Chase’s first real pet, Jacob, died yesterday. That’s Jacob swimming beneath a letter he sent last year when Chase went fishing at his grandpa’s house. We’ve had several of these “fighting” fish over the years. None lived long and we’d replace each without a word of explanation or a tear from the kids. But Jacob was special. He swam around in Chase’s room for two years and survived a million sticky fingers and more than a few missed meals. Jacob kept an eye on things for us. We thought him very wise and responsible. I once admitted to the kids that I loved daddy more than Jacob, and they were so hysterically horrified that I was forced to recant and promise that I did, in fact, love Daddy and Jacob exactly the same.Jacob was one of us.
We decided to tell the kids about Jacob’s death right away so that there were no accidental surprises. All three were playing together in the family room, so Craig and I sat down near them and I said, “We have some very sad news, guys.” Their bodies froze and their little heads swiveled toward me. I said solemnly and quietly… “Jacob died this morning.” I had resolved not to try to soften the blow by explaining it away prettily.
Tish immediately started to sob. I picked her up off the floor and buried my face in her hair as she curled into a teeny ball of self preservation, like a roly-poly. Chase quickly covered his mouth with his hand, but not before I noticed the hint of a grin that curled his lips. This nervous grin is his first line of defense. He asked if he could see Jacob. I moved Tish to Craig’s lap while Amanda, looking concerned, waddled over to Tish and patted her curls lovingly, and then whacked her hard on the forehead and grinned. Tish’s whimper turned into a wail. Craig and I shot each other good luck glances and I followed Chase up the stairs to view the body.
Chase walked into his room and marched like a soldier directly to the tank. When he saw Jacob’s lifeless body, he noticed that his friend’s vibrant red color had faded to gray. He asked why, but he didn’t wait for an answer. He just covered his eyes with his little first grade hands so that finally the tears could arrive. They streamed down his cheeks as his shoulders fell and shook, and he crumbled into me.
I wanted so badly to tell Chase that it was okay,that we would replace Jacob with a new fish, a bigger fish, a whole school of fish…but I didn’t. This was his first personal experience with death, and I wouldn’t falsely suggest to him that death can be cheated through replacement. I wouldn’t teach him that pain should be avoided, dodged, or danced around. He needed to learn that death is worthy of grief because it’s final, for now. So we just sat on his bottom bunk and cried and held each other tight.
After awhile, Tish walked into Chase’s room, her eyes still red and her lips still quivering, and she climbed onto the bunk and wedged herself between Chase and me. Craig and Amanda followed her in and lied down on the floor together. Tish said softly, “I want Jacob to come back to life.” Chase lifted his head and said, “Well, not here, but in heaven. So it’s not all sad, Tish.” He stopped crying.
Sometimes the only way to transcend grief is to help someone littler transcend hers.
I stepped gratefully through the door of hope that Chase had opened for us. I had been waiting for his permission. Because the one closest to the departed has to be the first to step from despair to hope. Nobody else is allowed to jump ahead and shove open the door. That’s the rule. I said, “Hey, guys, do you think in heaven, Jacob won’t be a fighting fish anymore? Maybe in heaven he’ll be a peaceful fish and finally get to swim around with his buddies and play.”
Chase’s eyes still glistened while a tiny smile emerged like a hesitant rainbow. This might be his best look. And it is my favorite moment in life. When you realize… Wow. This is bad. Really, really bad. But we’re still here. We’re gonna make it through. Not over or under or around, but through.And look, we’re even going to smile again.
Tish’s tears stopped, but her head remained resolutely in my lap. The five of us sat quietly for a little while, petting each other. Then we discussed offering Jacob a proper send off in the backyard the following morning. We’d color some pictures for him and read a prayer and a poem or two. And then Chase ended our wake by dismissing himself to hold his guinea pig, Romeo. It was his wake to end.
That’s all I know to do when death calls, I guess. Stop and answer it. Respect it, feel it, and then hold tight the ones who are left.
How do you help your children deal with loss?