Two years ago I was walking home with the two of them on either side of me, and Sadie was animatedly telling me about Yannai's talking progress at school. My son Yannai suffered from selective mutism (a speaking anxiety), and his friend Sadie had voluntarily teamed up with the school counselor to help him progress up a "talking ladder."
"…And our next step," she explained with determination unseen in an 8-year-old, "is for Yannai to try and speak out loud to a group of five children on the playground."
It's from her that I'd get all of the updates about my son's progress — my reluctant speaker unwilling to share even at home. And every time I was amazed by her use of the word "our", as if it were her project too.
A year later, in large part thanks to her unwavering commitment, Yannai could finally speak confidently to the whole class. But Sadie was gone. Having suffered from a host of allergies her whole life, on a bright August afternoon she had a severe anaphylactic reaction and no amount of adrenaline shots could save her.
When I got the news we were visiting family in Israel for the summer. We had just spent a rare entirely screen-free week camping on the shore of the Mediterranean with a group of friends. After my digital detox, I came back to my phone, and the first thing that popped up was a WhatsApp message from my ex-husband, "Have you heard that Sadie passed away? Oh my god, what are we going to tell Yannai."
I was in a bad dream. Surely his message was just a bunch of unfortunate typos. But my inbox confirmed it was no dream. An email from school detailed what had happened, and gave advice to parents on how to tell the children, and how they were going to deal with it at the beginning of the school year.
I decided to wait until we were back in England to tell Yannai. In the meantime, I quietly dealt with my own grief, struggling to accept the fact that this bright-eyed child will never sit in my front room again. For several torturous days I carried this news inside of me, mentally wanting to delay the moment when I'd have to tell him, when he would know with absolute certainty, that children — friends — could die too. How exactly could I break this news to a kid who already went to bed every night scared of death and dying to the point of tears and for whom my only consolation was that he was still young and nothing bad was going to happen to him. How would I tell him that a friend he loved dearly had disappeared from the face of the earth? I had no idea.
The girl who helped my son find his voice was gone. And now I was lost for words as to what to say to him and how to help him through his grief. It felt, strangely, like a betrayal on my part. A motherly failure to protect him from encounters with tragedy until he was much older.
"She died?" He got up from the couch facing the window and I could practically hear the heavy burden of this news pressing against his little chest. Because I didn't feel I could deliver it to him without disintegrating into a sloppy mess myself, I asked for the help from the same school counselor who had worked with him and Sadie on Yannai's speaking progress. On the last day of the summer holiday she sat on our couch and explained that Sadie accidentally ate something that her body couldn't cope with.
The words he uttered after the initial shock broke my heart: "I always knew something bad was going to happen to someone I love, and now it did."
At a campsite a few weeks later, children were telling scary stories by the fire and it was Yannai's turn. "Once there was a girl," he began. "She went to a party, with her friends and family. She ate and drank there." He paused for effect. "But. She had a dairy allergy and what she ate had milk in it." An even longer pause. "And. She. DIED." He paused again then added quietly what everybody already knows: "And that's a true story. And I will always be sad about it because it was Sadie and she helped me speak."
This is how my son handles grief in the months following her death, which is not how I imagined it at all. I expected a lot of strong emotions, perhaps night terrors, and also feared a complete shutdown. But none of these things have happened. He talks about Sadie and her death willingly, and he acknowledges his sadness about it, but it all lives in a rational part of this brain, as if letting it into the emotional part would be too much to handle.
To read the rest of this story, visit Motherwell.