When my father died suddenly six years ago, I wasn't prepared for the waves of grief that washed over me in the aftermath of his death. In the midst of funeral preparations, I waded through decisions over flowers, services and gravestones as though in a fog. It was all I could do to keep it together as we went through the painful process of saying goodbye.
While my grief alone felt heavy and hard to manage, I had to somehow help my kids, then 7 and 9, with the loss of their grandfather. Death is a hard concept for adults to understand, much less young children. I quickly learned that my kids' questions were more about the concrete aspects of death: They wanted to know where the funeral home was keeping my father and why we had to wear fancy clothes after suddenly flying across the country.
My young daughter was surprised to learn that we weren't actually the ones who would do the heavy lifting of digging my father's grave. "But, Mummy, you keep saying we are burying him. Don't I need a shovel and a bucket?" she'd asked solemnly. I realised in that moment that kids process death much differently than adults do.
I needed to find a way to help them connect the dots, an age-appropriate way for them to feel connected to their grandfather while they grieved.
At the suggestion of a friend, I took the kids to Target and told them that we were there to buy three identical teddy bears. "Why three?" they asked. "One for each of you. And one for Poppy," I explained.
On the weekend, one of my daughters' pet chickens did something particularly inconvenient: it dropped dead. Overnight, it went from being a hale and hearty hen to KFC for worms. She didn't even do us the courtesy of acting sick first. I was therefore forced to explain to my daughters on the spot that 'Patty' wasn't a member of the family anymore. Instead, she was food.
Both children stood in the aisle and carefully selected three stuffed bears, testing the teddies for softness and "the cuddle factor," as my son said.
I explained to the kids that those bears would now be their "Poppy teddies" and that we would put one in my father's casket, too. Because the bears were the same, my kids had a concrete reminder that they were, in fact, still connected with my dad, even if he wasn't physically here with us. And, because my daughter was worried that my father was scared of the dark, I told her that his teddy would help him feel safe.
As she hugged her new teddy, she shared the first real smile I'd seen since my father passed away.
During the funeral and the gathering afterwards, both kids clutched their teddies tightly. My son slept with his under his pillow that night and they both kept their bears nearby as we tied up loose ends at my parents' house.
In the months after my father's death, my children used their Poppy teddies in different ways when they missed my father. My daughter's teacher allowed her to keep her bear tucked away in her desk so she could touch it when she felt sad. My son kept his buried at the bottom of his backpack, hidden from his friends and yet, still there.
And on the days when we all missed him more than we could handle, the bears reminded us to hug each other and reminisce.
On the one-year anniversary of my father's death, we took the kids to pay their respects at his grave. Unbeknown to me, my son had brought his bear with him and he asked for a few minutes to himself by my father's gravestone. As I stepped out of earshot to give him some privacy, I looked back to see my son seated on the ground, using his teddy bear to animatedly talk to the gravestone.
Those teddy bears were a godsend in the shocking days after my father's death and, even six years later, my kids still keep their Poppy teddies prominently displayed in their bedrooms. They are teenagers now and on the days when I'm gathering up their laundry or grumbling about their unmade beds, I'll catch a glimpse of one of the teddies and smile.