Death, Loss, and Traditions

This is going to be a long one, so settle in… 

Sawyer has been talking a lot about his Mamaw and Papaw lately. 

I have always been extremely family oriented; this was instilled in me my entire life by my parents and extended family. I grew up living near almost all my immediate family on my mom’s side of the family, and even though I don’t live close to most of my dad’s side, I’m blessed to be close with both sides of my family. As a result, holidays and family gatherings were always a big deal, with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins and a lot of times even a lot of extended family showing up to celebrate together. It was something I always looked forward to (and still do) about holidays and birthdays. 

After I got married and moved away from home, my parents made it a point to see us as often as possible. My ex-husband’s parents did, too, but they weren’t able to come as often as my parents because mine were retired. My kids knew that visits from Mamaw and Papaw meant lots of love, hugs, laughter, and being spoiled rotten with gifts and other treats. 

When my kids and I moved back to Missouri in 2016, my dad’s health was declining rapidly. He suffered from heart failure, COPD, and diabetes and all those conditions together broke him down quickly. He was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia and other ailments; we visited him often, and my sister and I took turns staying with him when he would be admitted. In his final months he also struggled with kidney failure, and spent two months in 2017 living in a nursing home before moving home in early December, and ultimately passing away right after Christmas of 2017. His death was a very traumatic event for me, my sister, and the kids. 

Sawyer was not here when my dad passed away (he was with his dad in Colorado), and he didn’t get to attend his funeral to say goodbye. At the time, he was only 4, and his speech and language were very delayed. When Sawyer came home, we were driving in the car one day and we went near the exit we used to take to visit my dad in the nursing home. Sawyer pointed to the exit and said “Papaw”. I looked at him in the rearview mirror and said “No, buddy, we can’t go see Papaw anymore. Papaw lives in the clouds with Jesus and the angels now.” He began to cry and kept repeating “Papaw!” and trying to point in the direction of that exit; I knew he didn’t understand, and I cried with him, not sure how to help him understand that Papaw was gone. My sister lives in my dad’s house, and for the first few times after my dad passed away and we visited, Sawyer would walk back to his bedroom to look for him. It would always make me so sad to see the sadness and confusion on his little face, and I’d always reiterate that Papaw lived in the clouds with the angels. After a little while, we were outside on a nice day and Sawyer pointed to the sky and said “Papaw” and then looked at me, as if for validation. I nodded and said “Yes, buddy, that’s where Papaw is.” After that day, he never asked for his Papaw again, and I knew he understood. 

After my dad passed away, my mom did everything she could to be the best Mamaw possible to the kids. She knew she couldn’t replace my dad, but she was always coming over to visit and hang out with us, and she traveled with us often. Sawyer loved to pick at my mom; she always carried a huge drink around with her (most of the time it was sweet tea!, and Sawyer loved to run up and “steal” her cup to get a drink. She’d pretend to be mad that he took it and he would just cackle. Sawyer isn’t always big on receiving hugs, but Mom would always pick him up and hold him tight, smooching all over his cheeks. He would rarely return the hugs and kisses, but he didn’t seem to mind letting Mom love on him. She joked that he’d be thinking “It’s just what Mamaw does”. Often he would bring my phone to me and say “Mamaw”, as his way of saying he wanted to talk to her or for me to invite her over, and I think in the last couple years of her life she was probably at our house for dinner at least 2 nights a week. 

Fast forward to Easter of 2021. My mom called that morning to tell me she’d be later than we had planned for Easter dinner. She said she had been sick all night and still wasn’t feeling that well. I told her to stay home and rest, but she refused; she wanted to see the kids get their Easter baskets. She came to Easter dinner and left a lot earlier than usual because she didn’t feel well. Two weeks later, she came over and complained of pain in her stomach and said she had still been sick. My sister and I started harping on her to go to the doctor and get checked out, so she did and tried a couple of different rounds of antibiotics before we told her she needed to go for testing. The antibiotics clearly weren’t working, so we told her she needed to demand that her doctor send her for scans. After almost 2 months of being sick, her doctor finally ordered some tests and we got the news no one wants to hear: Mom had cancer. 

Mom’s cancer journey was short and brutal. She found out on June 4th, 2021 that she had “malignant masses” spread throughout her body. It took her oncologist almost 2 months to find out exactly what kind of cancer it was, and finally we found out that she had stage 4 angiosarcoma, a very rare and aggressive cancer, and she ended up living with me and my kids in her final days. Sawyer was always trying to help her, asking if she needed anything to eat or drink, and offering her blankets to keep her warm as she rested in our recliner. The cancer took her fast, and in the end, Mom’s appearance scared Sawyer. The day she passed away, the hospice nurse had told us she had about 24 hours to live, so I told the kids they needed to come visit with Mamaw and say their goodbyes. The last time Sawyer saw Mom, she was so thin she looked almost skeletal, and he was too scared to hug or kiss her. He told her he loved her, and then ran out of the room crying. I didn’t force him to come back, because I didn’t want to traumatize him, and she ended up passing away just an hour later. 

A couple of weeks after Mom died, Sawyer came into the living room one evening and announced “Mamaw’s not sick anymore.” I said “No, she’s not, buddy… Isn’t that great?” He nodded and then continued “She doesn’t hurt anymore, either.” I nodded at him and smiled, and asked him how he knew that and she shocked me and his sisters when he said “Because she told me.” I had been expecting an answer like “Because she lives in the clouds with the angels now” or something similar, but his declaration that she had told him surprised all of us. We stared at him, and finally I asked “She did? When did she tell you that?” Sawyer explained that he had a dream the night before that he sat next to her on our couch and she hugged him and told him she was no longer sick and that she wasn’t in pain, and he shouldn’t miss her because she would always be with him, watching over all of us. We were stunned, but I nodded and said “That’s right, sweet boy… Mamaw and Papaw are always with us, even if we can’t see them.” 

Since then, Sawyer has seemed to deal with Mom and Dad being gone a lot better. Lately, though, he has been talking more about missing those we’ve lost and how we celebrate their memories. My mom passed just 8 hours after her big brother did on the same day in 2021, so it’s a very hard day for all of us and we like to be together on that day, if possible. Last year, our family went on a float trip down the river we camped on growing up to commemorate the 1st anniversary of my mom’s and uncle’s death. The first year after my dad passed, my mom, my sister and I got together with our children to launch balloons in his memory. We all wrote little notes to Dad on the balloons and then sent them off into the air “to heaven”. However, we haven’t done it since and apparently that has upset Sawyer; he recently asked me why we don’t celebrate Papaw’s memory like we do Mamaw’s. I explained to him that since Papaw died right after Christmas, life around that time is usually really busy and we are usually doing stuff for Christmas or New Year’s but that doesn’t mean we don’t still think about Papaw and miss him a lot. Sawyer said to me “Well I think we need to celebrate Papaw too”, and it got me thinking about how important traditions are to him, and how he processes death and loss. 

My heart tends to get very heavy in the later months of the year. Not only because Dad died right after Christmas, but because my head and heart are filled with memories and moments I can never get back with my parents. Thanksgiving and Christmas without your parents is a special kind of torture, and even though our extended family is amazing at including us in celebrating, I still find myself feeling like an orphan, and it’s incredibly depressing. I try very hard during this time of the year to put on a cheerful face for the kids, but I think in doing that maybe I have made them think that we shouldn’t grieve. Sawyer is highly emotional, which is a surprise to some because a lot of people think that those on the autism spectrum don’t show emotion. That’s definitely not true for Sawyer; he is very emotional as well as sentimental. Little things mean a lot to him, and I’ve learned over the last few years that he loves traditions. It makes sense, since he thrives on routine. He has made it clear over the last couple of months that he wants to do something special to remember his Mamaw and Papaw every year, and I think that is precious. I think this year we will create a new tradition- something we can do to remember them no matter where we are or what we’re doing. For my dad, maybe it will be baking his favorite cake (yellow cake with chocolate icing), and for my mom, maybe we will go for a drive to look for wildlife (Mom definitely instilled her love of the country life in me!). Either way, I know that doing something like that to honor their memory would be good for Sawyer.

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