Through her family’s tears, a 6-year-old touches death

“I was singing to the deer.” She had stayed in place on the trail and now stood about 50 feet behind us, where we had first spotted the pair of white-tail deer in the nearby woods.
She stood still while her mother and I hiked a bit further up the trail. We turned to watch her.
The deer had moved closer to her — soothed by her singing?
Our 6-year-old has a deep and wonderful appreciation for life. On the same camping trip last weekend, she begged us to stop so she could tend to an injured moth. Later, at our campsite, she pointed to a fluttering moth and said, “See? That’s him!”
When a tiny ember popcorned out of the campfire and landed on top of her foot, it took her a few moments to grasp this previously unexperienced pain. She wasn’t sure if she should cry, or if she should continue to wonder what else lies behind the hypnotic allure of the campfire. This was the same fire that created s’mores for us the night before. She had done nothing wrong. Yet she felt pain.
But later that same day, our whole family felt a different kind of pain, one that struck each of us deeply in its own way.
How do you explain to a 6-year-old that her kind and fun-loving uncle died in an accident?
You don’t. Six-year-olds can’t truly grasp the concept of death, of course. “Why are the grown-ups crying? I should cry too, I think.”
Big breath. Sorry. I’m having trouble with this one.
The point and purpose of this blog is not to lay bare the grief my wife feels and the pain her family feels.
While her mother went out of town to huddle with those on grief’s front lines, the 6-year-old and I stayed back. The decision was to try to keep life normal — school, new ballet class, swimming … Besides, as her mother so wisely and selflessly observed, it really wasn’t the proper place for a 6-year-old.
That took incredible courage. A mother’s need to hold close what’s dearest to her in times such as these has more than once overshadowed rationality. The conscious decision to put your child at arm’s length instead of being exposed firsthand to crushing grief, as a way of soothing your own pain, is not easy to make.
Today was the worst.
It was the viewing for her brother. Brutal.
Halfway through, our phone rang.
It was Mom, desperately clinging to her composure.
She needed to speak to her child, to reach out and the feel the warmth of life.
Uncle Gary and Aunt Michelle loved spending time with their niece. She had just spent two weeks visiting the Florida family in August, so her memories of them were fresh.
I can’t remember if it was a birthday or a Christmas, but her aunt and uncle introduced her to the world of Strawberry Shortcake. That’s something Í always shook my head at, with an under-my-breath thanks. There were more gifts. The concept took root with the 6-year-old.
How old are annoyingly cheerful Strawberry and her cronies?
According to the clock in our family room, the three-hour visitation is winding down in Florida.
At the same time, a Strawberry Shortcake DVD is playing here — the second in a row. Set up in the middle of the floor: Two Strawberry Shortcake structures (Candy shop? Who knows.)
It’s been a while since Strawberry Shortcake took center stage here.
As I sit here and watch her, it occurs to me that she does recognize the loss, in her own way. Without Uncle Gary, there would be no Strawberry Shortcake. But as long as there is Strawberry Shortcake, there will always a special place in her heart for a life that was taken from us all much too soon.

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