The day my daughter’s father died, I debated whether or not to even tell her. Because she was just 5 years old, he was nothing more than a fantasy to my little girl. Neither of us had ever met him. I’d only spoken to him once myself — a phone call to discuss the adoption my daughter’s first mother had put in motion.
She was four months old at the time.
Over the years, my daughter’s questions about this man we never knew were minimal. I was never naïve enough to think it would always be that way, but we hadn’t yet reached a point where she seemed to recognize the loss involved in adoption.
So when I received the call about her father’s death while pulling into the state fair for what had been meant to be a fun mommy-daughter day, I panicked.
What was the protocol in this situation? Should I tell her right away and potentially ruin our plans? Or avoid telling her at all, saving her the confusion of having to mourn this man she’d never known?
He’s a stranger, I told myself, reasoning our way into the fair. She’s too young to understand death anyway.
I tried to ignore the knot in my stomach as my girl ate cotton candy and insisted on petting all the animals in the barn. But by nightfall, another thought had occurred to me. I realized that one day, my daughter would have questions about this man. She may even come to me wanting to meet him. And how tragic would it be for her to learn of his death only then, once she’d expressed a real interest in knowing him?
I had always approached our adoption with as much openness and honesty as possible, wanting it to simply be a part of her story she’d always known. I’d never wanted there to be any bombshell conversations or unspoken truths, nothing that could one day shake her entire sense of self.
This, I realized, could have that potential if I didn’t treat it in the same way I’d always treated everything else.
I decided she needed to know the truth. And anyway, how much could a little girl possibly grieve a man she’d never expressed much interest in?
It turns out, a lot.
“I decided she needed to know the truth. And anyway, how much could a little girl possibly grieve a man she’d never expressed much interest in? It turns out, a lot.”
That night, while tucking my daughter into bed, I told her there was something we needed to talk about. Sitting by her side, I pulled out the adoption book I’d made for her and I pointed to the only picture I’d ever been given of her biological father.
“Remember how we’ve talked about him before?” I asked.
She nodded and said his name.
“Well, I have sad news,” I said, before telling her about his loss.
I reminded her how much he had loved her, and reiterated what I’ve always said: that her first parents chose adoption because of that love. “I bet he’s looking down on you from heaven now,” I said, framing him as her very own guardian angel.
That night, that conversation ... it seemed to be enough. There were no tears, and she didn’t have many questions. She didn’t even want to talk about it much beyond that. While I was sure it would come up again at some point in the future, I was also pretty convinced we were done with this conversation for now.
I was wrong.
Over that weekend, the tears came. “I don’t have a daddy anymore,” my little girl cried the very next day.
I was confused. She’d never really had a daddy, as I’d adopted her on my own. But I didn’t want to question her grief. So instead, I just held her and let her cry.
I thought those tears would subside soon enough, but they continued for months. At school. In choir. Even with strangers we met on the street.
“My daddy died,” she’d say to anyone who would listen. Kids would nod while their parents looked up at me with pity in their eyes.
How could I explain in those moments that it wasn’t what she was making it out to be? That this “daddy” she kept referring to had never been a father to her at all, and certainly wasn’t anything to me.
I didn’t need their pity, and I didn’t feel it was especially warranted for her either. Didn’t she have a good life, after all?
The kicker came at Christmas. I’d taken her to see Santa, and watched from a safe distance as she whispered her wishes into his ear. I couldn’t hear a thing she was saying, and I suppose I was too focused on taking pictures to recognize the seriousness upon her face.
Moments later, Santa stood with her and walked toward me, enveloping me in a hug.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your husband,” he said. “I’ll be praying for you both this holiday season.”
I stood there, stunned.
“Oh, I’m not ... no ... he wasn’t,” I stammered. But I couldn’t find the words, especially not with my little girl standing right there.
Eventually I just nodded.
In the car she explained that she’d told Santa her daddy had died, and had then proceeded to ask him for a new one. And I realized then that at least part of this was about grieving never having a father at all, far more so than grieving this specific man she’d never met.
It wasn’t just about explaining the absence of that father figure to her friends, it was about understanding that absence herself.
“I realized that at least part of this was about grieving never having a father at all, far more so than grieving this specific man she’d never met.”
I’d always been happy with the structure of our family. While I was open to the idea of finding love, it had just never happened for me. But my daughter and I were close and had always shared a bond tighter than anything I could even explain. I’d believed that was enough.
Until she started mourning the man who’d never been.
After that, I made an appointment with a child therapist. We had only one visit. The therapist told me everything my daughter was doing and saying was normal, that this was just her way of processing. She said I was doing everything right too, and that I should keep letting my girl explore these big feelings on her terms.
So, I did. Or at least, I tried to.
But as the months wore on, and the mentions of her “dead daddy” continued, I grew increasingly uncomfortable. She wasn’t talking about it when it was just the two of us anymore, and there were times I even convinced myself she’d moved on. But then every time she was upset about anything, every time she wanted her way or felt she wasn’t getting enough attention from a friend, the waterworks would turn on and her grief would return. Full force. Vocally and with dramatics that started to feel more for show than anything.
I began to think she liked the attention she got for having a dead daddy. And my discomfort regarding that, perhaps even my resentment about it, increased.
Our breaking point came the day she turned a play date with a friend into a memorial. Nearly nine months had passed, but here she was building a cross and staking it into the ground, trying to convince her friend to mourn alongside her.
I felt awful when this little girl started crying, telling us about the uncle she’d recently lost. I called her mom and apologized for the macabre game my daughter had introduced and the big feelings I was sending her daughter home with.
The mother understood, saying she’d just been thinking about her brother-in-law herself.
What they were dealing with was real grief. Real loss. They were mourning the absence of a person who had actually been in their lives. And I started to feel even worse about the performance theater I felt my daughter had turned her loss into.
I was embarrassed and frustrated. While I’d never said anything, I didn’t like that my little girl kept referring to this man as “daddy.” I didn’t like that she kept bringing him up in places and situations where it didn’t seem to fit. I wished she would keep this grief between us, instead of spreading it to everyone she met.
Her mourning of this loss hit at some of my deepest insecurities in motherhood: that I wasn’t enough. That I’d never be able to fill the holes left by adoption. And her grief over this man who had never been left me feeling guilty about the father I’d never been able to give her.
That was the truth of it.
But eventually, it hit me: This wasn’t about me. And the more I tried to make it about me, the less able I was to help her.
“I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. I only knew it was time I stop focusing on how her grief made me feel, and to instead let her know I was listening.”
Perhaps her increasing dramatics were the result of my brushing her grief aside.
I realized this wasn’t the first time she’d tried to rope friends into building a memorial to her dad. Maybe she needed somewhere physical to mourn him?
Visiting his actual grave wasn’t an option — he’s buried in a remote Alaskan village hundreds of miles away with no roads in or out.
But maybe there was something else I could do.
“Baby,” I said, after her friend had gone home. “Let’s pick some flowers, I want to take you somewhere.”
She didn’t ask questions. Picking flowers was one of her favorite pastimes anyway. And once she was buckled into her seat, handpicked bouquet in her lap, she seemed excited about whatever surprise adventure I had up my sleeve.
I drove her to a cemetery.
When we got out, I explained that the cemetery is where people are buried when they die; it’s where people go to grieve and talk to their loved ones once they’re gone. “Your dad isn’t here,” I explained. “But I was thinking if you want, we could pick a grave to pretend is his. Then we could visit it together whenever you’re feeling sad.”
I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing. I only knew it was time I stop focusing on how her grief made me feel, and to instead let her know I was listening.
She didn’t ask questions, offering only a simple nod before she started slowly moving among the headstones. Eventually, she landed upon a spot without any flowers at all, kneeling down and meticulously arranging the ones she’d brought.
I stood at a distance and allowed her this space.
Part of me worried. What if the family members of this person arrived and wondered what we were doing at their loved one’s grave? Was there anything about what we were doing that might be construed as inherently offensive, either to the dead or those still living?
I leaned against a tree and watched my little girl as I pondered the merits of this choice. But that was when I noticed how respectful she was being. How, for the first time in a while, her grief didn’t seem like a performance. It seemed real. And being here, in this space — it seemed to give her something I hadn’t been able to before.
An opportunity to truly honor her feelings.
I hadn’t realized how much I had been making her grief about me until I stopped. But leaning back against that tree, I saw it: my little girl trying to work through complicated dynamics and feelings she’s still too young to fully understand.
This is just the beginning of the big feels and hard conversations about adoption we have ahead. But I’m hoping I can remember the lesson I’ve learned in this: That she doesn’t need me clouding her feelings by projecting my own insecurities upon them.
She just needs me to listen, and to give her a soft place to land when I can.
This time around, that soft place just so happened to be a stranger’s grave.
Leah Campbell is a writer and editor living in Anchorage, Alaska. A single mother by choice after a serendipitous series of events led to the adoption of her daughter, Leah is also author of the book ”Single Infertile Female” and has written extensively on the topics of infertility, adoption and parenting. You can connect with Leah via Facebook, her website and Twitter.