3 Year Old Grief and a Treasure Chest

One minute Arlynne was here, serving God, and the next she was gone. There was no warning. No premonition. There were also no long hours spent at the hospital while her life hung in the balance. She went from life to paradise in a split second. I like to think that there were angels who grabbed her by the hands and lifted her off the ATV she was driving before she even realized that it had gone wrong. The worst of it, I suppose, was that it happened 17 hours north of where we were. Far away. So far away that even I, her mom, had a hard time believing it. But it was true. And it hurt.

The night we discovered the awful, heart-wrenching truth, we had already put our 3 1/2 year old twins to bed. They had been asleep for hours when my husband, Pete, heard that quiet knock at the door. The older kids were up for the news but the twins slept in oblivion. It is hard to imagine that we had so many people come through our door during the immediate hours following our daughter’s death and yet they stayed asleep. Another taste of Grace.

The next morning, I think they woke up as usual. I am not sure. I had spent a night tossing and turning and I honestly don’t remember. What I do remember is an over-whelming helplessness about what to tell them. How do you tell a 3 year old brother and sister that their sister, who they hadn’t seen in over 3 weeks, was never coming home again? I said nothing. Kids are pretty intuitive. They must have figured out that something was up pretty soon. There were too many tears. Too many people coming in and out of our home. Food arriving early. Daddy was home but not sleeping (he worked the night shift). A change in schedule.

Later that day, Karissa, our almost 18 year old, told us that Sarina had asked how Jesus had taken Arlynne to Heaven. She knew. How could she not?

My wonderful nieces arrived. They were going to take over for the week. I was honestly so surprised by their willingness to help but they stepped in, showing up when we needed them most. They tried to feed them, care for them. It was no easy task. Not only were there a pair of 3 year olds, there was also a very upset 9 year old who was having her own struggles. Nathan and Sarina were thrust into an environment that they weren’t accustomed too, even though their cousins were great and were doing the best they could. They just weren’t their mom.

That time was very busy. Making plans, arrangements. Dealing with the beginning of grief. Or rather the shock of it. This wasn’t even grief yet. It would follow later. I needed someone or ones to step in the gap and look after these little people in our charge.

Nathan stopped eating that week. At best, you could get a few bites into him, here and there, but nothing substantial. He never did eat well. Now it was worse. He was also not toilet-trained. I had tried but he just wasn’t ready. I knew the time was coming quickly for him to start school and he needed to be trained but it just hadn’t happened yet. The next few weeks taught him the fine art of bladder control. He wasn’t doing it in the toilet but he was holding his urine for hours and would ask if his caregiver could change his diaper as soon as he voided. I guess it was his feeble attempt at control in a big, uncontrollable world.

Sarina was different, as usual. I am pretty certain she didn’t eat that week either. None of us did. The food arrived, blessing us immensely, but I had less than no appetite and it was just so busy. Who needed food? Who needs food when someone you love is gone? It gives you an ache in the pit of your stomach that nothing can take away.

I grew up with a lovely woman at church who had buried her teenage son just a few years before our Arlynne died. She was a youth worker (counsellor) in our public school board. I called her home the same evening we found out about Arlynne. This woman came. She organized cleaning of our house. She helped with funeral arrangements. She acted as a go-between my ex-husband, Arlynne’s dad, and myself. We needed someone who had walked the path we were walking and God was so faithful in sending this woman. So VERY faithful.

Tracy was with us, driving our truck, the night we went out to the funeral home to finally see our daughter. She had travelled all the way from Thunder Bay to Toronto and now she was finally here. Seeing her was one of the moments in my life that I will never forget. I never realized that she looked like me until I saw her laying in that beautiful wood box. She was dressed in one of the only dresses she had ever owned as a teenager. We had found it on one of our last shopping trips together. The north hadn’t been good to her in one way–she was covered in bug bites, barely concealed by make-up. She looked old. She didn’t look like her.

I was 11 years old when my dad’s dad died, my grandpa. He was the first person close to me to die. My parents gave my brother and I a lot of options. We got to choose to go to the funeral. My brother and I chose to stay with our younger cousins with their aunt. We did go to the visitation but I just couldn’t go over and look at my grandpa. It has been hard, over the years for me to get over that. I have since lost my other grandfather, both my grandmothers, and close aunts but I never really got comfortable with seeing my loved ones after they had abandoned this earthly “shell”.

Seven months before Arlynne died, my dad’s mom died. She was in her 90s. She lived about 2 hours away and we didn’t get to see her much but we went to the funeral. She was in a funeral home in a very small western Ontario town and the room was shaped like a huge “L”. It was so big a room that the great-grandkids were actually playing in the room that the casket was in. To make matters even more unusual, my youngest cousin on that side of the family works as an undertaker. She would go over, completely comfortable, adjusting Grandma’s hair or outfit. My kids were there. They saw it.

Now it was our turn, once again, to stand beside the casket of someone we loved. I was holding Sarina as I just couldn’t stand there any more. I had to touch her, I had to touch my baby. My daughter, who I had nursed. My daughter, who had served with such passion. My Arlynne. It was when I touched her hand that I really felt like I knew it was her. The face was not quite right but I would know the feel of her hands anywhere.

Sarina was watching. She wanted to touch Arlynne too. I turned to Tracy. I didn’t know what to do. But I let her. Sarina reached out her little hand and touched her sister for the last time on this earth. She pulled her hand away and said “She’s cold”. We explained to her that Arlynne had hurt her head which made her heart stop which made her body cold. Simple truth. We told her that her body that we saw in front of us was just a shell. That her spirit, the part of Arlynne that made her Arlynne, was already in heaven with God. The kids never saw her again. We had a babysitter for the visitation and we had decided on a closed casket anyways.

The long trip home from the funeral home that night was surreal. I think both Pete and I were reeling. I know I was. Before that night I could tell any number of people that my daughter had died, and I had, but that night it became real. Too real. I remember sitting there as the boys, aged 3 and 11, argued about dinosaurs or robots or something equally “boyish”. Needless to say, my older son’s respite worker was at our home when we got there to give us a few minutes of peace. She truly blessed us more than we could say.

We had buried Arlynne the morning before the funeral with a smallish group of family and close friends. The twins were there but they saw only a beautiful wood box and a lot of flowers. As we finished the graveside service with an a cappella rendition of “It is Well With My Soul”, my dad and I walked away from Arlynne’s graveside, with Sarina in his arms and my hand on his elbow.

The 3 year olds were at the funeral. Nathan made it as long as it took to walk to our seats before a wonderful friend rescued us and removed him. Sarina made it through almost the whole thing. I have no idea what they remember about it. It will be 3 years ago tomorrow. Half their lifetime ago. So long ago and yet, like yesterday.

I suppose it is no surprise that our twins processed this experience so differently. Nathan is very matter-of-fact about it. He recently tried to correct me lately when I was asked how many kids I have. I answered as I always have (and will continue to), “6”. He looked and me and said that there was only 5 “cuz Arlynne was dead”. He also recently visited the cemetery with us and he stood a few feet back from Arlynne’s headstone and announced that he was standing on her. I think part of it is just his way. It doesn’t hurt me. He is right. Blunt, but right and we try to use every opportunity as a reminder to him that, yes, she isn’t here but she is in heaven and we will see her again when we get there ourselves.

Sarina was different. She rehearsed that little phrase we told her over and over again. “Arlynne hurt her head which made her heart stop which made her body cold”. I was almost afraid to take her anywhere least she horrify some poor uninformed soul with her “story”. It wasn’t until later that the “treasure chest” came into the picture. It was my mom who noticed it first. Sarina was talking about a treasure chest and we finally realized what she meant. We had buried Arlynne in a very big wooden treasure chest–her casket. It makes sense. When Pirates buried a treasure chest it was always filled with something very precious. Our treasure chest contained something far more valuable to us than gold or silver. It contained our beautiful daughter. I can’t think of a better way to process it. And all I needed was my 3 year old daughter to explain it to me.

One day that chest will be opened. Her body will be transformed and she will meet her Saviour in the air. I can’t wait to see them both.

Be Blessed…