One day not long ago my 24-year-old daughter Emily and I were driving along a well-traveled country road — the very road on which my husband, Trent, had been killed in an accident 22 years ago. As we reached the fated intersection where the crash took place, I crossed myself, as I’d always done, sending a prayer to the heavens for my dearly departed. A moment later Emily’s quiet voice broke the silence.
“It must be hard to relive dad’s accident every time you drive through this intersection,” she said, startling me with her attentiveness. We’d driven this way countless times before over the years with no exchange, but that day she seemed particularly in tune to that life-changing event of long ago.
With the intention of offering a simple “yes,” I instead found myself stepping back in time to that fateful day. I relayed to my sweet and open-hearted daughter how I learned her dad had been killed more than three hours after the fact on that hot summer morning. I relived the funeral process and the pain I felt seeing my children, four and two at that time, stroking their daddy’s face as his lifeless body lay in the funeral home for viewing.
As I told Emily my grief story in painful detail, the tears that flowed surprised me — not my own but those of my daughter who had begun anew to mourn all that she had lost. “I never knew those things,” she said softly.
I explained to her that I had only shared what I thought was appropriate for her understanding level in the earlier years.
“Oh,” she responded, quietly processing the events she had been too young to recall. And after a long silence she opened her heart to me. She told me that she was heartbroken for me for all that I had experienced in the wake of her dad’s death and all that I had lost. And with the new information I had shared, she now recognized much more of what she had lost.
Emily was two when her father died. Now as a young adult she mourns the fact that she has no concrete personal memories of what her dad was like or the experience of being with him, though she has heard countless stories of his love for her and treasures photos of their short time together. “I can’t mourn for my dad, the person,” she revealed through her tears, “because I never knew him.”
But, she added that she mourns deeply the hole his death left in her life. She mourns the fact that she had no dad to accompany her to the father-daughter dances of her youth. She misses the relationship of trust and love that could have been. Her life has been void of the guidance with boyfriends only a dad can give his daughter. And on whose arm, she lamented, will she walk down the church aisle on her wedding day?
Emily went on to admit that though there seems no logic to it, she feels guilty that she can’t mourn his loss as those who knew him do.
Emily’s sad but authentic admission of grief brought me to a new understanding of her grief journey. I have discovered that a child learns of death on his/her own cognitive level of understanding with the help of compassionate adults. And each developmental stage they reach brings a new and broader understanding, typically causing a different and sometimes more complex level of grief to surface for them to face, even years following a loss. Emily literally has lost her dad again and again as she entered each new life stage.
As I continue to witness my daughter’s unusual and complicated journey of grief I have seen her grow in compassion and grace. And as she tells me her ever-evolving story of loss, I am grateful to feel a new awareness taking place within me — and I hope within her as well.
So, look around you. Is there a child or young adult that needs a safe place to tell their story of grief with all its confusion and pain? A listening ear and a compassionate heart is all that’s needed. They will do the rest. Or perhaps you might need to tell your story and acknowledge a loss from long ago that has been swirling in the hidden recesses of your heart. Find a compassionate listener and accept the grace of healing. Together we can all find peace.
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