My son had turned 2 about 2 weeks before my husband died an unexpected death. At the time, I was thankful that Kaleb was so young because I assumed he wouldn’t really know the difference, but I was wrong, really wrong. Almost 3 months had passed and Kaleb hadn’t changed a bit. He seemed like the same kid to me, like the death hadn’t affected him at all.
Then one day, it was like a light switch, he changed night and day. He started screaming when we would pull up in the driveway, saying, “no! I no go to Kaleb’s house! I can’t want to be here.”, over and over again. Once I managed to get him in the house, it was melt down after melt down. Then when bedtime came, he went from sleeping in his own big boy bed to him begging me to let him sleep in my bed. It was hours and hours of crying and lashing out. It was hours and hours of tears and pure exhaustion for both of us. Every single day.
After a couple weeks of this behavior, after weeks of fighting with him to go to sleep, I completely lost it. I was driving home from work, already barely surviving because on top of this toddler outbreak, I too, was dealing with the loss of my husband; my partner; my helper; the other parent. I pulled over in the ditch and I literally couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t come up for air. I was done. All I could think about was the fact I was now alone. I was now doing this all by myself and I didn’t know how to survive even that thought. And how was I ever going to help Kaleb through this?
I don’t remember how I survived that day. I don’t remember where I got the courage to put the car in drive and pick Kaleb up from daycare on time, but I did. And the next day, I found help for us.
A child counselor was the best thing I ever did. She let me sit and talk. She let me unload. She listened and she helped.
She explained the stages of grief as they happen to everyone, no matter the age. For Kaleb, one day daddy was here, and the next day he wasn’t. In the first week after the death, Kaleb had been going with the flow, daddy still wasn’t here but mom was, and that was good enough for that time. Then a month passed and daddy still wasn’t home and it was still just mommy. And while mommy was doing the best she could, she was different, things were different. Then pretty soon, in Kaleb’s little world, enough time had passed where he would realize that daddy wasn’t coming home and home was no longer the same for him. He had been in the kid form of denial, and once that passed, he was in full force anger and depression.
Not only was he going through the anger part, the counselor explained that his trust had been broken. The 2 people who he trusted the most had “changed.” One wasn’t there anymore and the other just wasn’t the same. What he knew as a comfortable home and safe place was all shades of different.
My mind was completely blown that at 2 years of age, Kaleb was experiencing this but it made complete sense to me. All the days and hours spent in the driveway crying, the night time fear of being alone, it was all very real for Kaleb, even at age 2.
She gave me suggestions of how to handle things and how to gain his trust back. Sleeping in the same bed as me was definitely not ideal but fighting with him about it, was even less ideal.
We worked really hard on this. Really hard. Every single night, as we were finishing our prayers I laid there and said, “Kaleb, mommy loves you very much and I’ll always be here for you. I promise never to leave you.” And he would reply, “you promise?”
There were a lot of ups and downs that followed. Extreme clinginess. Extreme separation anxiety. Extreme everything.
I remember a time as I was standing in the shower and I looked over, there he was, playing planes and trains in the doorway of the bathroom, right where he could keep me in his sight. He needed to make sure I wasn’t going anywhere. He needed to make sure I was keeping up with my end of the promise. There were even times mid-day that he would come running up to me and say, “don’t go anywhere, okay? Stay right here where I can see you.” It even got to the point of him telling everyone, including his blankie, “I’ll be RIGHT back, okay? I promise.” As an outsider looking in, not knowing our recent past, one might have just laughed and complimented on how damn funny he was, but that just wasn’t the case. For me, for the grandparents, since we really knew what was going on, it was just heartbreaking to see such a small little person struggle so much with fear of the unknown.
Here we are, a year later and I’m still keeping up with my end of the promise. I can say that things are better. And I lose that term loosely. He isn’t as clingy. He’s able to play in his room for about 30 minutes at a time before he comes to see where I am. Instead of being in the bathroom with me while I shower, he’s at least just in my bedroom. He’s still sleeping with me and that’s a true struggle for me. I miss having that time to myself but he’s just not ready to make that step yet and I have to try my best to understand that.
While I certainly don’t have all the answers, gosh, most days I feel like I don’t have any of the answers, I know we are taking it day by day and day by day we are getting stronger. I’m not an expert on any of this and by no means am I here to tell you what to do, I’m just here to tell you our story and what has worked for us.
Dealing with and understanding grief is hard enough when it’s just you, but throw a toddler into the mix and you’ve got the recipe for some unbelievably hard times. But you know what else you have a recipe for, unbelievably strong love and bonding like you never knew existed. I knew I loved Kaleb the day he was born. I knew I would love him for the rest of my life. What I didn’t know was how close we would become when we have no choice but to power through together. As we are wrapping up our night, as I’m promising to never leave him, we now promise to always be best friends. Just last night he reached over and said, “thanks mommy, I reawwy wike having you as best fwiend.”