Helping my son grieve the loss of a friend

Blue dragonfly on a green leaf

By Tanya Mozias Slavin
@tanya_slavin

Two years ago I was walking home with the two of them on either side of me, and Sadie was animatedly telling me about Yannai’s talking progress at school. My son Yannai suffered from Selective Mutism (a speaking anxiety), and his friend Sadie had voluntarily teamed up with the school counselor to help him progress up a “talking ladder.”

“…And our next step,” she explained with determination unseen in an eight-year-old, “is for Yannai to try and speak out loud to a group of five children on the playground.”

It’s from her that I’d get all of the updates about my son’s progress—my reluctant speaker unwilling to share even at home. And every time I was amazed by her use of the word “our”, as if it were her project too.

A year later, in large part thanks to her unwavering commitment, Yannai could finally speak confidently to the whole class. But Sadie was gone. Having suffered from a host of allergies her whole life, on a bright August afternoon she had a severe anaphylactic reaction and no amount of adrenaline shots could save her.

*

When I got the news we were visiting family in Israel for the summer. We had just spent a rare entirely screen-free week camping on the shore of the Mediterranean with a group of friends. After my digital detox, I came back to my phone, and the first thing that popped up was a WhatsApp message from my ex-husband, “Have you heard that Sadie passed away? Oh my god, what are we going to tell Yannai.”

I was in a bad dream. Surely his message was just a bunch of unfortunate typos. But my inbox confirmed it was no dream. An email from school detailed what had happened, and gave advice to parents on how to tell the children, and how they were going to deal with it at the beginning of the school year.

I decided to wait until we were back in England to tell Yannai. In the meantime, I quietly dealt with my own grief, struggling to accept the fact that this bright-eyed child will never sit in my front room again. For several torturous days I carried this news inside of me, mentally wanting to delay the moment when I’d have to tell him, when he would know with absolute certainty, that children—friends—could die too. How exactly could I break this news to a kid who already went to bed every night scared of death and dying to the point of tears and for whom my only consolation was that he was still young and nothing bad was going to happen to him. How would I tell him that a friend he loved dearly had disappeared from the face of the earth? I had no idea.

The girl who helped my son find his voice was gone. And now I was lost for words as to what to say to him and how to help him through his grief. It felt, strangely, like a betrayal on my part. A motherly failure to protect him from encounters with tragedy until he was much older.

“She died?” He got up from the couch facing the window and I could practically hear the heavy burden of this news pressing against his little chest. Because I didn’t feel I could deliver it to him without disintegrating into a sloppy mess myself, I asked for the help from the same school counselor who had worked with him and Sadie on Yannai’s speaking progress. On the last day of the summer holiday she sat on our couch and explained that Sadie accidentally ate something that her body couldn’t cope with.

The words he uttered after the initial shock broke my heart: “I always knew something bad was going to happen to someone I love, and now it did.”

*

At a campsite a few weeks later, children were telling scary stories by the fire and it was Yannai’s turn. “Once there was a girl” he began. “She went to a party, with her friends and family. She ate and drank there.” He paused for effect. “But. She had a dairy allergy and what she ate had milk in it.” An even longer pause. “And. She. DIED.” He paused again then added quietly what everybody already knows: “And that’s a true story. And I will always be sad about it because it was Sadie and she helped me speak.”

This is how my son handles grief in the months following her death, which is not how I imagined it at all. I expected a lot of strong emotions, perhaps night terrors, and also feared a complete shutdown. But neither of these things has happened. He talks about Sadie and her death willingly, and he acknowledges his sadness about it, but it all lives in a rational part of this brain, as if letting it into the emotional part would be too much to handle.

A week after Sadie died, her mother Clare posted a story on Facebook. They were in their backyard and a dragonfly came hovering around and around. Clare had long been wearing a dragonfly necklace as a symbol of their family. The blue dragonfly hovered and hovered, seemingly wanting to stay in the garden, and flew away only when Sadie’s older sister, who was going to a friend’s house, got up and waved “Bye Sadie!”

A blue dragonfly became the symbol of Sadie. Her favorite color was blue.

We start looking for blue and for dragonflies everywhere we go.

A blue dragonfly in the park. Hovering over the surface of the river. On our balcony. A blue dragonfly printed on the t-shirt of a lady in a book store.

We get a very blue ice-lolly to honor Sadie.

Blue dragonfly cupcakes are served at an event honoring Sadie’s life that her parents generously organize for all the children that lost her. There are tennis nets (because Sadie was the best 9 under UK tennis player), and Toy Story playing on the background (her favorite movie), blue dragonfly pins and blue dragonfly cupcakes. It looks like a child’s birthday party without the birthday child. At some point someone cries out—She is here! She is here! Sadie is here!—And we all run out into the garden and watch the dance of a single huge bright blue dragonfly up in the sky above us.

“Has Sadie really turned into a dragonfly?” Yannai asks one evening.

“Do you believe that she did?”

“Yes.”

We are about to move to Israel, to be closer to family, and on the last day of 5th grade (his first grade without Sadie) Yannai gets a goodbye card from his classmates. They wish him luck in his new school, promise to keep in touch and say they will miss him. Every other wish mentions Sadie in some form. Every other child’s signature is adorned with a dragonfly.

“Hope you like your new school! Remember, Sadie will always be with you!” says one of them.

“Have fun in Israel! And please do me a favor: show Sadie around!” says another.

In Israel, he will have to build his social life from scratch. Maybe his selective mutism will make a comeback in a new environment. Maybe not. He will have to find new friends. Learn to speak a new language. He is understandably worried about that.

“What if I don’t find friends?” he asks one evening.

“You will. Because you have great friends here.” I reply.

“How do you even make friends?” he insists.

“How did you make friends here?” I ask. Then add: “How did you become friends with Sadie?”

He pauses, then the worry disappears from his face and is replaced with a mischievous smile as he remembers: “At first we weren’t friends at all. But then one day in class we were sitting facing each other and listening to radio stories with headphones. Sadie started mouthing the words the actors were saying and it was just so funny I had to join her. We did it often after that: mouthing the words and making faces together.”

“You two are too funny.” I say, and immediately feel confident: he will find friends.

And when things get difficult—we will go looking for blue dragonflies.

Tanya Mozias Slavin writes, lives and watches dragonflies in Israel with her two children. She hopes that if you were touched by this story of friendship you will consider donating to Sadie Bristow Foundation, which was established by Sadie’s parents to raise awareness of allergies.

This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Friendship and Parenting.

Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here

Keep up with Motherwell on FacebookTwitterInstagram and via our newsletter