The Hard Part Begins

Last Photo of SueAs many of you know, this blog began because of Sue. I needed a positive way to cope with grief, new motherhood, and the task of teaching my child about the amazing grandmother she’d never know. My hope was to help other parents as well.

Szaba was five months old when Sue passed, so for several years, that task as been a goal and a commitment, but not a tangible, everyday reality.

Granted, we talk about Sue—and Shirley—daily. We share our memories about them, reassure Szaba of their love, and weave special things about them into our daily joys and values. But now, three years later, the hard part begins. Szaba is asking questions. And I don’t always have the answers.

It started at bedtime one night when she was asking who had gotten her that book or that stuffed animal or that blanket. Some were from her Grandma Cathy or Grandma Kristin. Some were from Grandma Suzy or Great Grandma Shirley.

That prompted Szaba to ask why she hadn’t seen Sue or Shirley since she was a baby (evident from several pictures around her room).

Shirley and Szaba in holiday red

Not particularly wanting to get into the topic of death with a toddler (especially at bedtime), I simply explained that Sue and Shirley were gone now. I reassured her that, although we couldn’t see them any more, they still loved her so much, and that would never ever change.

After thinking on this for a bit, she replied, “I miss them so much.” I told her I miss them, too, and that they miss her. I assured her that she’ll always be in their hearts and that we can keep them in our hearts, too. That way we don’t have to miss each other so much or be so sad. We can be happy because we know we love each other. That’s how we know we’ll always be together, no matter what.

She seemed comfortable with this explanation, though she has revisited it a few times since (as toddlers often do with a foreign concept they’re trying to grasp).

Then last week, we were back in Sue’s home on the third anniversary of her death, in the very place where we lost her. Needless to say, pregnant and haunted by that day and that place, I was not wanting in the emotion department.

At dinner, Szaba said to one of her grandpa’s caregivers (also named Sue), “Remember when you came to visit me a long time ago when I was a baby, and you held me in those pictures?”

Sue Szaba First Days

Heart. Broken.

The fact that she could compare the incomparable Sue to any other woman named Sue was horrifying to me! I was devastated to realize her young mind still thought Sue could be out there somewhere, choosing to let years go by without interacting with her. Anyone who knew Sue can appreciate how very very far that is from what would’ve been from the truth.

But as any mom would do, I held it together as I smiled and practically explained the misunderstanding to my daughter. I told her it made sense why she would be confused by this other Sue’s name, a Sue in her Grandma Suzy’s house—all while my soul was crumbling inside.

These are the things Szaba does not know. That is the job that I still have left to do. It may take decades to convey. Even then, I may not be able to do it justice.

And so, the hard part begins on this ever-changing journey of parenting through grief: the comfort and explanation I need to give my child, when I myself do not always have that comfort or explanation to give.

I wonder, has any of you gone through this was a toddler? I’ve read through all the parenting and grief books, but it’s such a personal battle, it seems no blanket approach will make it easier.

Is it something that, as with many aspects of parenting, comes with practice, patience, and time?

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3 thoughts on “The Hard Part Begins

  1. Hello! This is Elisha from the infant room at Interlake. 5 years ago my husband, Tim, unexpectedly died. While in many different ways I’ve moved forward with my life, I had an odd thing happen at thanksgiving.

    I was sitting my parents living room visiting with my sister-in-law (Tim’s sister) and her 2 toddlers who never met my Tim, their uncle. The oldest, Harper, who is 3 1/2 yrs old barely grasps that I am some sort of family member.

    He starts telling me everything he knows about life… And then he blurts out, “My mom had a brother too, his name was Tim. He died before I was born.” I felt sad and vulnerable. All I could reply was, “Yes, that’s true. I knew Tim. I miss him.”

    In most situations I feel like a child expert. In this situation I felt a panic. That’s my Tim, my grief. My grief made me feel unclear about what to say bc my brain didn’t want to “go there”.

    Kids are no nonsense and brutally honest about everything. You can explain to Szaba, on her level, only what you feel comfortable sharing. Be honest with her too.

    It takes awhile for young children to grasp that there are people with the same names as their loved ones or friends, and that there is a world out their beyond their immediate environment.

    Anyways, I identify with your feelings of grief, even though it is a very personal experience. Even though I don’t know you very well I am happy that were a part of this Interlake family.

    1. Oh, Elisha. My heart goes out to you. Thank you so much for sharing what was undoubtedly a very personal, and as you put it “vulnerable,” encounter. I think that’s the key: vulnerability. Most of us are uncomfortable enough with that emotion, without a child laying it out on the table in full view of friends and family, in a situation where we’re required to react. As you also said, kids are brutally honest. Perhaps that honesty has room to teach us something, despite the discomfort.

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