My middle child, Austin, is not the extrovert like his older sister and younger brother. Though he doesn’t hide from a crowd, he’s most happy at home, reading books, riding his bike in the alley, and cuddling in our big chair with me.
He’s always been this way. My husband, Shawn, and I spent a painful year watching Austin scream and cry every single day when we’d leave him at the preschool doors. The next year was less dramatic, but he still shed many tears. Finally in kindergarten he could walk into the classroom without crying, but he would still turn around the entire time and watch us, running into his classmates in order to catch one last glimpse of his parents. It was sweet, and other parents often commented that they envied how connected he was to us.
Austin is also the most like his dad. Shawn was known to be a character, full of life and a ton of fun, even in his professional role. But though he loved his friends, he was most content at home with just the five of us. Shawn was not quiet, but he was an introvert at heart, and would rather play the role of DJ than party host.
And so, it should not be a surprise at all that Austin was hit really hard by the death of his father. The morning I told him, huge tears fell immediately from his eyes and he quickly put his head under his pillow. I didn’t know how to console him, so I just laid down next to him and said a thousand times over and over, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.”
It wasn’t OK. Obviously. He was only six years old.
When he finally returned to school, his teacher reported that he seemed fine, though a bit distracted and lost in his own thoughts at times. That was no surprise to me. Austin wasn’t going to be running around yelling and whining like his younger brother. He wasn’t going to ask to go to the counselor each day like his older sister. He was just going to be inside his head, much like his dad could be. But that’s what made it all the more difficult to figure out what he needed.
Grief in children is different than it is in adults. Without the ability to really conceptualize the distant future, my children’s grief seems to be more compartmentalized. They will be sad if they see a picture of their dad or talk about the fun they had with him, but they don’t carry it with them on a moment-to-moment basis like I do. Thus in the past few months, I’ve often thought, “My kids are fine.” But I know that’s really not the case.
One clear sign that things are different for Austin? Each night around 4 a.m., I hear movement in my room. Quietly, and sometimes without really waking me up, Austin crawls into Shawn’s side of the bed. He brings his blanket and snuggles deep in the covers, finding his cozy spot. Then he reaches over and puts his hand on my arm, or my cheek, or my back. A minute later, he’s asleep.
Every night it’s the same routine: 4 a.m., quiet movement in my bed, and the hand touching me. As many kids do, he’s always wanted to climb in our bed at night, and we usually wouldn’t let him. Our bed was for Mom and Dad. But now I’m not sure why that rule was so important. I know it’s not important now.
The day we buried Shawn, my children surrounded me at the cemetery, holding my hands. It wasn’t clear exactly who was supporting who. I don’t really remember what happened there, but later my friend Kelly told me that as I stared at the casket being lowered into the ground, frozen by the horror of it all, they watched Austin. Rather than look at the people around us, or the casket in the ground, he stared intently at my face. “He had a laser-like focus on you” Kelly noted.
I don’t think I realized how much he continued to check in with me over the next few weeks, and then months. How he was constantly looking at my reaction to any big event, trying to figure out my emotions even as he wasn’t so sure what his own were. Case in point: about a week ago we pulled a book from our bookshelf that my friend Michelle had given me to read with the kids. It was called “Ida, Always” and was a book about a polar bear who dies, leaving another polar bear behind. Apparently it’s based on a true story. Michelle had warned me to preview it first and make sure I was ready to read it with them. But I didn’t. Instead, I cuddled up with Austin and started reading. About half way through, when Ida gets sick, I started weeping. Of course, Austin spent the rest of the book watching me, rather than digesting the book.
At the end of the book, he said, “Are you sad about Dad?”
“Yes,” I said. “It reminds me of Dad.”
He didn’t say anything else, and so I said, “You know that it’s OK if adults cry. I feel good when I can remember Dad, even if it makes me a little bit sad.”
I wiped my eyes and he just kept watching me. I assured him I was OK. He finally put his head down and went to sleep.
The next night, Austin went to the bookshelf and picked out the same book. He looked at me and asked, “Are you going to get teary-eyed?” I told him it was possible, but he said he still wanted to read it. We did, and I cried again.
This has continued to happen almost every night since. My tears have faded a bit, but he just keeps looking at me throughout story time, trying to gauge my emotions.
And every night in the wee hours of the morning, he crawls in my bed. I feel his little hand on my shoulder or my hand or my back. Then I feel his body relax and fall back to sleep.
I think he just needs to know I’m there. Right now, that’s what I can give him.