When our friends left last week it came with a rush of emotion, especially for L. Tears flowed at the airport as we said our goodbyes and L told my friend, “If you leave, I will be so sad.”
We have been fortunate in that our lives have been pretty steady and we haven’t had to face much emotional distress. Our leaving the States was spread out over months so when L and I finally did leave it didn’t feel so much like a major event, rather a welcomed reunion with papai who we hadn’t seen for months.That said, when S’s father, Gido (grandfather in Arabic) passed away in March it hit us all very hard. L and I spent five weeks in Egypt with S’s family and it was the first time L had experienced such raw grief. They say toddlers are excellent at emphathy and our time there was testament to that. Every time Vovó (grandma in Portuguese) cried, L was there, climbing onto her lap to console and comfort her, patting her back and hugging her. I think it was the tears at the airport that brought all those emotions flooding back last week. As we pulled away from the airport, L talked about Chicago,airplanes, and missing friends. And after I got a little off track and had to do a roundabout return, L settled into a new line of questioning about Gido. “Mamãe, where is Gido? I want him to come back.” “Why did he die?” “When I grow up, I will die too and then I will go see Gido.” As I sped along the highway back to the city it was all I could do to keep myself together. When Gido passed, I read about the best way to explain death to toddlers–to keep it simple, to try not to focus too much on abstracts, rather concentrate on concepts they can understand. But this time my simple answers didn’t cut it. L wanted to understand what happened and why. I was totally unprepared with more sophisticated, yet simple answers. Finally, she seemed satisfied with my responses (or just gave up) and we talked about putting on popcorn and pajamas when we got home. That night, L woke up in a screaming fit, haunted by her first real nightmare (we had a small bout of night terrors about a year ago and while they were scary in the moment, at least she didn’t remember them when she woke up). This time she was terrified of mosquitoes and little things. Having seen a swarm of mosquitoes in front of the apartment earlier in the day, I understood where that came from but I had no idea what little things were and blew them off at the time. But this last week we have all been haunted by little things–shadows on the wall at night that reflect off the passing cars and between spaces in the shades. She has a palpable fear. Two nights ago we read There’s a Nightmare in my Closet and talked about making friends with the little things and Prudence’s Goodnight Book, which usually I find a bit too preachy but was exactly what I needed, and talked about how moms can scare away bad dreams and how you can choose good dreams and put them under your pillow. It worked, but by last night they were back. The real problem is that these aren’t dreams. The little things are there before she sleeps and they find ways to sneak under the creases of her covers on her bed and onto her hand, despite my best attempts at hanging blankets where the light creeps in. This, in addition, to a potty training regression has made for a tough week. L told us that if her best friend would just come back she would be all better. If only things in life were that easy. I know that these lessons are important life lessons, but it still doesn’t make it easier as your kid goes through them. As always, I thought I would have a lot more time before I had to tackle such parenting feats. Trying to strike the balance between acknowleding and validating fears and emotions and brushing them off in hopes they get past them is harder in practice. I find my first response is to try to make her happy and feel better in the moment, but as a wise friend once told me, it is important to let her feel sad too. The sadness of her friend’s leaving is passing, or will soon, but the nightmares/fears don’t seem to be. We tried the spray that worked on the monsters but L called us out on it. What have you done to confront night terrors? How do you help your kid deal with feelings of sadness and loneliness?