Keira, my five-year-old daughter, whined, “I don’t want to talk to anyone,” from under her purple, fuzzy blanket. She did not want start going to therapy.
She had recently returned from school one too many times, saying “nobody likes me,” or “I’m not smart,” or “nobody wants to be my friend.”
But that was as far as the conversation ever went. She really didn’t want to talk to anyone. Not even me.
I pulled the covers back, exposing her angry, brown eyes. “That’s just it, honey. It isn’t good if you don’t talk about your feelings.”
She wrapped her front teeth around the base of her thumb’s cuticle and chewed on the skin. “I don’t have any feelings.”
“Honey, you’ll be going to see Steve. Remember the man Tatiana went to talk to for a while?” My older daughter, Tatiana, had also seen Steve for about six months, when she was five.
Keira wiped her now-bleeding finger on her pink pillowcase. “With the dog?”
“Yes, the man with the dog. And the toys. A whole room full of toys.”
“I’ll play there one time, but I’m not going to talk.”
The great thing about play-based children’s psychotherapy is that the therapist is trained to figure out what is going on with kids all through interactive play.
The first time I took Keira to visit Steve, there was nothing wrong with the fact that she hardly looked at him. It was perfectly acceptable for Keira to squat down and line up a miniature family of horse figurines while Steve and I chatted.
“Keira,” Steve finally said, “whenever you’re fine with your mom leaving the room, just let me know. She’ll be right outside the door, waiting for you.”
Keira remained silent, but brought one of the green horses over to a table full of sand. She dug the horse’s hooves deep into a mound, then began sprinkling dirt particles over its head.
My late husband—Keira’s birth father—died when I was seven months pregnant with Keira. And now, here she was, five years later, acting out the burial of this horse.
I’d heard of grieving children using sand tables to bury inch-sized coffins and urns, but I’d never seen it before.
Steve sat on the floor, next to Keira, and handed her a shovel and a sifter. “Your mom is going to wait outside the door now. Is that alright with you?”
“Yeah,” she whispered, scooping more sand.
Unlike Tatiana, Keira did not watch Erik slide down the kitchen counter and stop breathing on our white-tiled floor. Keira did not call out in the middle of the night for “Da-Da” for several years after his death. But Keira did experience every ounce of pain that went through my womb those last two months of her gestation.
Keira took her first breaths as Erik’s miniature twin. Black hair. Upturned nose.
It was a bittersweet birth. Life and death, sleeping side by side.
An easy baby from the start, I wondered if Keira sensed her mommy’s distress. Was she taking care of me? Leaving extra room for me to console Tatiana’s nightmares?
Then, at two-years-old, right around the time when I started feeling some happiness again, Keira changed. She often woke from her afternoon naps, kicking and hitting me.
Some would have described her moods as “the terrible twos,” but I knew that Keira had not been born into ordinary circumstances, so I kept a careful watch over her.
Unfortunately, the amount of care I took in watching over both Tatiana and Keira depended on how stable I actually felt. I had also thrown myself into every type of therapy, but there were still days in which I walked close to the edge.
When Keira entered Kindergarten, my new husband, Evan, adopted both her and Tatiana. On our wedding day, as a part of his vows, Evan said, “We will never… ever… forget Erik …nor the irony of his tragic loss providing so much beauty and happiness in my life.”
Keira adored Evan, but every time one of us mentioned “Daddy Erik,” she said, “Don’t talk about him. It makes me too sad.”
Tatiana tried to make her little sister feel better. “Keira, we’re lucky we have two daddies.”
Keira cried, “You got to meet him, Tat. You don’t understand.”
Scattered throughout our house are many photographs of Tatiana and Erik, but Keira never got her photo opportunity. Keira was born fatherless. Worse yet, Keira was born to a mother who could hardly take care of herself, let alone two babies.
But now, after a year of meeting with Steve for therapy, Keira actually looks forward to her appointments. She is less reactive, more open, and usually willing to talk things through until we uncover the real problem.
Keira doesn’t come home from school with the complaint of having no friends anymore. In fact, these days when I volunteer in her class, the girls all swarm me with enthusiastic requests for play-dates with Keira.
This is what I want for each of my children. I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to feel confident expressing their emotions. I want them to know that they can talk to me about anything.
No matter what.