[Editor's Note: Today is National Children's Grief Awareness Day. To raise awareness of what children face in the wake of loss, guest columnist Elizabeth Savoie Sonnier shares the story of what her family went through following the death of her nephew Cullen. This will be their first holiday season without him.]
Our lives were turned upside down on Saturday, June 15, 2013. We were celebrating my nephew’s 14th birthday at my parents house when my three and half year old godchild drowned in the pool and could not be revived. What started as a joyful occasion ended in tragedy. It happened so fast and unexpectedly.
The grief of Cullen’s death feels confusing, unimaginable and unfair. What I quickly learned is that grief is not something you can avoid. It’s there — in your face — and not going anywhere. The best choice I made, as well as my sister Emily and brother in law, Waylon, was to walk through it. It started at the funeral home when Emily sat on the ground with my young niece and nephew and explained to them what had happened to Cullen. It was honest and real. We loved on them, answered their questions and assured them that it was OK to be sad. All the while, we were sad, we had questions and others loved on us.
We not only mourned the loss of Cullen, but hopes of the future we pictured in our minds. As we passed through the firsts — first Halloween, first birthday — without him, it’s brought a wide range of emotions. Emotions from pain of his absence to the joy and unending gratefulness of being blessed to have known him, held him, kissed him and (Cullen’s favorite) laughed with him.
Generations of folks, living or growing up in south Louisiana, would all agree: if you didn’t live next door to your grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw lived down the street. Therefore, your siblings and your cousins become first best friends. Our family was no exception. Cullen’s bff’s included his two older brothers and his cousins. He wanted to do everything his big brothers did. Fishing, riding four-wheelers, anything outdoors. He loved to play and spend time with his cousins at his grandparent’s house. One cousin he saw everyday at daycare.
I have to say, I am touched by the kids’ journey through their grief. Cullen’s name comes out freely and frequently. I’ve heard phrases like, “if Cullen were here, he’d be doing ___.” or “Cullen would have loved this!” One cousin, who is in elementary school, wrote Cullen a letter telling him that he hopes he is having a great time in heaven and wrote “I just want you to be happy.” My niece, when speaking of Cullen, ends her sentences with finger pointing in the air “you know, Cully, who is in heaven”.
It’s important to us that the kids feel safe to grieve. If they were to walk in a room where Cullen’s name couldn’t be spoken, a tear couldn’t be shed or a memory couldn’t be shared, we would all miss an opportunity to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. As Cullen’s family, we each had our own “finger print” type of relationship with him. One of a kind. The same rings true in how each of us grief his loss. Each different. Each unique.
The first holidays without Cullen are upon us and our hearts are heavy. Heaviness backed with hope knowing that we will see Cullen again, because death is not the end. When Jesus died on a cross and conquered the grave, He gave us life and a future that we will never be alone or without hope. We will be together again, glorifying God for eternity.
Cullen’s story has touched many lives. Because of our community’s support, our lives have also been touched. We have felt your prayers and we are blessed. Thank you.