It was over a year ago now that our dear doggie, Vega, passed away. Surprisingly and fascinatingly, it is the littlest one of us, Maeve, who is still processing it most actively. She's four years old, which means Vega's death occurred one-quarter of her lifetime ago. And yet the event seems to be on her mind more often than it does for the rest of us. Or maybe it's just that, as such a young person, her emotions are closer to the surface so we see them more clearly.
As a mother, I find that, both in our culture in general and certainly in myself at times too, there's a jittery discomfort with children's sadness: an anxious need to fix it as quickly as possible, distract the child out of it, and assume it means something must be wrong with your caretaking. To sit and just BE with a little one's sadness - or rage, or anxiety, or fear - is a tall order. But I think that's often exactly what they need. Just to have a grown-up face them, take it all in, and not freak out. Not try to fix it. Let it be theirs.
So I fight my occasional urge to talk Maeve out of her sadness. She brings up Vega's name in conversation and gets our family to talk about her. She likes to decorate, shrine-like, the framed photo of Vega we keep on a side table. She will crawl up into my lap and announce, "I'm sad about Vega," get a cuddle and some comforting words, and then happily go back to playing. None of this happens terribly often, so I'm not worried she's obsessing. I'm happy that Maeve can work through the big sadness she experienced in such an open way and on her own time frame. It seems thoroughly healthy to me. And making space for it seems valuable not just to her own emotional health, but to all of ours. It's a little thread that this big-hearted girl weaves through our days, reminding the rest of us to be more present to our feelings.
All of which is to say that I wasn't particularly surprised when Maeve recently announced to me that she wanted to make a book about Vega, though I wondered what she had in mind. An imaginary story? A letter to Vega? A description of what Maeve remembers from the day Vega died?
I dutifully got out supplies: plain white paper, old magazines and tape, colored pencils, and a photo of Vega that I didn't mind if Maeve cut up. Maeve said she wanted to look for pictures of dogs in the magazines, so we searched. Luckily I had some O magazines in the pile because, let me tell you, there aren't a whole lot of dogs on the pages of Elle and Vogue! We collected six doggie pictures, and Maeve cut them out with her safety scissors.
With just two pieces of paper, we were able to make a book with a front and back cover, plus three double-page layouts inside, for six pages total (one for each dog). I just put one piece of paper on top of the other, folded them width-wise down the center, and stapled along the fold. I don't have a long-arm stapler, but Amy Karol's easy eraser trick (see it in this video) is awesome for when you want to fasten somewhere too far away from the edge of the paper to reach with a regular stapler.
Maeve did the cover first - taped the photo on and asked me how to write "Vega Died," the title she wanted. That just about broke my heart, but I managed to keep it together. Then she wrote proudly, "By Maeve."
Then she began taping the magazine cut-outs into the rest of the book, centering a dog on each page. Finally, she dictated the words she wanted me to write. It ended up being something of a love letter to Vega, telling her how much Maeve misses her and why, with details clearly prompted by the magazine pictures in that kind of murky-reality way that little ones are so comfortable with. This is what she said:
I miss you, Vega. I miss you, doggie. You were a good doggie. I wish you could still walk with me. I liked when you sometimes licked me. I like your footprints, Vega. I love you. Bye.
What I love most about this particular way Maeve expressed her sadness about Vega is that she made something. She wanted to and we did it, almost immediately. The whole process was like this great, easy channel through which she could metabolize whatever she was feeling. And afterwards, she proudly asked me to read it to her once, then put it away and moved on to something else.