked,
"Where's your daddy?"
I froze. My heart pounded. I was totally unprepared.
"Um, my daddy isn't here anymore," I stammered.
She seemed to accept this feeble explanation and moved on to
building a tower with her Legos, but I was shaken. Of course, this moment was
coming. Why hadn't I planned for it? Why hadn't I researched ways to talk to
young children about death? How long did I think I could avoid answering this question?
But I can't protect her from the truth that everything dies, that people leave us, and we miss them so much.
The next day, I called a psychologist friend and begged her
"Be honest," she said. "Don't lie. Don't use euphemisms. Don't
worry about how much she understands. The point is that she sees you being
authentic and present about it."
That sounded right. But it didn't reassure me. I worried about
confusing my child or creating huge new fears. If I explained about the
accident, would she be terrified to get in the car, as I was for years? Would
she imagine her own father's death or mine, fearful of being left alone? How
could I be authentic about the grief that was sometimes overwhelming?
"Has your daughter seen anything die?" my friend asked.
"Like a pet or even a spider?"
"No," I admitted. "I even gloss over the spiders—It's
gone. Mommy got it. Bye-bye spider!"
My friend laughed. "Maybe it's not a bad idea to let her see
that everything dies. Nothing is permanent. That's what life is. It doesn't
have to be scary."
And suddenly, I had a moment of clarity. My daughter had
never seen death. She had never grieved for anyone. The loss of my father
wasn't hers, it was mine. She wouldn't ache for a grandfather she had never
known. She wasn't afraid that death was waiting around every corner, I was.
I carry that fear of violent, random death every day.
Not the inevitable death of old age that might be dignified, even peaceful. But
unfair, perverse death that takes you when life still holds a million
possibilities. My daughter doesn't have that fear. And I hope more than
anything that she never will.
I hope she will grieve for me and my husband when
she is 40 or 50, knowing that we lived full and happy lives. But I can't
protect her from the truth that everything dies, that people leave us, and we
miss them so much.
My daughter hasn't asked about my father again, but I know
that she will. And next time, I hope I will find the words to tell her the
"My daddy died. There was a bad accident, and he died. Some people
believe that we will see him again, but no one really knows. I miss him very
much. He would have loved you. He would have thought you were the cat's