Twenty stuffed animals lay sinisterly upside down, shoulder to shoulder, forming a perfect circle on the floor. My 11-year-old daughter, Mary, was sitting in the center, as if she were performing an esoteric ritual.
I was used to that kind of pictures. Mary’s stuffed animals were more than just objects that she hugged at night. They were her patients in her veterinary office, her students in her class, aliens on her space explorations, and soldiers she led into battle.
Suddenly, she widened her eyes and said, “I want to give away all my stuffed animals.”
“That? Because?” I was stunned.
“You said to give away our toys to other children when we no longer play with them.”
“But now you’re playing with them,” I said.
I went to the kitchen and came back with a box of garbage bags. She carefully examined each animal, stroking their matted fur, holding them up to her nose and taking a deep breath before placing them in the bag. With the second bag, tears were already running down his cheeks.
“You don’t have to give them all away,” I told him. “You can keep the specials.”
His lip trembled. “Everyone is special.”
“Then why are you giving them away?”
“Because I don’t know how to play with them anymore.” Her face scrunched up and then she said with typical precociousness of hers, “I know you thought they were just stuffed animals, but they weren’t. They were my friends. I never felt alone because I had them. Before they came to life, now they no longer. And nothing I do will bring them back to life. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.” She started to sob.
But I believed him. All.
When they were patients in her clinic, suffering from injuries that she treated with our medicine cabinet, each one had a medical history. When they were students, they each had a report card; as soldiers, each had a “Confidential” file that listed their strengths and weaknesses in battle. He not only noted the name, age, and hometown of each animal, but also what foods they liked, what scared them, and what they loved.
She wriggled free of the arm I had put over her shoulder and said, “They never really came to life, I know, but in my imagination they did.” He turned on me with a terrible rage. “My imagination has run out and you never told me this would happen.”
He had told her, in more detail than perhaps she wanted, about the physical changes of puberty. She hadn’t told him about her spiritual changes.
“It’s part of growing up,” I murmured.
“But I’m never going to play with them again?” Her breathing became rough. “They won’t come back, will they? I already know it”. She started to sway. “They left”.
She was distraught, crying over the loss of dozens of friends she loved. It is useless to say that those relationships were only imaginary. The emotions were real.
And so, despite my years of experience as a hospice chaplain, despite my own grief experiences, despite everything I knew intellectually, emotionally, professionally, spiritually, and personally about love and loss—despite all of that—I looked at my crying little girl and actually said this: “Well, you know Mary Bear, when kids stop playing pretend, they start doing other fun things. Like… do things! You know, you could”—my brain was racing—“knit sweaters or make things out of wood. You could make shelves or a stool.”
He stopped crying and looked at me. Silent.
“Make things with wood?” he said, the words full of derision and disbelief.
She had broken every rule she knew about accompanying someone in mourning. I tried to fix it. I tried to distract her. I tried changing the subject. I tried to take her away from the loss of her instead of sitting with her.
He had panicked. I betrayed his pain because it was too painful to witness. He told me that all his friends dear to him had died, and I told him to make a stool.
I had personal experience dealing with the pain of an imagined death. When I suffered a drug-induced psychotic disorder after the birth of my first child, the result of a bad reaction to anesthesia, I cried for the baby I thought had died in childbirth. For seven months, before I was finally diagnosed and treated, I cried over an imaginary stillborn baby.
The fact that my baby had not actually died did not diminish my experience of grief. The fact that an event is only real to the person suffering from psychosis does not make it any less devastating.
I know what the lonely pain of the imaginary is. The pain is real because the love was real. For my daughter, the belief was magical, the relationship imaginary. But the love was real.
In the velvet rabbitthe stuffed animal protagonist of the imagination and the magical belief came to life —it became real— because it was loved with intensity. Isn’t that what we all want? See that our love can transform something imaginary into something real? That our love can transform the ephemeral into permanent? That love can transform the mortal into eternal?
Of course, stuffed animals don’t work like that. But a stuffed animal is not the same as the love one feels for that stuffed animal, or for anyone else.
“Love, that which is so difficult for us to describe, is the only truly real and lasting experience in life,” wrote Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the great grief expert of the 20th century. “It is the only gift of life that is not lost. Ultimately, it’s the only thing we can really give.”
No love is ever wasted. Even if the stuffed animals were never alive. Even if the stillborn baby never existed. Even if the love is unrequited. Although love causes bad love. Even if the relationship doesn’t last. Even if it ends in pain, betrayal or death. Even if the objects of love were imaginary.
The experience of love has changed you, it has created you.
Mary’s love and loss for her furry friends made her the teenager she is, just as my love and grief for a lost imaginary baby created the mother I am. The boy who loved velvet rabbit he lost it too. But both the boy and his love survived scarlet fever. The child was able to grow.
I was not mistaken about what would happen next. It took Mary a few months to figure out what she wanted to do: silt. Buckets and buckets of that goo. His little table, which used to be a stuffed animal house, was turned into a laboratory table for precision mixing of glue, borax and glitter.
She auditioned for the school play and got into the role as only a girl who had played pretend until the fifth grade could. She did not take up knitting, but took sewing classes at the library. She joined the women’s choir at our church and began earnestly studying music theory and singing.
There are times when I sit on the benches and watch twenty girls dressed in purple singing Faure’s “Requiem” and Bach cantatas and wonder how my daughter can make such a loud, pure, penetrating sound that seems as if the stone walls of the cathedral and my own body were going to crumble passing through us.
does things. Wonderful things.
Their stuffed animals never came back to life, but something remains of the life they once lived. Pain means you remember. Perhaps in this way, grief gives us the courage to continue living after the loss, to move on to the next part of life, to create something new. We do not have to lose the memory of a thing, a time, a person that we have lost. Mourning allows us to remember.
Love and loss create us, and grief allows us to accept that new creation. If no love is ever wasted, no pain is ever wasted.
In the end, Mary did not give away her stuffed animals. She stayed with the specials, that is, with everyone. They, along with my son’s Legos, the figures of Star Wars of my husband and Emmeline, my doll Cabbage fieldThey are now in the attic.
The night we put them away, Mary got one back to sleep with. Over the years, a few more have resurfaced to sit on her bed, where she holds them close at night. They may no longer come to life, but the memory of the life they once lived and the love she once poured into them lives on. The love that she, or anyone, pours into the world will always exist.
Kerry EganA writer based in Columbia, South Carolina, she is the author of Survive.