Following the death of our dog Leila, my son began to carry around an 8×10 laminated photograph of her and himself as an infant. This Leila preceded to join us on many adventures, as the real Leila had done before her. She provided a wonderful comfort to my son during a very difficult time, as he dealt with many changes including two moves, processing his first experience with death, and a brand new school. Tumultuous times for anyone, let alone a three-year-old child. Charlie has always been very inquisitive and very communicative, so we weren’t surprised when he had many questions surrounding the loss of his beloved best friend. What did surprise us was his insistence that he wanted Leila to come back from the earth. He was adamant about her coming back to him, and my helplessness left me heartbroken.
Determined to provide him some connection to Leila, I brought her back the only way I knew how. I began to recite him stories at bedtime, some from memories and also new exciting adventures that they hadn’t had the chance to go on while she was alive. I told him of the days before we brought him home, and how Leila had waiting anxiously for a change she knew was coming. How protective she had been of mommy’s belly, and how excited she was when we presented our miracle baby. She had resigned from my protective detail in that very moment, and taken immediately to her new ward.
She relished her new role as big sister and never left his side. Nanny, pillow, comforter, cleanup crew, personal trainer, and protector, she was his everything, and he was hers. As Charlie grew so did their bond. She would be his “horsey”, and he would “read” to her. He would study the world around him with Leila, his resolute guardian. As with any sibling relationship, the pair were thick as thieves. If she wasn’t aiding and abetting his curiosity born crime sprees, she was tattling on him to mommy and daddy. The two had been inseparable.
The stories helped, as did the pictures. At four-years-old, Charlie now spins his own tales of the adventures that Leila goes on from her new home in the earth. He will tell you she has now been joined by my mother’s dog Sasha. He will tell you of all the fun they are having, and how Leila is doing a great job making sure that Sasha does not feel lonely. It had been weeks since he shed a tear over missing her, until today.
Today he took to the playground in search of kids he could wrangle for an exhilarating treasure hunt. He found two willing participants, and he was having a blast. Both older girls, maybe 7 and 10, they seemed enamored with his enthusiasm. I spotted the father, and made my way over to the bench to make small talk. He introduced himself, and the family’s newly adopted dog. Luna was a black lab mix with attentive but floppy ears and a powerful wagging tail. Only three days into her life with her new family, she oscillated between anxiety and exuberance. The girls flooded over to tell me all about their new puppy with Charlie on their heels. The father restrained Luna, as she bounded forward towards Charlie. While I very much appreciated his attentiveness, I explained that Charlie had grown up since birth with two Saint Bernards. He seemed immediately relieved, as he loosened his grip on her collar.
The gleeful shrieks and giggles that followed as Luna licked his face nearly brought me to tears, as did the fleeting painful stare that followed. For a just a moment he was somewhere else. I almost interjected, but one of the girls had grabbed his hand. In an instant he was back and chasing after her towards the swings. He had not made that sound since the last time he played with Leila. I understood in that moment that her death had indeed changed him. We sometimes overlook the impact these events have on our children. Although I had done my best to cushion the blow and tried to help him process his grief, I still had viewed it with a different lens and gave it less weight than one might view adult grief.
A few minutes later we said our goodbyes and started down the path by the lake leading back to the parking lot. Charlie was quiet and seemed preoccupied with the lake and its would be fisherman sitting patiently on the banks. When I turned to check on him again he was several yards behind me. He had stopped walking, and the light that had danced across his eyes moments earlier was gone. I walked back to him, sweeping him up in my arms. “Are you ok, my bear?,” I asked though I already knew.
“I miss Leila, Mommy. I really miss her,” he struggled through tears.
“I know, honey, I miss her to.”
“I miss her more, Mommy. I miss her more than you do,” he argued.
“I know you do, Bear.”
A minute passed, as I held him close, powerless to heal his sorrow. I carried him over to the bench by the lake. We sat for a time in silence, as I willed the pain to leave him. One of a first few, in what I’m sure will be a lifetime of, hurts I cannot save him from.
Once he had gathered himself, I reminded him of the stories we had told in the months just after she passed. Some of which I have made into picture books, using photographs of the two of them.
“Tonight Mommy, can you read me the Leila story about when I came home?
“Of course Charlie, I would love to read that story with you.”
And now, I sit here as he sleeps. His laminated Leila photo is propped next to his picture book, Leila’s New Role, his hand resting on the binding. She will remain his resolute guardian, steadfast and unwavering, even from her place in the Earth.
Wishing you all PEACE, LOVE, & BABY DUST.