I walked back into the kitchen where he sat ﬁnishing his breakfast. The air was all of a sudden still and I noticed the heaviness of it immediately. As soon as my back was toward him, he exhaled and spoke.
“So, did he die?”
I didn’t need to ask who. I asked anyway.
“Daddy. Did he die?”
He’s four. He is four. My god, he’s just four.
“No buddy, I don’t think he died.”
Then more silence. I never hear silence. It felt big and strange to sit in a room without his constant chatter, without the white noise of a little boy desperate not to disappear. He attempted to brighten a little. “I think he must be taking care of his mom then.” I wanted to contest that. I wanted to say NO, just no. Daddies can take care of their mothers without leaving their children behind. They can take care of both at the same time. But those words got stuck in my throat where they belonged.
I smiled at him carefully and started to offer him something supportive, but he interrupted.
“You won’t leave me without saying goodbye. You won’t drop me off at the hospital and leave me. You will let me come home again.”
And there it was. On a Wednesday morning, ten months into this tragedy, my foster son got brave enough to ask out loud about the origin of those cracks in his broken heart. When contact with a primary caregiver is severed, young children need to make sense of that loss. Accepting that a parent or caregiver has died, rather than moved on without them, is justiﬁably easier to rationalize.
When I was a little girl, I collected stickers and rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids. The children that come into my home collect trauma and loss and heartbreak and fear and grief. Their childhoods have been interrupted, and in some cases completely rerouted, by the cyclone of brokenness around them. That level of brokenness does not leave a child at my front door. It is often more invasive than one can imagine. A four-year-old sat at my kitchen table and asked me point blank if his father had died. For me, that question came out of the clear blue sky, but for him, it had likely been festering for the better part of ten months.
And then he asked me if I would stay.
So I told him again, in an attempt to cement a new script in his little head and to soothe his anxiety over being left without warning, “I am the mommy who says goodbye before I leave. I will always tell you before I go anywhere…to the grocery store, to get the mail, to use the bathroom, if I leave for a weekend, or if I leave for forever. I am the mommy who says goodbye.”
I will tell him this again and again until the day comes when we say our ﬁnal goodbye in the hope that this next time, he doesn’t feel abandoned and left behind. But in the days in between now and then, I will also teach him how to collect his childhood. We will build castles out of blocks and line up action ﬁgures and splash in sprinklers on lazy summer days. I will teach him about rules and boundaries, sharing and accountability. None of this will be easy, but if we are lucky, some of it will be fun. We will take the good with the bad, but we will accept both. Above all, the things he collects here will never be stored on a dusty shelf or trapped behind a barricade of fear. He will gain new skills he can keep using, memories he can share, and a whole lot of the mess that the middle of this life is made of.
So, no baby, your daddy didn’t die. He left you. And it’s not okay. And I’m so very sorry that he broke your heart.
“Mommy Deb, can I have a hug?”
Right there, in the middle of our Wednesday morning, he opened his heart, and I let myself in.
Deborah Sweet is a biological, adoptive and foster mama who believes parenting is best played as a team sport. She works hard as a foster parent ambassador and harder at raising community awareness for kids who come from difficult places. Deborah is a teacher by trade but now spends her time advocating for school districts to become trauma sensitive and provide wrap-around services for children who are challenged by developmental trauma and attachment disorders. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and six(ish) kids, plus a couple of amazing animals that add to the calm of the house, not the chaos. You can read more of Deborah’s writing on her blog, Because I Stay.