Friday nights at our house are called Friday Night Movie Night. Jeff started the tradition a few years ago: the kids take an early bath; we eat something easy in front of the TV; and we watch a whole movie. Sometimes, we hunker down in the basement. But lately, I’ve reinstated the way Jeff used to do it: moving a TV temporarily into one of the kid’s rooms, and watching it in there. Jake hosted the most recent movie night in his room… the evening’s entertainment was Zootopia.
As the kids and I noshed on an amazing and strange mix of cereal, popcorn, milk, and candy, I realized that I was not sad. I was not preoccupied with the fact that Jeff wasn’t there; I was not angry or frustrated that I was orchestrating the evening by myself; I was not wishing that the evening would hurry up, so I could be alone after the kids went to bed. I realized that I was, in fact, content. I wanted to be there, in those moments, with my kids… and I was enjoying myself. I snuggled close to Kate, and I knew I was living a memory.
I can’t pinpoint a moment or an event when things started to feel less… tragic. Things have just evolved, and here we are.
The same has happened for the kids.
Right after Jeff died, Jake had nightmares. He’d wake up abruptly and wail in the middle of the night about missing Daddy. Jake had behavior issues, and I had many, many conversations with my psychologist focused on Jake and my vain attempt to separate the four-year-old behaviors from the grieving behaviors.
Just tonight – as I’ve been typing this – Jake yelled from his room, “I miss Daddy!” Last year that would’ve sent me into deep dive with my own grief. I would’ve entertained Jake’s comment by going to his room, hugging him, and creating space for him to talk about it. In fact, one piece of advice from a widower I once talked to was, “Stay for as long as it takes.”
But I knew that wouldn’t work for Jake and for me and for the three of us. Jake will pick the flesh off of me if I’m not careful, and agreeing to stay in his room for an indeterminate amount of time would’ve lead to me sleeping in his room on a nightly basis. So, I stayed for a bit. As time went on, I didn’t stay at all — a quick hug and a kiss. And now, I don’t go up to his room at all.
Tonight, when Jake yelled that as he occasionally does, I yelled back, “Me too. Good night!” Affirm feelings. And then go to bed.
It is impossible to know the exact right thing to do. Kids and grief is like being dropped into a new country, and not knowing the laws, customs, language, or terrain: everything is unfamiliar. And I’m convinced it’s because kids force adults to acknowledge and verbalize emotions and realities that we’re sometimes not willing to otherwise. When we say we’re protecting kids from the truth, I think it is often us protecting ourselves.
Around October of 2018 is when I started researching how to help Jake and Kate with what was to come. I started saying things like, “Sometimes, sick people don’t get better.” We talked about heaven and what happens to our bodies when we die. We remembered going to my grandma’s wall niche in a cemetery near my childhood home — Jake made sense of things by remembering those visits.
Books like The Invisible String and The Rabbit Listened spoke to my kids in a way that I couldn’t. Jeff recorded a Hallmark book for each kid. I started taking the kids to the hospital, so they could see Jeff – most importantly – but so that they could understand what was happening to their dad.
The American Cancer Society hosts a wealth of resources, organized in a question-and-answer format. I read sites like this page whenever I had a moment away from Jeff. The feeling of betrayal was outweighed by the feeling of responsibility for how I would shepherd my children through this cataclysmic event.
And although I think the initial shock is over – and we have learned that we can be satisfied and content – helping myself and the kids with grief is an ongoing process.
Jake started therapy two months ago. During the initial intake meeting, the therapist asked me what I was hoping to gain from Jake’s therapy.
“I hope that Jake gets some tools. This won’t be the only time in his life that he navigates through a huge loss. He needs coping skills to reference throughout his life,” I said.
When he first started therapy, Jake was shy and unsure and wanted me right next to him. Now, when we go, he waves bye, and says, “See you in a bit, Mommy.” He and his therapist talk for about 30 minutes. Then Kate and I go in the room, and Jake fills us in on what they talked about. A fringe benefit of Jake attending therapy is that Kate hears everything also.
Jake and his therapist are working on zones of regulation: blue, green, yellow, and red. Simply speaking, blue is sad; green is happy; yellow is frustrated/upset; and red is also frustrated or upset. The difference between yellow and red is how a person is reacting to the situation. Yellow reactions mean the person is still making good choices; red means that the problem is so big that it’s okay to go a little nuts (for Jake, this was getting stitches), or the problem does not warrant the person’s bad choices (hitting others; screaming uncontrollably).
I know Jake is internalizing this because Kate recently misbehaved. Jake said, “Kate, you are having a red reaction to a green problem.”
Jake doesn’t have nightmares anymore. He says he misses Daddy with far less frequency and further apart. He can talk about Jeff without crying, and he still draws his family pictures with four people… plus Joy.
Whether he is getting older, or he is dealing with his grief, it’s impossible to know how much of the change is attributable to either one. But Jake continues to grow and learn and become a whole person.
I recently told him, “I’m so glad I get to be your mom.”
And he said, “And I’m so glad I get to be your kid.”
Kate will turn four in a few months, and it occurs to me that she is slightly older than Jake’s age at Jeff’s diagnosis. She didn’t have as strong of a reaction after Jeff died, but she felt his absence. Kate mentioned how Daddy wasn’t sitting in “the red chair” and how his body was at the cemetery. She cried when she noticed us crying, and – as per usual with these things – I didn’t know where her own authentic feelings began, and when her family’s grief ended.
I think Kate will grieve when she begins to understand what and who she lost before she ever had a chance to truly remember. I think she’s on the cusp of that: she notices kids with dads. She notices families with two parents. My brother-in-law is amazing and involved, and Kate adores him. But she knows that he isn’t her dad, and that he lives at home with his family. Right now, she’s more in the state of fact and confusion than sadness. I know that will come, and it will be totally normal, and we will navigate it together when it does.
Kate and Jake pray for their father every night. We talk about him on a regular basis, not in a morbid way, but in a way that acknowledges that he will always be their father, and no cancer or death can change that. Knowing Jeff helps them forge their own identities.
People often ask me how the kids are doing. While the past two years haven’t been seamless – and I question my parenting every day – I can say that they are good little humans who have courage. People who know Jake have commented that he has a capacity for empathy. I hope they’re right. Because a small piece of redemption would be had if our kids were better people – more empathetic, less materialistic, more grateful, less power-hungry – because their dad died when they were little, and they have a more acute sense of what can be lost, and how life is a gift.
When I was younger, I had visions for my life. Marrying Jeff satisfied part of that vision, but our life together was better than I could have imagined or hoped for. I had visions of having children, and Jake and Kate have satisfied that vision. But I couldn’t see who exactly those people would be. Now, I love knowing Jake and Kate. They are my closest companions in life, and yet – even seven years ago – I had no idea that they would exist.
But now, on any given Friday, our tight trio sits on a trundle bed, eating cereal and candy. And it feels like my soul has known this all along.