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What Can a Child Really Know of Death?

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

It was only as an adult that I could grieve for a childhood loss

Young love stories

My friends and I were sharing memories about “young love,” a nostalgic collection of stories that ran the gamut of emotions. A colleague told of Thelma, his first sweetheart, and the terror his brother created when he said that if you go with a girl to the theater, you HAD to put your arm around her.

My friend worried because Thelma loomed heads above him. How do you put your arm around a girl when she’s a half foot taller than you? “You sit on the edge of the movie seat the whole time without ever lowering it!” he laughed.

My office mate told of her first love, the classic “dork,” eyes covered with thick coke-bottle glasses. He was quiet and polite, but his hair was always greasy. He was now serving time for armed robbery.

I shared a story about Kent Shaw, not my first love, but a fellow-third grader. He had brownish hair and glasses, and in an unprecedented fit of wildness, I agreed to sit with him on the bus home.

In a matching, spontaneous, uncalculated move, he decided to cover us from the tip of our heads to our laps, with his raincoat. We sat the whole ride home under cover of a slicker doing nothing but looking straight ahead into the stuffy darkness. My younger sister, a first-grader at the time, reported the incident to Mother.

I was told — in no uncertain terms — NEVER, EVER AGAIN to sit on a bus with a boy who wanted to cover me up with anything.

Those stories stirred a different memory

Talking about those youthful romances, surrounded by the laughter and the nostalgia of friends, a different memory surfaced. For the first time in many, many years I allowed myself to remember a boy named Jimmy with liquid brown eyes and a smile that never quit, my first real love.

Two years before that incriminating episode with Kent, the raincoat-rogue, Jimmy L. had won me over with his attention. He always laughed. He always chased me in games of tag. He had thick Bambi-like eyelashes that fluttered above those big eyes. Even in first grade, he radiated charisma.

I really liked Jimmy and would always end up next to him on the playground, in line for a drink at the water fountain, or in the swing beside him as we bent our arms and pumped our legs to see who could go higher.

On my seventh birthday, in May toward the end of the school year, the teacher called me to the front of the room. Jimmy — using his charm — had convinced her to let him hide a birthday present he had gotten for me. As an educator, I’m appalled that a teacher would allow such a personal display of attention. Even then, I remember being a little embarrassed, and I can imagine how the other kids felt because they had NOT gotten a public scavenger hunt with a prize on THEIR birthdays.

But everyone was watching and waiting expectantly.

After nervously looking around the room a bit, I spotted a brightly wrapped box under a desk and unwrapped it to find pencils, erasers, candy, and a furry, brilliant-canary-yellow rabbit’s foot for good luck. Jimmy’s dark eyes sparkled into my mine as I whispered my thank-you, not loud enough for everyone to hear, but close enough that he could read my lips and hear my gratitude.

Delayed grief for what I couldn’t face as a kid

With the memory of Jimmy and the birthday present came another recollection. It wasn’t even about Jimmy, exactly. I had a photo flashed on my brain — like a still black and white polaroid picture — of my parents as they called me into the house and asked me to come with them to my bedroom. I KNEW something was wrong. Their faces were the wrong color. Their mouths were tight lines. Their voices quavered as they told me to sit down on my chenille bedspread.

It was a bright sunny day, shortly after school had let out.

“Missi, your friend Jimmy was riding his bike today. A car hit him, and he died.”

I vaguely remember wondering how I was supposed to react to my parents’ strange behavior. I didn’t know what it really meant. What did I understand about death and dying?

I was seven. I didn’t get that Jimmy, my sweet and smitten first love, would never smile at me again.

I was just too young to understand

Maybe his memory returned to me as an adult more than fifty years later because my psyche could finally deal with the loss of such a beautiful boy. Maybe when it happened, I was just too young to understand death. Maybe I DID understand what had happened and it was too painful to remember, so I suppressed it.

At the age of seven, death was a finality I couldn’t wrap my head around. Distanced by the length of the summer and the start of the new school year, I simply pretended that Jimmy was going to school somewhere else.

It’s only as an adult that I can grieve fully

As an adult, I see the tragedy so much more clearly. I think of Jimmy frequently now, wondering how his parents survived the loss. Thinking of my own parents and how they must have felt having to tell me. Trying not to imagine what it would have been like to lose one of my daughters at such a young age. I think of our teachers, our school, our community, knowing that a loss like that would have shaken everyone.

My school bus escapade with Kent was meaningless.

But the death of Jimmy was a monumental tragedy. I regret that I took it so casually. I didn’t understand it or mourn him at the time. All these years later, I can only treasure his memory.

I kept the yellow rabbit’s foot Jimmy gave me for a very long time, subconsciously wishing that he was still here and that the luck he wanted for me had rubbed off on him.

His memory, so long repressed, now lingers. My first love, lost.


Grief is just one of many emotions in an ordinary life. Read more in Heartfelt Stories.

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