No matter where in the world you grew up or what your first language was, you can be pretty certain that when you were a baby, your mom and dad used to play a game with you: peekaboo. To play, they’d perhaps duck behind behind a couch, or maybe hide themselves behind their hands before your face – in those early days, it wouldn’t take much to trick you. And then, just like that, they’d be . . . gone! And little you would be confused and even scared, thinking that this person — for you, the very most important people in the whole world — were no longer there. And then, after some time, they’d once again pop up before you, or simply pull their hands away to reveal themselves there . . . and you’d laugh in wonder and surprise, because your mom or dad had been suddenly gone, and now here they were, magically back again!
This game works with little kids because babies cannot yet grasp the concept of object permanence, knowing that something exists even when we cannot see it. Object permanence is something we don’t have when we’re born; it is only over time that we grow to understand that something does not cease to be exist, just because it is not in front of us.
After a parent dies, you may catch some part of yourself wondering, “When are they coming back?”, even when you logically know that they are never returning to you. In the wake of their death, you might wonder when your exhaustion and sadness will pass, because just the everyday act of being you and going through each day may feel like the most difficult job in the world. You might find yourself trying to do a task again and again, but giving up prematurely each time, too tired to finish what you’ve started. You might discover that the things you’d always loved doing just aren’t bringing you much joy anymore. You might notice yourself eating much more or much less than you ever have . . . or sleeping much more or much less than ever before. You might realize that you are getting angry or irritated or sad for no obvious reason. You might find that you don’t feel like spending time with friends anymore, that you’d rather be alone – or that you are terrified to be by yourself, to be alone with nothing but your memories, thoughts, and mood.
As normal as these experiences may be for someone who has lost a parent, still these feelings within you can be like a rip at the bottom of a pool. The damage may be invisible to the naked eye (and you may even forget about it sometimes), but you may find yourself feeling drained all the time, just the same. You might wonder, “When will I feel better? When will this grief end?” – and then you may start to worry that it never will, because the person you love is never coming back.
One bit of good news is that nature gave us this gift, a gift we all naturally and gradually develop as we grow and upon which we can call in the very hardest of times: the gift of keeping someone we love with us, even when we cannot see them anymore. Our parents introduced us to this from our earliest days with that simple game of peekaboo, but it’s something that we can consciously nurture too – by writing about the person we lost, or visiting a place that they loved, or celebrating their birthday, looking at their picture, talking about them, noticing their nose or eyes reflected in our own face . . . or simply thinking about them. In these acts, however large or small, our departed loved ones remain very much alive within us. In this way, we remember that even when we cannot touch or see that person before us, this does not mean that they do not go on existing within us, for us to access and cherish whenever we wish.
It’s the simplest of baby games, peekaboo – but, you see, it is magical too. With it, your parents showed you that not even death could end the love between them and you.
Submitted by Meg Kelleher of the Center for Grief Recovery