A Three-Year-Old’s Journey through Grief

This is a story that needs to be told. It’s intricate, subtle and beautiful. And hard to write. Bear with me…

The story starts with sadness. I opened the results to Anne’s neuropsychological evaluation which reported her IQ. I refuse to type the number, but in the out-dated standards, she would be labeled as an imbecile which would be one step below a moron. Words. They are so powerful. In this case, I purposed to put the number and its hurtful words aside. They do not define Anne. But the sadness lingered.

Reading Anne’s irrelevant IQ score helped crystallize a thought I had been struggling to grasp. I realized that behind Anne’s sharp-witted tongue is a little girl who, despite her changing body, will always be a little girl. Some parts of her brain have changed – but the innocent child remains. Anne will never stop saying, “I love you, Mommy,” in her sweet, sing-song way. This is my greatest joy and my deepest sadness.

This is the backdrop for the typical Sunday evening when I was kissing my two girls good-night. My 10-yr-old daughter, Kate, shares a bedroom with Anne. Kate’s journey through grief has been complicated and incomplete. As a three-year-old, her tiny mind struggled to reconcile the truth of Anne’s condition. Kate went through a stage believing that Anne would recover completely. A few years ago, this lie exploded into many healthy tears as she accepted that Anne would always be physically disabled. But Kate wasn’t ready to accept that Anne would be cognitively different. So for years, Kate coped with her brain-injured sister by thinking that she was the same in every way as her – except that she couldn’t walk.

Imagine the hurt that piled into Kate’s heart as I, her mom, comforted Anne first in every sisterly argument. I didn’t know. I had no idea the stories Kate weaved in her mind to cope with her loss.

Until that Sunday evening.

Kate and Anne had argued. I comforted Anne first. I always do. Kate should know better, right?

This night, God gave Kate the words that opened my eyes. She said, “Mom, it hurts me when you comfort Anne first.” And then I understood. I saw the tangled stories in Kate’s heart. God used my sadness over Anne’s IQ report to speak truth to Kate.

Kate, if you were a mom and you had two daughters – a five-year-old and a ten-year-old – and both were crying, who would you comfort first?

Kate, not understanding the implication, simply answered, “The five-year-old.” Then I delivered the hard news, “Anne is like the five-year-old. She always will be.”

The truth is painful, but it is freeing. Kate’s heart burst and all the years of tangled stories to cope with her sister’s injury came tumbling out as gut-wrenching, grief-filled sobs. She doubled over in tears as her whole body convulsed. The loss was so palpable. So painful. She cried out in broken speech, “I want a regular sister. I miss my regular sister.” And she sobbed – healthy, cleansing tears.

This is what the bottom of grief looks like for a three-year-old girl who lost her typical sister. Seven years later, she accepted the truth. Her sister is like a five-year-old child with a teenager’s sharp wit. Anne is complicated- just like Kate’s grief.

Now begins the hard work of back-filling Kate’s heart with the truth that I love her just as much as Anne – even when I comfort Anne first. It will be a slow, complicated work, but it is based on the solid ground of truth. No more stories. No more three-year-old coping strategies. Kate can peel away her three-year-old self and walk forward on the bare, stone ground of truth. We’ll rebuild her heart – one warm word and hug at a time.


14 thoughts on “A Three-Year-Old’s Journey through Grief

  1. Ruth King says:

    Wow, our humanity hurts…so deeply. He never lets go of us..He never leaves or forsake us. If He is for us,who can be against us? Kathryn, you continue to inspire me. To Him be the glory.

    Sent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device


  2. Miss Debbie says:

    It beaks my heart to hear of Kate’s pain, but never ceases to amaze me the way God gives you what you need to be an extraordinary mother to your children. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Tell all of the children that I love and miss them.


  3. This is the most beautiful, heart wrenching thing I have ever read. Thank you for having the courage to write something so deep and true. Love you!

    Sent from my iPhone



  4. Lu says:

    I wonder if you and Kate can come up with a code word?
    A word that when said means: I see you. I love you. I know you are hurting as much or even more than Anne. And while I’m comforting Anne first, I am not forgetting you.
    A word that you can say to Kate as you go to Anne. Or a hand signal. Something that speaks to her broken and hurting heart, even as you’re ministering to Anne. Something Anne may not even notice, so she doesn’t get her feelings hurt even more…..
    I believe you and Kate can come up with ways that will help heal her heart…and even in discovering and creating some of those ways together, you will be doing the very thing you seek: Help her heal.
    As always, thank you for sharing with us. Prayers flowing, as always.


  5. Mary Ellen Rowan says:

    Father, thank you for giving the ability to face pain through the suffering of Christ on the cross. You are not a cold, distant Power. You suffered unfairly, unjustly just as we suffer in the same way. “By His stripes we are healed.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Cathy Hoffer says:

    Anne, your post touched my heart. I was the “Kate” in my home growing up with a disabled sister.
    My mother died last year, and I am now the care-giver for my adult disabled sister. God is still healing wounded places in my heart from those early years, when the squeaky wheel got all the grease. So glad you are “aware” of this early on. Kate’s little 5-year-old girl “inside” needs you, too. Just as much. Thanks for sharing.


    • I had no idea, Cathy. Thanks for writing. This is one of my greatest fears – that Anne will outlive Eric and me so that Kate and/or Canon will have to care for her. I know I shouldn’t fear this. I know God will give them grace to handle it. It just makes my heart heavy thinking about the future.


  7. Hannah S says:

    This is so beautiful. You’re an amazing mother and to understand all of this now instead of when Kate is 40! Wow! Such a joy to read. There are so many of us who could only dream of our mothers truly seeing us.


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