One afternoon, a few months after my husband died, I absent-mindedly began dismantling a Lego Friends house gathering dust on a shelf in my daughter’s room. I tore off the pink roof and started tossing bricks into a shoebox.
I was perpetually tidying, an obvious effort to create order in the chaos of loss. I’d sweep and scrub and shuffle papers—anything to keep my hands busy. It was like I was back at university and stressed about a big exam; instead of studying, I’d frantically clean as if I might find answers hidden somewhere under the debris. Now I was facing a mountain of death paperwork. I was postponing decisions on what to do with Jon’s shirts and socks. And I was preparing for the biggest test of my life—raising our two kids on my own.
I was down to the toy house’s plastic foundation before I realized what I’d done. And I felt sick. I could clearly remember seeing my daughter, Maizey, sitting beside her dad at our dining room table, piecing the dream home together, brick by brick. She had just received the toy as a Christmas gift, and Jon was as excited as she was to tackle the project. Together, they turned the pages of the instruction book, with Maizey eagerly finding the pieces to match the pictures. Jon did not take over the construction but assisted his little girl as they leaned over the table, watching their building take shape. And now, in some over-functioning stupor, I had carelessly demolished the only home they would ever make together.
I returned what was left of the now roofless house to the shelf, tucked the box of Lego bits under her bed and cried. That, in a nutshell, is grief and parenting. Stumbling, fumbling and trying to move forward while clinging to a past that can’t be preserved.
My daughter was furious when she saw what I’d done. I’m not sure if she was angry because I broke part of a connection to her dad or simply because I invaded her space. I felt too guilty to ask, and now it’s unlikely she remembers—but I do. It still makes me ache, but the Lego incident is just one of a hundred situations with no easy solution that we’ve gone through since my husband died. Remaking the house would not make things better. Some things can’t be rebuilt.
Losing a parent just after becoming one
Like any parents, Jon and I were always trying to crack the code of parenting, never feeling like we were experts and always just muddling through with a healthy dose of laughter. From the day our older child, Dexter, was born, Jon embraced being a dad. He was calm and capable, never flustered. In many ways, he taught me how to interact with my own kids. He’d make jokes and have lively chats with gurgling Dexter on the change table. In an excited voice, he’d ask what his baby Maizey might do that day, what friends she might see and, improbably, what job she was toddling off to: construction site? Bay Street legal firm? When they were sad, he’d unironically say, “Let’s turn that frown upside down.” If they were mad at a broken shoelace, he’d say, “Life is too short to be upset about a broken lace.” On rushed mornings, after everyone was finally out the door, he’d get us to pause in the backyard and smell the blossoms on a tree or look at a particular flower.
And we made for a pretty solid team. Jon took care of the technology in the house and the laundry; I was responsible for organizing daycare, babysitters and summer camps. We’d write each other email updates about the kids during our workdays, using nicknames like Noodles and Sauce or Thing One and Thing Two. We’d figure out who could pick up the kids after work and race home to sit together as a family for dinner. And when one of our kids as a toddler demanded the impossible, such as uncut toast when presented with toast cut in half, he was always there to shoot me a supportive look.
We joked that I took care of the worrying because someone had to. Jon literally slept with a smile on his face and lived like the glass was more than half full—it was overflowing. When Dexter showed an interest in cricket, Jon immediately took him to the store to get a nice bat. If the kids wanted to go skating, snowboarding or swimming, Jon would happily take them. He was always up for any activity and patiently taught them complex games like Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. At night, we’d tag-team reading stories and cuddling each kid. And when they were finally asleep, we’d put our feet up and play Scrabble. We didn’t go out on a lot of dates; we liked hanging out at home, and it was easier than finding a sitter. Now that the kids are a bit older, I feel a sense of longing—I know Jon and I would have really enjoyed this extra pocket of time to go for a walk or head out to an early movie.
When we found out Jon had esophageal cancer, Maizey had just started grade one, and Dexter, grade four. We dreaded telling them their dad was sick, but we knew we had to be blunt and honest—there are no words to make this kind of news taste less bitter.
We crossed our fingers that the bubble of childhood would help insulate them. But Jon got sicker, faster than we could have even imagined. That school year quickly became full of learning—learning how to live with illness and then learning how to live with death. The kids had to adjust to their dad slowly being taken away from them. Chemotherapy made him too weak to play “climb the mountain”—a game in which he would hold their hands while they climbed up his body. We had to retire the “nighttime hidey game”—a bit of bedtime silliness in which Jon would look all over our daughter’s room for her. He would make a big production of searching cupboards and drawers, until he would finally sit down on her bed in mock frustration, only to feign surprise at discovering his giggling little girl under the covers. And all too soon, nausea and exhaustion meant Jon could no longer join us in the kitchen for meals.
As Jon’s health declined, new roles emerged. Maizey helped care for her dad. She’d play nurse, putting on plastic gloves and shaking the food for her dad’s feeding tube. And bedtime routines changed. Instead of Jon going to their rooms to read, the kids would come to his bed. Often he was too tired to read, so Dexter would take over, reading stories of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and other plucky heroes—survivors.
Then, in Jon’s final days, I set up a campsite on the floor of our bedroom. The kids and I cuddled on pillows beside the bed, reading stories, listening to music and talking while their dad drifted further away from us. Jon didn’t even make it to the close of the school year. He died at the end of April.
The immediate aftermath was a blur. I had to contact friends, find a place for the funeral and keep breathing. I was terrified I couldn’t raise the kids without their dad and relied on family to make sure they were fed and looked after. At night, the three of us would collapse in a heap on the mattress on the floor of our—now my—bedroom. Our strength was bolstered in our nest. But most of the time I was submerged by the flood of details of tying up a life.
The tickle trunk of parenting through grief is stuffed with so many emotions. Sorrow is obvious. I knew it was OK for the kids to see me cry sometimes, but not too much—I didn’t want them to lose both their dad and their mom. And everything was too raw. One afternoon, I threw myself on the bed, crying over arranging summer day camps for the kids. I just couldn’t face planning summer without Jon. Maizey came into the room and patted me on the back and then coyly asked if she could watch TV, a simple reward for having a sad mom.
Resentment and jealousy also surface: The kids once argued over who knew their dad longer or better. And then sometimes guilt appears: Am I doing a good enough job at being the undead parent? Am I living enough? We were, and are, angry—a lot. I’ve yelled at busted cellphones, our hapless puppy (who came into our lives just before Jon got sick), and yes, I’ve yelled at my broken-hearted kids. And the kids have yelled back at broken-hearted me.
Without Jon, an everyday task can feel overwhelming, another test to fail. And as I try to make it through another day of solo decision-making, I’m acutely aware that I am half of what was once a formidable duo and, in many ways, half of myself now, too.
Our culture is bad at death. And we are really bad at talking with children about death.
Suggesting that Jon went to a “better place” is nonsense—what place could be better than being here with his two awesome kids? He is not “lost.” He is dead. Full stop. We are not stronger for this crappy experience. We are not better people. The expression “life doesn’t give you what you can’t handle” is not true. Life just gives you stuff, and you have to figure out how to deal with it.
I know about grief. I was in my twenties when my parents died. I vividly remember not wanting anything bad or good to happen without them around to witness it. I wanted to stop time. But with young kids, you can’t pause the clock. Childhood is too short. Months overflow with age-specific achievements, like shoe tying and cursive writing, and special days worth marking.
It’s vital for the kids that we stick to our family traditions. Which is why, just two months after Jon died, we invited neighbours over for what was our annual last-day-of-school pizza potluck. Jon and I used to joke about how this was our lazy contribution to neighbourhood fun. We’d invite families to bring their own pizza to eat on our front lawn. After Jon died, Maizey and Dexter asked if we could still have the party, and I didn’t want to say no.
The night of the pizza potluck, we ate as neighbourhood children took turns dancing and performing songs on our porch. In my head, I could hear Jon the year before, coaching Maizey like a stage dad through the lyrics to “Count on Me” by Bruno Mars. And perhaps in an effort to bring her dad to the party too, my daughter put on the same fancy white dress she wore to his funeral.
But while some routines are the same, everything feels different.
Three years on, we still celebrate Jon’s birthday and enjoy his favourite dinner (butter chicken) and have a cake. Now there’s an additional day on our calendar. We call the day Jon died “Daddy Day.” I take the kids to lunch and we skip the afternoon of school. We explore parks we haven’t been to before, and we drive around listening to Jon’s favourite songs on a CD his best friend made for us.
I am a mom who creates lists for everything. Lists of chores. Lists for groceries. Lists for house repairs. So now I keep lists of achievable fun: parks or festivals we can go to, simple adventures. Each checkmark is an accomplishment of getting through another first without their dad. Go the park: check. Visit the driving range: check. Take a vacation as a family of three: check. And when we are jumping into pools, binging on roasted marshmallows and having fun, I feel like we are closest to Jon. I know he would want nothing less than this.
I try to keep Jon in the conversation. We chat about things he did and what comment we think he’d say about the news of the day, and speculate how he would react to a new situation. Sometimes before bed, I let the kids call the tune. They each pick a music video. And then we pick a song their dad liked or one we think he would have liked.
Dexter once said he wanted to pretend his dad was just away on a golf trip. The idea that one day Jon will walk through the door with clubs in hand is appealing. And we could laugh at how he just kept missing his flight home—an almost believable story, since he once actually missed a flight home after golfing with his brothers. And the thing is, some illogical part of my heart thought he’d be back by now. Each time he misses another special occasion, like one of their birthdays, it makes everything once again blindingly real.
To change the colour of a room or move a picture means making things different from what their dad saw. Anything Jon gave the kids, books or stuffies, is now extra special. “Does this spark joy?” is the wrong criteria to determine what to keep. I suspect we will always hang on to the giant fairy-tale doodle art the four of us coloured together and will likely never finish. And for now, we continue to hold a “dad” column on the family organizing calendar hanging in our kitchen.
Change is necessary though, and needed. Last summer, we rebuilt our dilapidated front porch. Dexter immediately wanted the old deck back, with its familiar chipped paint and rotting boards. But just like Maizey’s Lego house, we couldn’t rebuild the old porch. I am trying to help us navigate all of this, along with the paradoxes of life. I tell the kids it’s OK to be sad at a happy time like Christmas, because we miss him so much. And they know it’s OK to be happy at a sad time, like at their dad’s wake, because it was a fun party. I try to show by example that the best way to honour their dad is by living fully.
We are less fragile today, but we will always be mourning. There is a new kind of growth chart in our lives. Instead of marking their height with pencil notches on a door frame, our progress can almost be gauged against a spiritual yardstick. As much as we are lurching forward, we don’t welcome the widening distance of time from when Jon was here—it’s another painful reminder of how much we miss him.
The biggest lesson the kids are learning is one I never wanted to teach them and one I didn’t want to live. You don’t outgrow grief or graduate from it. Like stepping on a stray piece of Lego, it’s painfully searing, catching you when you least expect it.
I know it sucked not to have my parents at my wedding, and I wish they had had the chance to meet my kids. I am so sad my children will have an even longer legacy of loss. And in many ways, I cannot begin to fathom what they have lost. Their dad has already missed Dexter’s grade six graduation, and there are many more milestones to come.
So I clap, sitting solo in the audience for performances, graduations and other ceremonies, proud enough for two parents. You can never really know what’s in your children’s heads and hearts, but I will always try to ensure my kids know they are not alone. I will continue to remind them they were lucky to be loved forever by a man they can no longer see, a man I am so grateful they knew, however briefly.