Last weekend, while Melanie and I were in Western New York visiting my daughters, we got some terrible news – a friend of my younger daughter Sarah had been killed in a car accident along with her mother. The events surrounding the accident aren’t clear. All we know is that the vehicle they were in hit the back of a semi parked on the side of the highway. The father, who was driving, and two sisters got out of it with relatively minor injuries.
At first, we didn’t know that Sarah knew the girl involved, who was only 9 years old. We were at the hotel swimming pool, which has a direct view of the Thruway, and noticed that traffic was barely moving. We guessed that there had been a bad accident, but didn’t actually see the news article until later in the afternoon.
It wasn’t until the following morning, though, that I learned the rest of the details from my ex-wife, who was understandably upset. She had sent me a text asking me to call her when I got a few moments away from the girls. I figured it was about some other business that we’re working on concluding, so didn’t worry too much about it. But when I did talk to her and discovered that the girl was one of Sarah’s best friends, I was devastated for that family, even though I didn’t know the girl or her family personally. Even more, though, I dreaded having to tell Sarah.
How do you tell an 8-year-old that her friend died? How do you explain that she’ll never see or play with her again? How do you help a child through the grieving process? How was Sarah going to react?
At first, I wasn’t sure if Sarah really understood what death is or what it means. Then I remembered that a few years ago, my ex-wife had had to put our cat Thomas to sleep because he had become very ill. We’d had Tommy since before either of the girls was born (in fact, I had had him before I even met my now ex) and Sarah had grown up with him. Plus, she has been to a couple of funerals. So I realized that she probably had a pretty good understanding of what it means to die.
The rest of that day was difficult. It was our last full day together and Melanie, my ex, and I all agreed that it the most appropriate thing to do would be to break the difficult news the following morning when I took the girls home, so that they could have the most emotional support possible. But as I said, it was difficult rest of the day, knowing what was coming and yet not really knowing how things would go.
That afternoon, we took the kids to see a movie (Paddington, for the curious, which was a fantastic family movie and a perfect afternoon distraction) and then we spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool again, followed by some Batman ’66 (which we introduced to the girls over the Holidays and which they absolutely love because we can all enjoy its campiness and silliness together). All-in-all, it was otherwise a really good day. And I’ll freely admit that I stole a few extra hugs when I could.
The next morning I had butterflies in my stomach. I was dreading delivering the bad news to my daughters. We had breakfast, cleaned up, finished packing the car, and then we were off. I felt sick for the entire 10-minute drive and I suspect I was pretty distracted, although I really don’t remember much else of those few minutes.
When we got there, we took the girls into the living room, sat down with them, and their mother delivered the bad news. At first, Sarah acted as if she didn’t understand what she had just heard. A moment later, it sank in. “She’s dead?” was all Sarah asked, and then she broke down.
She cried on her mother for several minutes, then came to me for what little comfort I could give. I did my best to reassure her, although I honestly don’t remember what I said.
My other daughter, Kaitlyn, took the news well, although she wasn’t as close to the girl as Sarah was. Still, she was visibly upset. She did her best to comfort her sister. When she told her simply, “I’m sorry, Sarah,” I was so proud of her for reaching out and, even though there’s really nothing one can say in that situation, saying the right thing.
I’m not really sure I’ve completely processed this situation. I can’t imagine what that father is going through, being forced to deal with not only his wife’s death, but the death of a young daughter as well. It kills me to hear stories like that and I hate the thought that children can get hurt.
On a personal level, I realized at some point in the middle of it all that my daughters have experienced something that I (thankfully) never have – at least, not at so young an age. As a result, I can’t completely understand or relate to what they’re going through. And I can’t escape the thought that they were forced to grow up a little bit this weekend, that they had another piece of their childhoods chipped away. It killed me to to have to witness my daughter’s heart break and be helpless to do anything about it.
Still, I did everything I could – held them, did my best to console them, and dried their tears. And now all I can do is be there for them to answer any questions they may have and try to reassure them about any fears that may develop.
No matter what happens, though, I’ve been reminded once again how precious my girls are and I plan to thank God every single day for them.