The Impact of Subtle Losses
by Ilissa Jae Ducoat, LPC, FT
My heart broke for my 11-year-old son after he found our hidden stash of stuffed tigers.
When he was a baby, my son’s main man was a little stuffed tiger named Mo. He didn’t use a pacifier, but sucked on Mo’s paws to fall asleep. Everywhere my son went, Mo bobbed along in his arms. We ended up needing to wash Mo every day, and I was terrified the constant laundering would wear his little pal out. So my husband and I turned to eBay, where we snatched up four additional, identical tigers and put them all in rotation immediately to ensure they all got loved the same amount.
My son never knew. Sure, we had some close calls here and there, like when my husband was carrying my son—Mo in his arms—and walked past the washing machine where another tiger was lying, waiting for his bath. My son cried out, “Mo! I see Mo, Daddy!” After explaining it was one of his sister’s shirts, I whispered death threats to my husband through gritted teeth. You know, typical parenting moments.
My son made it well into his eleventh year without knowing what we kept in a black shopping bag on the top shelf of the laundry-room closet. One day, I asked him to help me find an extra lunch box for his sister after she had left hers at school. Extras are on the second-to-top shelf, so the possibility of him discovering our secret did not cross my mind. But he noticed one of the Mos carelessly flung on top of that black bag (I still say that it was not me, and I may or may not have again whispered death threats to my husband through gritted teeth). What happened next was a significant turning point in my son’s life.
He pulled down the lunchbox, discovered the contents of the bag, and called for me in a tone I’d never heard before. He stood there, holding a Mo with a look of pure shock on his face. Through tears and hugging, we explained we never wanted him to be without his beloved little friend, and this was the only way we could ensure Mo would survive his early childhood. He responded with, “This is the biggest surprise of my life.”
Many people would not give it a second thought and would expect him to just accept we had multiple Mos. We talked a lot about it afterward, and I was aware that my son was exhibiting a grief response, one I’ve seen frequently in my sessions as a counselor specializing in grief and loss. His understanding of the world was shattered in an instant, and even though we’ve told him that they’re all Mo and he is loved by all of them, he was still crying and couldn’t explain why. He has never experienced a significant loss in his life. This was new ground for him.
Regardless of the fact that he did not “lose” Mo, my son did lose one of his assumptions about the way the world works. So this can be categorized as a loss for him. If we think back to our own childhoods and remember those moments when we learned the world was different from what we originally understood it to be, we can also categorize other experiences as losses.
The list is long: Finding out Santa Claus isn’t real, losing trust in a loved one because they hid something from you (even if it was age appropriate to shield you from it), being let down by friends, realizing you won’t be MVP, not making the team at all, learning that not all people are nice to children, and so on. These are normal experiences for all children. Grief and loss are part of life at any age. Our expected response for ourselves and others is usually to accept it and move on, or to stop carrying on so much. This can often feel oppressive. It’s important to validate how difficult those everyday losses can be, especially if it’s a first for someone.
My son will be just fine. Crying over something that shocked him doesn’t make him weak or immature. It makes him human. He deserves the space to wrap his little head around the sudden shift in his perception of the world. We all do. Take a moment the next time you feel something throw you off a bit and learn it’s okay to be human, too.
Photo and art credits by PBS.org and “Childhood Teddybear” by https://www.deviantart.com/valkea (UK).
Ilissa Jae Ducoat is a licensed professional counselor and a Fellow in Thanatology. She is also a mother, wife, daughter, friend, niece, aunt, and writer. Ilissa experienced a series of personal losses that helped carve out the path she’s taking toward helping others through their grief journey. In addition to her career as a therapist, Ilissa uses her writing to create a more comfortable space for grieving and mental health challenges in our society. Through validation, connection, and education, she believes we can improve how we support each other and won’t get off her soapbox until we’re there.