My wife and I dropped our daughter off at preschool, then drove to the hospital for our 20-week amniocentesis. Seventy-two days later, my wife returned home.
My wife almost died. Twice. Our amniocentesis spread an undetected, pre-existing intrauterine infection throughout her bloodstream. Within 24 hours, this life-threatening complication, diagnosed as Sepsis, shut her whole body down. The pregnancy had to quickly be terminated in order to give Liz a chance at survival, and still, her white blood count spiked, kidneys failed, lungs filled with fluid, platelets dropped, the list goes on... To stabilize her, the doctors put her on a respirator and rushed her to the ICU where she laid, sedated and unconscious.
As the weeks passed, days without good signs seemed to outnumber those with hope. After one full month, just when we thought she had turned a corner and might respond, she suffered a stroke -- and was moved from the ICU into the Neuro-ICU. It was terrifying. Her body's slow push through this massive illness was echoed by my brutal repetition of days at home, guiding my daughter (and pushing myself) through this terror.
I barely maintained the adrenaline-fueled strength to navigate through the days and it was even tougher to process the emotional horror. I didn't know how to communicate this trauma to our 3-year-old daughter, nor did I know if she'd ever see her mom again. Every morning after I'd drop her off at school, before I'd head off to the hospital, I'd trade updates for advice with the school's director. Her insights and guidance were crucial. Without this advice, I do not think we'd have ever made it through.
I know I am not alone in suffering through a family illness, absence of a partner or a monumental trauma. So, I am sharing this advice I was given, in the hopes that it will help others going through a long absence of a partner due to illness, deployment, divorce or death while caring for a young child.
1. Be honest, share the basics.
There was no way to keep this under wraps, but I had no clue what my daughter could (or should have to) handle. Unsure that even I could handle what my wife was going through, my gut instinct was to not share the horror playing out at the hospital. But I was keenly aware that she already knew about my grave concerns. Just a year earlier, my wife and I had lost another pregnancy in our 26th week. While we diligently tried to shield the tragedy from our daughter, she saw through our facade and was noticeably disturbed for months. As her teacher then wisely said, "kids know when their grown-ups are sad." But what was I to do with this understanding now?
"Share the basics, share what she needs to know right now," the director at her school reassuringly guided me. So, that first afternoon, I sat Lucia down over an afternoon snack and told her I wanted to discuss something. I said, "Mommy didn't feel well today. She had a stomach ache and a fever and she went to the doctor. Doctors make us feel better. She's going to stay with the doctors until she feels better." To my amazement, her wide blue eyes were dry, and she accepted it as fact. This was the start of our journey of trust together.
2. Keep the absent person present in discussions.
As weeks went on, a close friend, who had recently gone through a divorce, also shared some advice. Just the absence of a parent in the house can be very disconcerting -- and make the child quite uncomfortable. "Try to involve the idea of the absent partner in conversation, even if they're not right there." She said.
Is this the outfit that you and Mommy bought together?
Mommy loves kale chips too. Want some more?
Mommy knows all the words to this song, doesn't she?
The more that we could discuss Mommy, and keep her present in our minds, the better we felt. Speaking of her in these contexts helped me, too. It was a blessing to visualize her as we remembered, not as she currently looked in the hospital.
3. Create perspective about the illness in conversation.
Visiting the pediatrician and dentist can be unnerving enough for a 3-year-old. The last thing we wanted to do was attach the anxiety of this event to a normal checkup routine that she'd have the rest of her life. The director at the school guided me to illustrate the difference in Mommy's current illness from routine doctor visits. When my daughter asked, "Why's it taking a long, long time?" I'd respond, "Because Mommy was very, very, very sick. Much more then when you or I have a stomach ache. But the doctors are helping her feel better." The more 'very-s,' the better.
4. Make a list.
Every week in a 3-year-old's life is filled with events, artwork, playdates and new experiences. To tell Dad is one thing, but telling Mommy holds a special place in every child's heart. We started a list. "Let's write it down. We'll make a list of funny things to tell Mommy when she comes home."
5. Share your emotions, especially the positives.
"Lu," I often said, "I'm sad. I miss Mommy." Not only did this admission validate what she was feeling, but it bridged an emotional gap, so we could connect and discuss. It's not something I'd ever imagined we'd share at this early stage of her life. "Me too. It's taking such a long, long time. I miss Mommy," she'd respond. We slowly developed an ability to vocalize, to be open and to share the pain. As much as family and friends were there for us, the only person who would understand the day-to-day void left at home was my daughter.
I was also encouraged to share the positives. On days when it seemed Elizabeth's white blood cell count was trending in the right direction, I'd say, "Lucia, I feel great today, do you know why?" and we'd discuss it. "The doctors told me good news and Mommy's getting better." It allowed us to celebrate the small accomplishments that surrounded Elizabeth's recovery from near-fatal Sepsis.
6. We're not out of the woods yet, but we'll get there.
Elizabeth has been home for a few months and her determination to regain her strength has been awe-inspiring. When she first awoke in the hospital, her muscles had atrophied so tremendously that she could barely move her fingers. Being able to sit up took weeks. Lunch consisted of me feeding her thickened water by the spoonful. After a painstaking month on the rehab floor, she came home, in a wheelchair, exhausted but delighted. A couple of weeks ago, she was able to lift our daughter again for the first time.
Sadly, she recently suffered a series of seizures, most likely related to her stroke. The first was at home right in front of Lucia and me. Elizabeth started seizing, fell to the wood floor hitting her head, and shook violently. Blood pooled around her. Elizabeth was rushed to the ER by a team of paramedics and Lucia witnessed another massively traumatic event. This time, however, it was apparent how Lucia's emotional and cognitive depth had grown. She told our nanny, "I'm not sad that my mommy was in the hospital again. I just feel bad that my mommy hurt herself." Elizabeth was back home in a week, and we're all together again.
This post originally appeared on EveryMotherCounts.org