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Children & Grief: A Daughter’s Story

 I post annually on Father’s Day and sometimes on Oct 3.  It’s therapeutic and reminds me of God’s sovereignty in my life.  I also have many friends who’ve lost their father either by divorce, death or drugs.  And I believe, the grieving process for children is similar regardless of how you’ve lost a parent.    

Me around age 2 with my daddy

MY STORY – written Spring 2007

When my mother called and asked how I dealt with the loss of my father, I wasn’t sure how to begin. I thought for weeks and decided to write my story. I was unsure if I should write to the child or communicate directly with the parent comforting a grieving child. So, because I am not yet a parent, I will try my best to explain what emotions I experienced when I lost my father.

I was nine years old when my father passed away from cancer. For most of my childhood memories, my dad was sick. It was normal; it was my life. My family never tried to keep me from that reality. But I never realized…. he would actually be gone one day.

The day my father died (Oct 3, 1990) still seems like a dream. Everything moved in slow motion. The house was full of life and activity, but our guests were mournful and dreary. It was a confusing combination to a nine-year old.

Because my father was heavily medicated that day, my younger brother and I were not allowed in his room. He had been hallucinating, and I’m sure my family did not want those to be our last memories. Escorted by my mother and surrounded by family, my brother Bradley (6) and myself said our good-byes. Bradley sweetly said, “Thank you for being a good daddy.” I was scared. Everyone was watching me, and I didn’t want to cry. I simply said, “I love you.

The next memory I have is sitting on the couch in the living room with my brother. Suddenly, there was a burst of tears and then slowly the old hymn “Victory in Jesus” softly filled our home. I knew he was gone, and I was numb. Bradley was turning the pages of tarantula book and I remember feeling angry at him. How could he be looking at a book? But then I saw him crying and I felt horrible.

MY GRIEVING PROCESS

I was sitting next to my dad in his big yellow truck and he told me I was “a very observant child.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew HE liked it!

My observations the days after he died were very important to how I processed losing him. There were so many people repeating the same sentences: “Your daddy loved you so much.” “God has a plan.” “Your daddy is with Jesus now.

These words meant nothing to me. I was just trying to get through my day! There were people EVERYWHERE! There were so many people looking at me. So many people asking my mom how Bradley and I were doing. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Am I supposed to cry when they cry? Do you want me to be “okay” so my mommy is okay?

LONG-TERM GRIEVING

Before my dad passed, he sat me down and tried his best to prepare me for the years that were ahead. I can’t even imagine how hard this must have been for him. He very calmly told me that he was dying. He didn’t know when but he wanted me to be ready. My whole body felt limp. Then he said words that would forever change my life. “I need you to take care of your mom and Bradley.”

I typically loved when my dad gave me jobs.  It made me feel important and valued.  But I didn’t want this job and I was angry.

I honestly don’t remember what else he said. I wish I had paid attention.

The next thing I remember, I was in my parents’ bathroom having an intense conversation with God. It wasn’t fair, and I wanted God to know. I tried to make deals, and I promised I “would do anything.” I hope my dad didn’t hear this conversation I had with God. It would have further broken his heart.

I will be honest and say that I mourn my father’s death frequently. The scars that remain are a constant reminder of what I lost. I will always be afraid of death. Never of my own but of loved ones dying.

Witnessing any father/daughter interaction reminds me of the ugly scar. In fact, I normally excuse myself during any wedding reception so I don’t have to listen to “Butterfly Kisses.”

A little girl who loses her father will always have a “daddy size” hole in her heart. Parents and loved ones need to be sensitive about this.

Who I am today explains so much of how I grieved as a child. I am analytical, and I search desperately for answers if things are unclear. I hate crying in public and yearn to create and protect memories.

When I was nine, nothing made sense, and this was frustrating to me. At first, I was open with my feelings. But after the commotion subsided and life moved on, my questions grew, as well as my bitterness. Now, I was just frustrated and missed my dad.

There was also a sense of betrayal for the people who filled my home a few weeks earlier. Where did they go? Didn’t they care anymore? I felt like they had abandoned us.

Another aspect of his death that really bothered me was the phrase, “He lost his battle.” What? He lost? In our sports-driven, competition saturated culture, winning is everything. Hearing over and over that my dad had lost was irritating and hurtful. I couldn’t understand this, because to me, they were saying he hadn’t tried hard enough. Or that he had done something wrong in the first place. Or worse, the cancer had won.

“But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:32,33”….

Fishing in Oregon

ADVICE TO PARENTS

There are countless books and articles on how to deal with a grieving child. Every child is different, and every death comes with different circumstances. These are simply things I wish would have been done for me or things that made it worse. The first one is the most important.

  • Encourage the child to write memories of emotions or frustrations they had with the parent. If they are not comfortable writing, then record for them when he/she remembers or mentions something. These manuscripts will be priceless in years to come. Document what characteristics the lost parent cherished about the child. Those are things you might know but might have never been conveyed.
  • Understand that a child might not grieve right away! My process was slow and materialized in high school and college.
  • If you have multiple children, understand they will grieve in different stages. You must rely on the Lord’s wisdom to discern how to comfort.
  • Pictures, Pictures, PICTURES! For a child, the fear of “forgetting” your loved one is very powerful and scary. I wish there were more pictures taken of me and my father before he passed. The ones I have are priceless.

HOPE

I am not sure if this story was helpful.  Losing a parent at any age is hard. Coping as a child can be more complicated. As a bitter little girl, I considered myself cheated. As a woman, I see God had a bigger plan that involved relying on my Heavenly Father. I have hope I will see my dad again, and I think about that moment often. Besides seeing my Savior, hugging my father will be amazing. I can’t wait!

“And He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” Revelations 21:4

    Brendie Heter

    The author Brendie Heter

    2 Comments

    1. Brendie,
      Thank you for sharing this honest, heartfelt, vulnerable post. I remember your family very well from our years at Liberty. Your family is a big part of my memories from that time.
      I lost my Dad five years ago and that was so hard as an adult. . .I cannot imagine it as a child. This post will help many people in dealing with grief and those grieving!

      1. Thank you for this kind comment Sheri! Every time I share this article…. I hear from people who my dad served and loved while he was here. His impact was powerful on everyone he met! Thank you again for taking the time to encourage me.

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