On Wednesday afternoon, when Donny and the girls got home, I could tell something was wrong. Stella was holding back tears.
“What’s wrong?” I asked leaning down.
“Her friend’s mom died,” Zoë stated matter-of-factly.
“What?” I asked, looking up.
“She did,” Zoë said loudly, her eyes wide.
Donny nodded, his lips pursed.
Stella handed me the note from her school. The mother of Stella’s friend—her classroom buddy—had died suddenly, inexplicably. (Stella’s class is a 1st– 3rd grade classroom, and all first graders are matched with an older buddy to help them along, encourage them.)
“Oh honey,” I said, sitting down on the love-seat on the porch, opening my arms to my daughter, feeling like I was punched in the gut. “I’m so sorry.”
The tears came then, and didn’t stop for a long time. “Are you sad for your friend?”
Stella nodded. “I just feel so bad for her, Mom. I just feel so sad for her.”
I rubbed her back, breathed in the scent of leaves in her hair. “I know, Honey. It’s so, so sad.”
Finally, I asked her whether she was worried that might happen to me. I was, after all, the same age as her friend’s mother: 40 years old. She hugged me more tightly, wouldn’t let go, as if she could somehow keep me safe, keep us safe.
I brushed the hair from her eyes. “This is very unusual,” I said. And though I can’t promise this, I said, “I want you to know that I’m not going anywhere.”
“But it happens every three years,” she said, weeping. I had almost forgotten that when Stella was in first grade, her third-grade buddy had also lost her mother suddenly.
“It’s just not fair,” she said then, and I hugged her more tightly.
“I know, sweetie.”
We went out trick or treating later that night, and there were more tears. On Thursday she went to school with a heavy heart, and I sat at home, finishing edits on the memoir, my own heart breaking for her friend and her friend’s family.
Stella and I went to the visitation on Thursday night. Stella’s friend was thrilled to see her, ran up and gave her a big hug. I was so glad we went. But the evening was full of raw grief. Stella sat nervously next to me as family members shared memories, cried, laughed a little. When we finally got back in our car, the tears she had been holding in for the last hour spilled out. Why hadn’t her friend been crying? Was so this so much sadder than when Great-Gahgee died?
Great- Gahgee, my grandpa, Spencer, died a year and a half ago. There were tears at his memorial service, certainly, but there was also a lot of laughter. We were celebrating his long—102 years!—life. I explained that it’s different when someone dies too young, when they aren’t done living. “Great-Gahgee decided it was time to go. He made that choice, and he’d had an amazing, long life.”
Bedtime was rough that night, her sadness for her friend consuming her. I held her tightly. We talked about how her friend’s emotions might go up and down, how she might be really sad some days, but not others. We talked about how unfair it was.
My job is to just to be here for my daughter, to be patient with her as she works her way through her own sadness and fear. I’ll hold her tight and talk and listen and let her know it’s okay to cry. We’ll make a meal for her friend’s family. We’ll invite her friend for a play date. And each night, I’ll hold my daughter close and tell her how much I love her, how proud I am of the kind of friend she is. And I hope that’s enough.