A Child’s Grief

It’s Friday night, seven months after our fire, two months since we’ve moved back into our newly refurbished house. We’ve been luxuriating in being home again, and the transition has been much easier than I imagined. The kids slid right back in without any bumps.
Tonight, it’s my turn to put Justin to bed. I climb in next to him and he asks, “Where’s that blue bird Zev and Kobi brought me?” He’s talking about a giant stuffed blue bird puppet that our friends brought him from Bali. It had been hanging on his wall for a couple of months before the fire. I’ve never heard him mention it before. As far as I knew, it was just a wall decoration to him, as it was for me.

Without giving it much thought, I tell him the truth, “We had to get rid of it after the fire.” Just as we had to get rid of his mattress, his sheets, his bedding, our couches, his clothes, and everything else soft in the house.

He starts sobbing, big wracking sobs. “I want my Bluebird! I want my Bluebird! I want my Bluebird!”

I’m taken aback. I haven’t heard Justin cry like this in a long time. He’s been so grounded lately; big tantrums and emotional outbursts have been a thing of the past. But now he is keening, “I want my Bluebird!”

Remembering the wisdom of parent educator Patti Wipfler, I know this is a rare opportunity to listen, to be a witness to this big feeling that has welled up in my son. Yet listening to him isn’t easy. I’m trying to be there, but half of me is shaking my head in disbelef: “His Bluebird? He’s sobbing his heart out over a big blue stuffed bird, for God’s sake!”

Intellectually, I know that there’s probably a trunkload of unexpressed grief in this child and that maybe all this sobbing isn’t really about a stuffed bird. I recognize that this is an opportunity for me to be mindful and fully present. I love Justin with all my heart, yet there’s been less chance for this kind of intimacy lately. Justin often wants to read himself to sleep. He’s so independent now. He doesn’t need me the way he used to; his sister needs me so much more. But here he is, sobbing his heart out. “Bluebird! My Bluebird! I need my Bluebird!”

I’m taken aback by the intensity of his sadness. I try to listen, but my mind keeps whirring away. I think about work, making plans in my head, then catch myself and bring my attention back. But it’s hard to listen to Justin’s pain. I wonder if he will ever stop crying. I wonder if he’s keeping Joan and Emily awake. I wonder if the neighbors think I’m hurting him. He sounds terrible, like his world has ended. I can imagine grieving like this for a dead parent or a divorce, but a stuffed bird?

Justin’s grief makes me terribly uncomfortable. I feel torn and confused, wondering if I’m just “egging him on.” My mind screams, “Enough is enough!” Yet in my heart, I know I’m doing the right thing, and that he is, too. Part of me is grateful that my eight-year-old son can still be this vulnerable. I reassure myself that Justin will rest deeply tonight, that letting all of this pain out is good for him. I wrest my attention back from its litany of judgments and vow not to distract him, smooth things over, or try to stop this outpouring of grief any way I can.

“Bluebird! I miss Bluebird! Bluey. Bluey. Give me a tissue.” Then a loud honk and again, “Bluebird. I miss Bluebird!”

Forty minutes into his anguish, he asks, “Why did you have to get rid of Bluebird?”

“He was full of smoke, Justin.”

More crying. “I didn’t get to say goodbye.”

“Justin, what was so special about Bluebird?”

“I loved him!”

I can hear the snot bubbling in his throat. I hand him a tissue, and say softly, “I never knew you loved him. I never knew you had a relationship with Bluey.”

“I did! I loved him.”

Suddenly his rhythmic lamentation changes. It happens in a heartbeat: “I miss Grandpa. I miss my Grandpa!” Hearing him call out for my father stuns me.

Justin has hardly mentioned Eric since the fire. When he has, it’s been with cheerful memories or wistful sweetness. Now he’s deeply gripped by grief, “I want to see Grandpa! I want to see my Grandpa!”

“Me too,” I say. “I wish I could see him, too.”

“No,” he says insistently, “I really want to go see him.”

I realize he’s serious. “How would you do that, Justin?” I ask.

He pauses for a long moment, then says quietly, “I forgot.” I watch it dawn on him, a long shadow settling over his face. He realizes it now, in this moment: Eric is really dead. He starts to keen. “Grandpa! I miss my Grandpa!”

I ask Justin, “Are you realizing that some things really are gone forever?”

A renewed round of deep sobs are his only response. He’s getting it: Death. Things being thrown away. Fires. Things sometimes do change forever.

Now I’m crying, too. There are tears running down my cheeks, but I’m not making a sound. Justin is wailing, “I miss Bluebird and Grandpa! I need them! I need Grandpa and Bluey!” His body is heaving. He’s going for it in a way I’ve never been able to.

Finally Justin starts winding down. He’s been at this for more than an hour. I know he’s worn out. I stroke his buzz cut and say, “Justin, your body needs rest. Grieving like this is exhausting. Let your body rest.”

Justin readily agrees. “I need to sleep!” But still, he can’t quite let go. He yells out one more time, “I miss Bluebird and Grandpa!” Then just like that, I hear a snore beside me. Justin has fallen deep asleep. It’s that sudden.


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