“We feel mad and sad,” these were the words my five year old daughter articulated to my mom’s neighbor when Mom couldn’t respond to his question the day after my dad passed. Parker’s wisdom in the moment demonstrated some maturity and emotional understanding of what we were all experiencing.
And just as everyone in the family has shown moments of strength, we have all succumb to the weight of his loss in different moments too. For my daughter, she began grieving the changes to her Papa long before he had been diagnosed with cancer.
Parker and Papa shared rituals. She would get the stick and flashlight for Papa and they would get down on their hands and knees to get kitty toys out from under the stove. She would bring him the DVD case and together they would put in a movie and she would snuggle on his lap to watch. Parker would sit with him after dinner to have dessert and he would allow her spoonfuls from his bowl of ice cream even when she had her own.
Papa would let Parker interrupt his work in his home office to let her sit in his chair and play on the computer or make copies of her hand on his printer. She would get excited when Papa would fill up the teapot and assist by getting out the honey and a spoon then patiently waited for her helping of honey. Parker started calling him “Poppy,” a term of endearment he adored. And a favorite ritual before we left their home was for Papa to pick her up for a giant sandwich hug with Poppy and Nana.
When my dad injured his back we made modifications to the sandwich hug. Instead of getting down to play on the floor, she found joy in getting to play in his remote lift chair. She naturally became more gentle with him and found on some days when he was more comfortable, she could still snuggle in to watch a movie with him. Parker asked a lot of questions and mourned why Papa couldn’t pick her up anymore. I tried to reaffirm it would only be a matter of time, he would heal and things would be back to normal.
This time last year, her worry became even more evident, she questioned daily when Poppy’s back would be better. He was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma about a month shy of Parker’s fifth birthday and it seemed too complex to try to explain what was happening to her Papa. “The doctors are helping Papa because he is sick,” seemed the only rational thing to say to a five year old. Then we would talk about praying for him to heal and for his back to be all better again soon.
Repeating this conversation seemed to temporarily satisfy her and my dad improved through the autumn of 2015. He was showing signs of healing and getting around easier. Parker understood his limitations and adjusted to how their adoration for each other was changing. A huge setback came just before the new year when a lesion on his femur broke with only the weight of his body standing. With the exception of medical appointments, Papa lived in his own personal medical suite upstairs. As the months passed in late winter and early spring, Parker went upstairs less and less. I could see how nervous she felt in his presence and witnessing him suffer. I made attempts to encourage their interactions with playing games or showing him a dance she was practicing in class. Right or wrong, I tried to explain what was happening to his bones in five year old terms. For months straight she would pick out the same bedtime story “Magic School Bus: The Human Body,” and often stopped on specific pages displaying a graphic of a skeleton to talk about Papa’s bones. It was her own way of coping and trying to understand.
Dad never rebounded from the surgery, medications and treatment. He passed at home in his sleep days after Easter. Since it was early in the morning when I got the call, I left before Parker woke. My husband and I agreed not to tell her, instead sending her to school so we could have a day to sort out arrangements. The following morning, I dreaded telling Parker what happened to her beloved Poppy. I worried she wouldn’t understand what death meant as she had no memory of losing someone. We sat down with her in the kitchen and I did my best to conceal my tears and calm my voice. Her tears were immediate as though she completely understood the gravity of him being gone. We embraced and tried to turn our sadness to appreciation for him to no longer be in pain. When we told her we would be going to Nana and Papa’s house for the day Parker begged to go to school, a place where she could be happy and forget. She didn’t want to go to the house where Papa is supposed to be and him not be there.
As always, the opportunity to see her cousins and trumped the fear of the empty house. She played with her cousins while the adults seemed to float around the house without intention, numb from the turbulence of the last year. After her cousins had been gone a while in the late afternoon, Parker came running from upstairs sobbing. Mom and my dad’s sister and I all felt the ripple of emotion and broke down with her. I believe she had been upstairs to play in his lift chair, a game that was no longer fun with him gone.
In the days and weeks following we cried together frequently. We expressed gratitude he was free from pain and we talked about how he would always be with us. I encouraged Parker to know he could be with her whenever she felt she needed him. On the way to school she would say she was going to bring him with her and talked to him on our way there. She joked “He’s going the wrong way, no Poppy that’s not the right turn…” And when we talked about him being with his mom, she would sometimes bring Grame along to school too.
It seemed the tearful sadness of losing Papa was lessened during the early summer. She could talk about him without the heavy emotion and I was relieved she was coping so well. Then there were times I wondered if I was doing everything right to help a five year old with grief. On a few occasions she got stuck looking at pictures and would break down unable to catch her breath. I validated her feelings by recalling stories of him and the funny things we would remember him by to help in the moment.
I had been concerned maybe my daughter was reflecting my emotions, maybe she was feeling the grief I was immersed in and so I have been careful to not initiate her thoughts or feelings. I know her moments of grief are her own because many times I am blindsided by her eruption of sadness. Like a peaceful ride in the car interrupted by a quivering voice in the backseat “I miss Papa.” Parker recently began associating one song to Papa, a song she has loved for a long time but now can’t manage to hear without thinking of how much she misses him.There are even joyful celebrations where she turns to despair because Papa is not there to share in it.
The variety of ways Parker has expressed her heartache demonstrate how much she deeply loved her Poppy and also resemble the complicated way our whole family is coping with his loss. In the last six months there have been times when talking about him was easy and then there are days when even the sight of a bird soaring can cause hysteria. We know we each have individual triggers which can cause deep sorrow; a song, a date, a place or any synchronistic event. And then there are other waves of grief which don’t seem to have a pairing, the misery builds to a peak and subsides.
The helplessness I felt with my dad in the last year of his life has transitioned to feeling helpless to support my mom and my daughter. I want to always have the perfect words to make them hurt less. And just as there were days I couldn’t do anything but stare at my dad, there are moments I am paralyzed in the faces of my mother and my child. I am managing as best I can and accepting the unpredictable nature of grief and how it is impacting us in unique ways. I understand it will get easier over time, though the waves may be less intense or less frequent we will ride these waves of grief indefinitely.
My hope is the waves Parker experiences will calm much sooner and easier than my own. I want her to be able to remember the love he had for her without the deep sorrow of missing him. I worry her memory of their rituals will fade, though I know she will never forget how much she loved Poppy. And I know the pride he had in her will live on forever.