Just in the nick of time, I dropped off my two daughters at school before they were tardy, and then continued on to my youngest daughter’s preschool. Green, yellow…slow red. Green, yellow…slow red. I followed the rhythm of the stop lights as my 5-year-old sang at the top of her lungs in the backseat. I smiled as I listened to another of her off-tune, made-up songs.
Then I leaned in to hear some of her lyrics: “My daddy is in heaven. His leg was hurt. We need to pray for him. He’s with God,” she chirped. “I miss my dadddddddy.”
“What are you singing about, baby?” I asked her, trying to be nonchalant. I hadn’t heard her mention her daddy, who died from cancer two and a half years earlier, in a while. We pulled into the parking lot. I reminded myself to let her process.
“I’m singing about my daddy in Heaven,” she said.
“You know, he has a new body in Heaven now,” I said gently. “He doesn’t have that big tumor on his leg anymore.” Her face lit up with a smile, “Really?! I can’t wait to see him again.”
These conversations have become normal life for us. Never in a million years did I imagine I would be helping my children navigate the death of their father at such a young age. If you would have asked me a half dozen years ago, I would have told you that one just wasn’t in my wheelhouse. Then again, isn’t mothering about rising daily to learn new skills and praying regularly for God to cover our shortcomings?
Every day without my husband I am reminded of two things: every grief journey is unique and God intends to use our story for His glory.
My 5-year-old used to cry at night for her daddy. She just couldn’t understand why he wasn’t coming back. Now she soothes herself with made-up songs and imaginative play. My now 8-year-old tends to mourn her dad in meltdowns and tantrums. I’ll find her in a heap on the floor after I’ve asked her to clean her room or something’s gone wrong at school. I’ll think she’s crying about one thing, and then she tells me, “I just miss my daddy.”
My oldest, now 10 years old, likes to take care of everyone else. I will rarely see her cry but she does tell me when she’s sad. She decorates her room with pictures of her dad. She loves watching old videos of him. This is what grieving and remembering looks like for her.
Dealing with grief in motherhood is tricky. I have my own journey and soul to tend to, and then I have to navigate the emotions of my unique daughters. This can be overwhelming at times.
I have learned it’s important to give ourselves permission to grieve. It’s important for us as mothers to cry with our children. When my husband first died, I found great encouragement in the story of Lazarus’ death.
John 11:33 gives flesh to this story: Mary was grieving the loss of her brother, and “when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews, who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled…Jesus wept.”
I love the way Jesus enters in. He doesn’t try to shut them down or offer a quick one-liner to make Mary feel better. This gives me permission to grieve and cry with my kids. I can show them tears are normal and welcome on our grief journey.
I have also learned to embrace the questions. Kids will naturally ask a lot of questions. My girls watched their dad’s health decline very quickly as the cancer spread throughout his body. He was an athlete and a coach, who was very involved in their lives. They felt the contrast. They saw how he suffered.
They had lots of questions about daddy’s cancer. I let my kids know I didn’t have all the answers but took them on a treasure hunt through the Bible to find what it said about our questions. We read books on Heaven together. We imagined what Daddy might be doing in Heaven today. We prayed and asked God about our questions.
Although I was hesitant at first to venture out without my husband, my daughters and I planned some road trips after his death. We made new memories. This time away from our home was crucial. We needed space to recover from the trauma of his sickness.
That first year, I also needed some time away from my kids and my mama duties to grieve. I am grateful for dear friends who took me on trips to the ocean, while grandparents watched my kids. I journaled; I ran next to the crashing waves; I prayed and cried. I know that time was important for my own healing.
Our human instinct is to avoid the pain and memories. I’ve discovered when I try to avoid the memories, they sneak up on me anyway. Now I lean into the anniversaries, the holidays, the memories with my kids.
We celebrate the day my husband graduated to Heaven in unique ways. We call it his Heaveniversary. This past year, we took a picnic to the cemetery with my mother-in-law and told stories. That evening we invited a group of his best friends to dinner. I asked everyone to share something about his character. My girls even participated. We shed some tears, but there was also laughter in remembering his quirks and endearing qualities.
As moms, we don’t experience the hard life stuff in isolation. How we grieve is interwoven with our family life and affects our littles. To me, this is what flourishing in motherhood looks like: it’s learning to take life’s trials and redeem them for God’s glory and for our family’s good. The way I see it, we can try to shelter our children from death or we can model how to grieve with hope.
Dorina is the author of this sweet children’s book:
“Cora loves being in the kitchen, but she always gets stuck doing the kid jobs like licking the spoon. One day, however, when her older sisters and brother head out, Cora finally gets the chance to be Mama’s assistant chef. And of all the delicious Filipino dishes that dance through Cora’s head, she and Mama decide to make pancit, her favorite noodle dish.
With Mama’s help, Cora does the grown-up jobs like shredding the chicken and soaking the noodles (perhaps Mama won’t notice if she takes a nibble of chicken or sloshes a little water on the floor). Cora even gets to stir the noodles in the pot—carefully– while Mama supervises. When dinner is finally served, her siblings find out that Cora did all their grown-up tasks, and Cora waits anxiously to see what everyone thinks of her cooking.”
Dorina Lazo Gilmore lives in Fresno, California with her new husband Shawn and three daughters. She is a published children’s author, poet, journalist and blogs about chasing God’s glory through every day at www.DorinaGilmore.com. When she isn’t writing, you can find Dorina running marathons or in the kitchen creating a new recipe. Connect with her on Instagram.