“I feel my dad’s presence next to me at the kitchen table.” Elizabeth, age 10
I first began working in the field of children’s grief support in 1997 as a volunteer for the Rainbows program in Montclair. I’ll never forget a little girl named Elizabeth who was 10 years old when she came to Rainbows. Her father had died suddenly of a heart attack. He had been her soccer coach, her best friend and her biggest champion. She told me that she felt his presence when she sat at the kitchen table doing homework and when she stood in right field waiting for a ball to come her way she said he was right next to her. She wore his hockey pin and his baseball cap everywhere.
I was 37 at the time and this little girl was teaching me about grief – that just because the person died, the relationship hasn’t. She knew how to keep her dad close by her side. She talked to him daily. She also showed me how children grieve – one moment she was in tears and missing her dad and the next she was asking the group if we wanted to go play catch outside. She would be laughing out loud and then solemn and scared. She was especially frightened of losing her mom, who was a smoker. Elizabeth was unrelenting and vociferous in her attempts to get her mother to quit smoking.
A few years later I met another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Stone, the author of a beautiful book called “A Boy I Once Knew.” It is a story about the death of one of her former students. In it she chronicles his journey as he slowly dies of AIDS, revealing himself to her through the diaries he has left her, and she chronicles her own journey as he teaches her about life, loss and grief.
She asked me one day, “How do you hold your father in your life?” I realized I didn’t. I had put him away when he died, as we all had. His clothes, ties and hat collection removed from the house and all of us trying to be strong for one another. I didn’t wear or even have a favorite shirt of his, nor did I have photos of him out in my home or office, though I did keep his business card in my wallet. I immediately framed some long-ago photos and placed them in my office and shared them with people who came on tours. I’m looking at a photo of him on my desk as I type this.
These two Elizabeths taught me how to keep my dad in my life, and not just my sadness.
How do you hold close the people in your life who have died?