I recently finished Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. The memoir is wrenching, elegant, and unforgettable. For those who haven’t read it, Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant neurosurgeon at Stanford who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He and his wife Lucy, also a physician, became parents just weeks before Paul’s death. This is a book of extraordinary courage, and while it’s been on my radar since early 2016, I put off reading it until a writing client asked me to do so to help inform her own book project.
You might think I would have leapt at reading a story that so closely mirrored my own. After all, I write and speak to all kinds of groups about loss and resilience. I have even authored two books on this subject, the first, a memoir called Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living, and the second, a picture book for children and families called Because the Sky is Everywhere. My loss isn’t new either; I was widowed in 2006.
Still, I was unprepared for the intensity of emotion I felt while reading about the confluence of life, death, and parenthood. Paul and Lucy Kalanithi became parents weeks before Paul’s death. My husband Brett and I became parents on the very day we learned Brett’s cancer recurred. It was a virtual death sentence even though here we were trying to celebrate new life.
That Paul Kalanithi’s daughter Cady and my twins, Rebecca and Casey, won’t ever know their biological fathers is heartbreaking. It is hard enough to lose a parent when memories are intact, but without memory the deceased can loom large and shadowy as apparitions.
My children are now 16. They weren’t even three years old when their dad died. Much has changed for them over the years, most notably a loving stepdad in their lives who was also widowed with two children. Time has definitely eclipsed their pain but it doesn't erase it. Loss for Rebecca and Casey is still messy business. Maybe they feel guilty because they can’t remember Brett (this is my mother-in-law’s theory). Maybe ‘going there’ evokes too much trauma (this is my mom’s theory). Maybe they don’t want to complicate feelings for their second dad by digging into the muck of loss regarding their first dad (my theory). Whatever theory you choose, there aren’t any easy answers.
November 16 is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, a time to focus on grieving kids and the importance of supporting their diverse needs.
Chances are high that you know a child who has lost a family member or friend. The numbers are staggering. According to research conducted by The New York Life Foundation:
Some 1 in 7 children under the age of 20 will lose a parent or sibling.
70 percent of Americans who lost a parent growing up still think about their parent frequently.
7 in 10 teachers currently have one student in their class(es) who have lost a parent, sibling, or close friend in the past year.
More than 60 percent of classroom teachers report that students who have lost a parent or guardian exhibit: difficulty concentrating in class; increased withdrawal and absenteeism; poorer quality of work and grades.
With statistics like these, it’s no wonder that childhood grief remains a lingering phenomenon. For my children and others like them with no lasting memories, there is no salve for a love unremembered except hope.
And hope is something all grieving children need to experience. Hope breeds resilience and helps create meaning and purpose after loss.
Check out some of the resources being offered on Children’s Grief Awareness Day so that you can bring hope to a grieving child on November 16 and during the holidays that follow, times that are known to trigger sadness and longing.
There is no right or wrong way to support the grief process. It is the acknowledgment of grief that matters, and the compassion and empathy you show to children who have experienced loss. Be present.
Remember, hope can be expressed in the simplest of ways—a special handshake, a pancake breakfast, an encouraging phone call. You might even try something my children taught me so many years ago in the months following Brett’s death. While trying to place where their Daddy might be, they came to the conclusion all on their own that just as the sky is everywhere, so, too, is his love. That’s an enduring thought.
Nancy Sharp is the award-winning author of the memoir Both Sides Now: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Bold Living and a picture book for children and families called Because the Sky is Everywhere, available in English and Spanish. She holds a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and is widely published in national media including The New York Times. As a keynote speaker, Nancy presents to groups and businesses nationwide about resilience and growth after loss. Learn more at www.NancySharp.net.