Imagine growing up in a world where grief is not only accepted but understood to be a healthy part of life. A world that appreciates that grief has no end, where compassion exists for those whose loved ones have died. This is the world that I hope my daughter is growing up in.
My first-born daughter was two and a half years old when her little sister died, old enough to understand that something bad had happened to her family, but not quite old enough to grasp the finality of death. She is now four years old and has grown up with grief playing a pivotal role in her life.
We have been very honest about what happened to her sister although my instinct, in the beginning, was to shield her from a world that included death. We have pictures of her little sister up in our house, and we talk about her frequently. We attend memorial events and support groups as a family. She has a separate group that she goes to with other kids who have also lost a sibling, a parent, or someone close to them. I think it’s important for her to feel normal, to have a place where adults and kids talk about death and missing their loved ones without shame or discomfort.
We have been told that she won’t truly grieve until she is older, that grief will look different as she ages. And yet, she is beginning to understand what she has lost by not having her sister in the physical realm. She has said that she wishes that her sister had not died, that she misses her and wants to play with her.
In the last year, my daughter has gone through periods of time where she grieves openly. She utilizes art as a medium to express her emotions. She draws furiously at times, completing picture upon picture of her family, intent on capturing her sister’s essence in her art.
She has also used her most prominent tool to express her grief, namely, play. She discusses the concept of death with her dolls and toy animals. Sometimes her matter of fact tone of voice can be startling and yet she has given me strength. She has helped me to become more comfortable talking about her sister with her and with others.
I’m starting to understand that my daughter has been given a gift in some ways. A gift I would never have chosen, but a gift all the same. She gets to grow up in a world where she will understand from a very young age the preciousness of life. When she sees someone hurting or learns that someone else has experienced the death of a loved one, she will have an empathy and a compassion beyond her years.
She lives in a very different world than the one that I grew up in. My hope is that she will continue to be comfortable talking about death and asking the difficult questions that many people stop inquiring about at some point. I wonder how her understanding of emotions and ability to stay with the harder ones will shape her course in life. She is someone who could change the way others view grief and loss, perhaps even transform grief into a representation of beauty, strength, and love instead of something to be feared. She has this opportunity because she lives in a world where our loved ones who have died are not forgotten but rather honored every day of ours.
Photo by Sara Schmidt