Feb. 3, 2015 – The sun beat down on our backs as we knelt in the warm grass, numb and staring through tears into the dark cavity of earth that lay before us, at the silver urn resting inside.
A shudder at my side drew my attention into two wide eyes brimming with heartache, trying to understand this loss. My boy.
Just one year earlier, he had stood at the same gravesite and watched as the ashes of his 25-year-old uncle were lowered into the ground. Alex had fallen from an escalator and spent 10 harrowing days in ICU at the Foothills Hospital before drawing his last ragged breath.
It had been difficult for a four-year-old to comprehend. Not only was death an unfamiliar, foreign concept, but Uncle Alex had enjoyed a busy life and was only present at family dinners and holidays. Saying he was gone forever was an intangible reality.
But this year was different.
This was Uncle Ty Ty. His Big Buddy.
Just one year after losing his brother, Tyler collapsed at work, the victim of a heart attack caused by a then-undiagnosed heart condition with which he had been born.
He was 30 years old.
For five-year-old Christian, the loss struck a devastating blow.
Uncle Ty had always held a special place in the heart of his only nephew. He had lived three blocks away when Christian was born in Lethbridge, and frequented our house for home-cooked meals whenever he needed to ditch the student diet. The two formed a tight bond.
Christian admired his uncle, and raved about how funny and crazy he was.
So when he looked into that gaping hole the ground, and realized that the six-foot tall teddy bear had been reduced to the contents of a one-foot silver urn, the truth cast a shadow on his life.
The look of pure desolation and hopelessness on his innocent face etched itself on my mind’s eye, and will haunt my memory forever.
In the days that followed, exciting things happened for Christian. He began kindergarten, the bright red cast that had hindered the last half of his summer holiday was removed from his arm, and he started swimming lessons.
But that shadow lurked at every turn. If he heard Lynyrd Skynyrd sing Free Bird, he would dissolve into silent tears. It was the song used in the slideshow that played at the funeral and will forever be labelled as “Uncle Ty’s song.”
My heart broke for him on a daily basis. I wondered how the world could be cruel enough to subject my children to these overwhelming losses at such young ages. There were people my own age that had never experienced grief – but my kids had already mourned twice in one year.
Not a day went by that I didn’t ache for my son, or question how long it would take for his little heart to mend. I still struggled to fill the black holes formed by loss with the beautiful sunshine of memory. I could not imagine how difficult it was for a child to cope with grief.
But I was pleasantly surprised. After two weeks, Free Bird elicited a smile. He looked at me one day and said, “I like listening to this song, Mommy. Because it makes Uncle Ty Ty come back.”
He proudly chose a frame at the store that reads “Friends,” and placed a photo inside: a picture taken at Mother’s Day, three months before we lost Tyler, of the two of them sitting on a branch in my parents’ back yard. Christian is gripping his uncle’s arm and grinning widely, proud to be sitting in a tree with his Big Buddy.
Now, almost three years later, he speaks freely about his uncle. He will say things like, “I wish Uncle Ty Ty didn’t have to die, but I know he’s my guardian angel.”
Or, “When I see my uncles again, I’m going to be as tall as they are.”
Remarkably, he has helped me through my own grieving process. I find strength in my boy, in hearing his courageous and insightful words, in seeing him heal.
My son’s grief educated me, taught me true strength. I only wish he could have learned this lesson later in life.
But he will forever be resilient, sensitive, and understanding. He will always know never to take a moment for granted. He will always cherish everything that he has, and everyone who he loves.
Because grief is fleeting, but its effects last a lifetime.