Parenting a 4-year-old is hard for many reasons. They can’t reliably use the bathroom. They often wake up at night. They won’t take naps except when you don’t want them to take naps and they fall asleep on the kitchen floor.
But parenting a 4-year-old who is suffering from intense grief is even more difficult. I joked with my friends that I was going to write an article entitled, “This is what grief looks like in a preschooler” and then would just write the following:
Honestly, that’s what it sounds like.
My 4-year-old has actually broken me a few times with this repetitive chant. He’ll hold on to my leg and call my name for what seems like hours, all while whining and crying. That’s just one thing he’s doing right now. He also wants to sit in my lap even if I’m sitting on the toilet. He wants me to pick him up even if I’m making dinner. He wants all of my attention, all of the time, and if I don’t give it to him, the whining and crying just grows louder each minute.
It’s maddening. Try reading the above statement to yourself a few times and see if it doesn’t drive you a little crazy.
You might have young kids yourself, or at least remember the relentless nature of parenting preschoolers. But until my husband died earlier this year, I never found my 4-year-old to be that much work. Sure, he needed more attention than my older kids, but he was also able to look at books or play with LEGOs for hours on end. He often wanted “uppy!” but he was starting to be able to do a lot of things on his own last fall. He loved cuddling with me, but he also loved cuddling with his sister and brother. Or with his dad.
Now, of course, it’s me and only me that he wants. And he wants me All. The. Time.
The child grief therapist the kids saw for a while said that with very young children, grief can trigger regressions from milestones they’ve already passed. So, kids who have been potty trained start peeing in their pants, and kids who have stopped sucking their thumbs will start again. With my 4-year-old, his ability to separate from me—both physically and emotionally—is near impossible, and in this way, it reminds me of how he was when he was two years old.
I know it’s normal. As the therapist also told me, kids are hard-wired to make sure they will survive. This means when a kid loses one parent, he is going to make sure the other parent will always be there for him. My 4-year-old is doing just that. He’s ensuring that I am there for him. But the constant need for attention and reassurance can break my spirit some days.
When I’m going to work and my 4-year-old literally wraps his body around my legs and I have to peel him off of me, it is hard to be anything but overwhelmed. I feel so horrible for him, and I want to reassure him, but I also don’t have the bandwidth for it. My ability to respond calmly to a needy preschooler right now is minimal.
I just want him to let me have some space. Space to breathe, space to pull myself together before I go out the door, space to carry on with my life. I want space to grieve my husband too, and that feels impossible when I have to think about my child’s grief so often. Maybe that’s why I don’t usually cry until after bedtime.
Someday, everyone tells me, things will get easier. My children will get older and the grief will change. I’ll miss having a preschooler, I’m sure. I’ll miss his fat little fingers and his adorable little dimple and his ability to think everything I do is funny. But I will not miss
Because that is his way of showing me that his grief is deep and real. I want my 4-year-old to remember his dad, but I look forward to the day when we can page through photo albums and talk about funny things they did together, instead of me peeling him off of my leg once again.
I want him to stop this incessant need to be near me and insist on my full attention because it stretches my already thin patience. I want him to allow me to leave for work or a social gathering without screaming, because my guilt is already so deep. I want him to walk all the way to school by himself because I know people see me and think he is way too big to be carried so far.
But mostly, I want it to end because then I will know he is healing. Then I will know he understands that I am not leaving. That I am going to be a constant in his life, always.
Yes, my sweet boy, Daddy is gone.
But Mommy is here.