About a month ago, our sweet five-year-old niece and her mom came for a visit. She has visited a few times since Caemon’s death, and each time has been difficult for her. The first time following his funeral we were still at our old house. I walked into Caemon’s bedroom to find her some books and toys to play with, as we didn’t want her to be in his room without supervision. She followed me into the room, and as I was gathering some things, she looked up at me, her big brown eyes so earnest, and she asked, “You miss Caemon?”
“I sure do, sweetheart.”
“Me too,” she agreed. “Too much.” My heart broke as I knelt down to hug her, and we talked about how much we missed him. We gathered some favorite books of his, and proceeded to read. Later, on the same visit, she was wandering throughout the house as though looking for something. A look of sadness strained her face, and Jodi asked what she was looking for. She didn’t know. Then she asked if she was looking for Caemon, and she nodded and began to cry. She knew he wasn’t there.
On this most recent visit, our niece’s grief was still very present, and while she seemed a little more easily distracted because we were in a new home, she still felt Caemon’s absence keenly. When she saw our little altar for him, she stopped and admired all of this things. She regularly grabbed his photo books and wanted to sit with us and look at them. Throughout the visit, she shared her favorite memories of Caemon: a day she and Caemon and my parents went swimming and they got to eat ice cream; another day when we went to the lake and she and Caemon played with water balloons. She delights in these memories, and we urge her to share them–with us, with her younger cousins–because we know she is one of the few children who will remember Caemon. We have such hope that any future children we may have will know Caemon through their cousin, and that she will get to relive knowing him through her sharing. This is a big responsibility for a small child, though. It’s huge burden for her to bear, and while I’m not sure it’s fair, her grasp of this loss is powerful. She knew Caemon. They were very close, and she feels his absence so deeply any time she’s around us, any time she thinks of him. She is the only child who was able to visit Caemon in the hospital (early on) or to Skype with him when he had his bald head, and, thus, she has a frame of reference for all of this.
There are other children who are trying to understand Caemon’s death, children who had played at the park with Caemon or had come to our home. A few of them still talk about him regularly. One girl has assigned him a star. Another boy asks his mom from time to time where Caemon is, wanting to know if maybe he’s still in the hospital. Other children whose parents may have only known us through this blog or other online venues have had their first talks about death with their parents through Caemon’s loss. Our little nephew, a year younger than Caemon, a boy who idolized his “big boy” cousin, doesn’t quite know where he is. When we mention him, he still looks around as if he might see him, though he’ll tell his parents that he is in heaven.
Last month, as our visit with our niece was nearing its close, we were driving around town. From the back of the car, she shared, “I wish Caemon was still alive. I wish he wouldn’t have died.” It really is that simple. It’s what we all feel wrapped up in the perfect language.
The grief of the children in our lives is something I hold so tenderly. I am saddened that any of them have to know death at all at such a young age, but a death of one of their peers has got to be utterly confusing, mind-blowing. Many of them still don’t grasp object permanence, let alone mortality, memorial services, cancer, rare leukemias, and grieving parents. I ache for these children who are trying so hard to understand, for their parents who are trying so delicately to help their kids navigate these waters. I can only hope that by knowing our boy’s story, these kids will somehow grow up more loving, more compassionate and will help to carry the torch for a boy whose light was extinguished far, far too soon.
Shortly after her visit, my wife wrote this open letter to our niece. We would like to share it with you here:
Thank you for coming and visiting with us. You’ve grown up so much over the past year, and your heart is as beautiful as ever. I know it’s not as much fun here without your cousin, Caemon, and I know you miss him very much. We do too. Sometimes it can be very sad to see so many reminders of him but not be able to play and laugh like you used to.
We liked hearing your stories about him, and we want you to know that you can always talk to us about how you are feeling, even if it means we cry a little bit. I loved your stories about last summer and how you and Caemon practiced throwing water balloons at Grandma’s feet. That was so much fun! You two had a lot of adventures together: swimming at Morton’s Warm Springs, riding around in Caemon’s wagon, swinging on Grandpa’s giant swing, playing tea party, taking baths, and, of course, all the sweet hugging and kissing.
You need to know that Caemon loved you above all other children, Bri. He loved when you came to stay with us, and he really loved being at Grandma and Grandpa’s with you. I know you are hurting, but we hope over time the memories of you and Caemon will make you smile, and maybe you will pass on your stories to your younger cousins who didn’t know him. We hope you will keep him in your heart, as you remain in ours. We love you, Bri, and if you ever need us, we’ll be here.
Aunt Jo and Timi