My Darling Sophie,
We parents do this thing where we raise our children, teach them, and then are surprised by how well you learn all the things we've exposed you to. You and I are no exception to this. You've grown up so quickly. Whenever I stop and think about your beautiful heart and your awesomely curious mind, I'm always amazed. I guess I expect you to be little forever.
This last Sunday you asked me a question that you had never asked me before. Do you remember what it was? You asked me how Daddy Sean died.
I knew that you would ask me this question one day. I hadn't even been dreading it. I guess I thought the setting would be a little bit more formal than an ordinary Sunday afternoon on the couch watching the NFL playoffs. Even the Seahawks unbelievable comeback couldn't distract me from your question; you had my full attention and I could tell that I had yours too.
Gosh, you’re 4 years old now, and ever since you can remember, we've talked about Daddy Sean. You know that before you were born, Daddy Sean died. You say that you know this means that he stopped moving and didn't wake up anymore. You believe, like I do, in Heaven, and that Daddy Sean lives there with Jesus now. I know you've seen photographs of me with Daddy Sean on vacations, at football games, and at our wedding, but that you've never seen any pictures of Daddy Sean with you, and well, that’s because they don't exist. You’ve asked me before why Daddy Sean isn’t here anymore, but until now, my answer of "Well, honey, Daddy Sean was very sick for a long time and his body couldn’t get better anymore, so he died,"
You asked me how Daddy Sean died, so I attempted to explain cancer to you, a child, which you know, feels like an impossible task. I don't understand cancer, sweet girl. I don't understand how it starts or how it spreads or how it smartens up and fights back. I don't understand why some people are more susceptible to it while others are more resilient. I don't understand why young people suffer from it. I don't understand why we can't just make it all go away. Don't get me wrong, I know about cancer. I know as much about it as someone who is a caregiver for three years can know (which is a lot, in case that’s not clear), but sweetheart, knowing about something and understanding it aren't always the same thing.
Your desire to understand has always been so clear. It's one of your fiercest personality traits, and sometimes you and I butt heads over it. I've always known that you would want to understand this, and while we talked, it was as if I could see the gears working in your mind while you tried to sort it all out.
"Did he eat something?"
"Well how did it make him sick?"
At 4 years old, your firsthand experience with illness has mostly been in the form of the stomach flu. As you try to understand why your body is reacting the way it does when you've eaten something that doesn't agree with you, I try to explain to you how food poisoning works.
"You ate something that was yucky and it made your body sick."
I explained to you that Daddy Sean's cancer started inside his body and sometimes people can get better from it, and sometimes they can't.
That was the end of your questions. Forget a penny, child, I would have paid a million dollars to know what was going on inside your head at that moment. You weren't upset and you didn't ask anything else. You went right back to eating your snack and watching the game with me.
This was the first time you had asked how. Before this, you had only asked what. Heaven help me when you start to ask why.
As parents, we are faced with a thousand different options and choices on how to raise our kids. You'll understand this someday when you're a mommy. Talking to my children about their dead parent, though, isn't a choice that I feel like I had. It's something that I view as a responsibility because I want you to know everything about what helps make you, you. I hope you know that I want you to be curious about this and that I want you to ask questions.
I know that there will be many versions of this same conversation in our future. I know that it will take a long time for you to understand what happened to Daddy Sean. Except, I feel that I can't ever really be prepared for my 4-year-old to ask me how her father died. It's just not something you ever get used to answering, so try to be patient and understanding with your imperfect mother, because I really am trying my best here.
I know that there are probably questions in your mind you haven't asked me. Maybe because you don't know how to ask or because you aren't sure you'll like the answers. I want you to know that it's okay to be confused, feel scared or sad. A lot of the time, I feel that way too. But don't be that way for too long, sweet girl. I'll always be as honest as possible with you without being frightening.
Someday, you will know all of the raw details about what happened. It was a very traumatic experience for me. But right now, you're 4, and I'm limited to sharing with you what you can process. I will share the truth with you, but there is so much more to the story. You'll learn about how our family came to look the way it does now.
Our story is a little bit hairy, but it's the story of our family. I want you to understand how loved and treasured you are. I want you to be proud of what your family looks like. I hope that I'm doing the best I can for you by keeping Daddy Sean a part of the conversation. I hope that you know that this is a conversation that you are always welcome to start and that I will always be honest with you about.
As much as I don't know what these future conversations will look like or how they will go, I do know that once we have them and you start to fit pieces of your past together, everything will be clear. The overall picture is what is most important, sweetheart, and your picture is beautiful. You are part of a family that loves you. You are needed and wanted. I hope you never stop asking questions about Daddy Sean because every time you do, I get to think about him a little bit harder, and remembering him is always a good thing, so don't be shy. Your thoughtfulness and curiosity will carry you far in life, and I so enjoy watching you find your way. I can't wait to see where you end up, sweetheart. I'll be right here, trying to figure it all out right along with you.
All my love,
The original version of this letter appeared on Karen's Huffington Post column. You can view it here.