A story of grief by a man and a boy

toddler grief

In January this year I wrote a feature for The Guardian about my experience of telling my son his mummy was dead. I guess at the time I hoped his pain would be short lived. I tend not to be one for rose-tinted glasses though. Give me clear vision any day of the week. So I’ve been expecting the bad times to get worse.

It was seven months yesterday since my wife was killed. Time for other people to begin to return to their lives and for my son to start to feel the void in our home. Time for him to mature a little. Time for him to get to that age where children start to compare themselves to others. Time for awkward moments when they start to point out things that are strangely absent from a person whether it be hair, a limb or a parent. The time that has passed since my son last saw his mum, proportionate to our ages, is also as long and she and I were together.

‘It’s just a relief he’s the age he was when it happened.’

‘Take some comfort in the fact he won’t remember.’

‘It’s probably a good thing that he hasn’t asked for her for a while.’

All things I suspect adults say to comfort themselves rather than the children involved. Ostrich-like denial of what seems to be the truth for my son. His grief has just come to life. His behaviour tells me more than his voice is able to articulate. But if I look hard enough I can see the reality rather than try to live an all-too-convenient lie. The boy’s got it bad right now.

16 comments on “toddler grief

  1. Donna
    June 11, 2013

    It will be year tmw that I lost my sister, and I am struggling still, tmw seems such a daunting day but really everyday since has been! But try as I might I am reliving last year in my head over and over! Today I am looking after her 2 year old twins. They will never truly know their mummy, but only throu our stories, photos and video. But you don’t know what they are truly thinking, remembering or needing at this age. They are learning so much about the world at 2 and how it all works, who’s to know what they are going through. You are the best person to know what your son needs and wants. People do tend to get lost back into their own lives, and we can not blame them but it does feel lonely at times as you to would like to be going back to normality but that is not to be. From your posts I think you are doing amazingly. x

  2. Jo
    June 11, 2013

    I have no words of wisdom – I’m in adequately dealing with the grief of a ten year old fatherless boy. I feel the sorrow in your words. Keep sharing 🙂

  3. Jet Black
    June 11, 2013

    That must be so hard to witness, understanding as you clearly do, that he will have his own grief journey, but it cannot be salved by anyone, even daddy. That is why grief is grief, I guess. But how fortunate Jackson is to have such a perceptive and sensitive father to hold his hand along the way.

  4. Wife After Death
    June 11, 2013

    Hi Ben. I too have been musing about this today – a child’s grief – and the placatory stuff that adults say in reaction to it. Have you considered counselling for your son? My daughter (aged 3 when she watched daddy die) is having her first round of it today. Not sure how it’s going to work out, but I think it may be useful.

      June 11, 2013

      He’s only two and a half so not sure if anyone offers that kind of support to that age. How old is your daughter now. Will you let me know how she gets on please?

      • Wife After Death
        June 11, 2013

        Bea is 5 now, but I know counselling is available for children of Jackson’s age. It is done through play. May be worth a chat with your GP, I had to go through mine for a referral for Bea. I’ll certainly let you know how she gets on.

        June 11, 2013

        You should read some of the posts about my GP. He’s a waste of space and I’m in the process of finding a new one. That said I’ve been learning about play therapy and doing it myself with Jackson. I guess I’m not sure about putting him in front of people he doesn’t know yet but I’ll give it more thought.

  5. Bill Wright
    June 11, 2013

    I’m sorry to hear that Jackson has it bad right now. Five months down the road, I’m still bracing myself for when Ed feels the full impact of the loss of his twin sister. With him being the same age as Jackson, I guess I can expect it to happen before the year is out. I have been kidding myself that it might be over a year away, maybe it still will be that far off, everyone is different. Maybe I should not worry about it until it happens, maybe I should be prepared. Difficult to anticipate.

    Recently my bereavement counsellor said something to me that I took a little bit of hope from. I expressed my concern that Ed and Bella (5) will grow up with a gnawing sense of loss and dislocation because of the ghost of their sister being so prominent in family life due to the numerous photographs of Anni on display and the fact that Mum and Dad talk frequently about Anni every day, yet not really having many tangible memories of their own. My bereavement counsellor said that instead of growing up with a sense of loss, perhaps they will grow up with a great sense of always being very much supported and loved. I think we’re both right, but I had not looked it at from her angle before and it was a much welcomed new perspective that reduced my anxiety and gloom for my children’s wellbeing and detrimental effect to their future adult personalities.

    I’d be v interested in hearing any other first hand accounts of child psychologists. Bella has ‘talk and play’ sessions at school, but it’s not with a qualified counsellor, I think she is called a Family Liaison Officer.

    Best wishes to all parents doing their best to ease their child’s journey whilst dealing with their own grief, especially the widowed without a partner to share the load.

  6. sunnyjane
    June 11, 2013

    In 2 weeks it will have been 1 year. As I am coming out of my intense, raw grief, my children are moving into theirs. In my research on how to help my children through their grief, I read that children grieve differently. They will instinctively wait until their parents are capable of handling their grief before they’ll let it through. As I get stronger and more able to cope, my children fall apart more.

  7. Jackie D
    June 11, 2013

    One of the greatest gifts you will give your son is acknowledging, validating, and honoring his feelings. Letting him feel them without judgment. I bristle when I hear a parent tell their child, “Don’t cry” or “It’s not that bad.” To the child, it certainly is. Let it come out now. I’ve seen how it comes out later in life if not experienced as a child, and it’s tragic.

    Jackson is very, very, very lucky you are his papa.

  8. Sarah Pointer
    June 11, 2013

    I am no expert but I have decided to fill my children’s lives with as much fun as possible. Almost to the point that we have no time to stop and think. If they do want to talk, I am there to listen. From the start and with the advice of CHUMS I have kept routine (they only missed school for the funeral), I have been truthful and I have loved them. I have constantly reminded them of the support network that surrounds them like a spider’s web to make them feel safe. I worry what age will do to their loss but if I can find the strength to keep their lives as full as when their dad was here, I can only hope they will be ok x.

  9. Christyn
    June 12, 2013

    My husband died almost two months ago after a five-year battle with cancer. I found a play therapist for our daughter, age 7, to talk to. She’s so concerned about making sure I feel okay (and reassuring me as I cry my way through each day) that I really felt she should have a safe place of her own to display her grief, in whatever form(s) it may take. Through play, it’s become obvious that she’s concerned with safety issues and making plans to survive various disasters. Through play, we’ve seen that she creates scenarios where bad things happen but — because she’s made adequate plans — everything is okay in the end. I think that’s what she’s trying to figure out…how to make plans so everything’s okay in the end when the only world she’s ever known just fell apart.

  10. mawarre
    June 12, 2013

    When his baby sister, who was stillborn, died, my three year old son grieved deeply. Telling him that the baby had died was one of the hardest things I have ever done. He had a wonderful kindergarten teacher who encouraged him to draw and paint anything he was thinking about. He drew endless pictures of our family in the centre of the page with baby Lucy in a box in a corner far away. Although this was very hard for me to see, it gave me a clear insight into what he was thinking and feeling. About three years later he came to my husband and I wanting to know all about what had happened and why there were no pictures of Lucy. We showed him the pictures that we had taken of her, her footprints and all the pictures he had drawn, which I had saved along with the cards and letters we received at the time. It was as if that was the resolution of his grief experience and integrated into his life and who he is. He never kjnew Lucy and yet his grief was profound. Jackson knew and loved his mother p and his grief should never be minimised.

  11. Andy
    June 12, 2013

    Hi Ben, I Could not agree with you more on this one. It is now 3 months since my 2 year old lost his mummy and his grief is really starting to build and pour out much more than it did in the early weeks and months. Like you i imagine this is just going to get worse for him as time goes on and also as he develops himself in particular with his talking. I have been advised to use some toddler friendly story books about bereavement which I thought would be worth sharing the names of on here. They are:- Missing Mummy by Rebacca Cobb, The Day Sea Went Out and Never Came Back by Margot Sunderland and Badgers Parting Gifts by Susan Varley.

  12. Lunar Hine
    June 13, 2013

    We’re just past the anniversary of my husband’s death and my daughter, now 3, has started to ask new questions, like,’Do mummies die?’ and ‘Will I die on Sunday?’ and generally talk about dying much more than she has been. It’s hard, of course, but I do feel it’s a good sign that she feels able to ask me whatever comes into her head. The grief must ebb and flow for them at least as much as it does for us – and they’d be changing so much anyway; they’ll have a different relationship with their grief and new thoughts and fears and questions at every stage, I guess – right into adulthood. I have nothing new to suggest; just love for everyone living with loss, especially the children. Just love.

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