Twenty stuffed animals lay ominously shoulder-to-shoulder on their bellies in a perfect circle on the floor. My 11-year-old daughter, Mary, sat in the middle, as though performing some esoteric ritual.
I was used to such tableaus. Mary’s stuffed animals were more than things she held at night. They were patients in her veterinary practice, students in her classroom, aliens in her explorations of space and soldiers she led into battle.
Suddenly her eyes flew open and she said, “I want to give all my stuffies away.”
“What? Why?” I was shocked.
“You said to give our toys to other kids when we don’t play with them anymore.”
“But you’re playing with them right now,” I said.
I went into the kitchen and came back with a box of trash bags. She carefully examined each animal, stroked each creature’s matted fur, held them up to her nose and breathed in deeply before putting them into the bag. By the second bag, tears were trickling down her cheeks.
“You don’t have to give them all away,” I said. “You could keep the special ones.”
Her lip quivered. “They’re all special.”
“Then why are you giving them away?”
“Because I don’t know how to play with them anymore.” Her face puckered, and then she said in her typically precocious way, “I know you thought they were just stuffies, but they weren’t. They were my friends. I was never lonely because I had them. They used to come alive, and now they don’t. And nothing I do will bring them back to life. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.” She began to sob.
Oh, but I did believe her. Fully.
When they were patients in her clinic, suffering from injuries she treated with our first-aid kit, each had a medical chart. When they were students, each had a report card; as soldiers, they each had a “Top Secret” file enumerating their strengths and weaknesses in battle. She had documented not only each animal’s name, age and hometown, but what foods they liked, what scared them, what they loved.
She wriggled out from the arm I had draped over her shoulder and said, “They never really did come alive, I know that, but in my imagination they did.” She turned to me with white-hot anger. “My imagination is gone and you never told me this would happen.”
I had told her, in more detail than she probably wanted, about the physical changes of puberty. I had not told her about the spiritual changes.
“It’s part of growing up,” I murmured.
“But am I never going to play with them again?” Her breathing grew ragged. “They won’t come back, will they? I already know it.” She began to rock back and forth. “They’re gone.”
She was grieving, wailing for the loss of dozens of friends she loved. It doesn’t really work to say that those relationships were only imaginary. The emotions were real.
And then, despite my years of experience as a hospice chaplain, despite my own experiences of grief, despite everything I knew intellectually, emotionally, professionally, spiritually and personally about love and loss — despite all of that, I looked at my weeping child and actually said this: “Well, you know Mary Bear, when kids stop playing pretend, they start doing other fun things. Like, umm, making things! You know, you could” — my brain was racing — “knit sweaters. Or, or, do wood working! You could make bookshelves. Or a little step stool!”
She stopped crying and looked up at me. Silent.
“Wood working?” she said, her words dripping with derision and incredulity.
I had broken every rule I knew about being with someone who is grieving. I tried to fix it. I tried to distract her. I tried to change the subject. I tried to take away her loss instead of sitting with it.
I had panicked. I betrayed her grief because it was so painful to witness. She told me all her beloved friends had died, and I told her to make a stool.
I had personal experience dealing with grief over imaginary death. When I suffered drug-induced psychotic disorder after my first child was born, the result of a bad reaction to anesthesia, I grieved for the baby I believed had died in childbirth. For seven months, before I was finally diagnosed and treated, I wept for an imaginary stillborn baby.
The fact that my baby hadn’t actually died did not lessen my experience of grief. Just because an event is only real to the person suffering psychosis does not make it less devastating.
I know what the lonely grief of the imaginary feels like. The grief is real because the love was real. For my daughter, the belief was magical, the relationship imaginary. But the love was real.
In “The Velveteen Rabbit,” the eponymous ur-stuffie of imagination and magical belief came alive — became real — because he was loved so fiercely. Isn’t that what we all want? To see that our love can transform something imaginary into something real? That our love can transform the ephemeral into something permanent? That love can change the mortal into the eternal?
That, of course, isn’t how stuffed animals work. But a stuffie is not the same as the love one has for that stuffie, or for anyone.
“Love, that thing we have great difficulty even describing, is the only truly real and lasting experience of life,” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the 20th century’s great expert in grief, wrote. “It is the only gift in life that is not lost. Ultimately, it is the only thing we can really give.”
No love is ever wasted. Even if the stuffies never were alive. Even if the stillborn baby never existed. Even if the love is unrequited. Even if the love leads to heartbreak. 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, created you.
Mary’s love and loss of her stuffed friends turned her into the teenager she is today, just as my love and grief for an imaginary lost baby created the mother I am today. The little boy who loved the Velveteen Rabbit lost him, too. But both the boy and his love survived scarlet fever. The boy got to grow up.
I wasn’t wrong about what would happen next. It took Mary a few months to figure out what she wanted to make: slime. Buckets and buckets of slime. The coffee table, once a house for stuffies, became a lab table for the precise mixing of glue, Borax and glitter.
She tried out for the middle school play and inhabited that role in the way only a child who played pretend until the fifth grade could. She didn’t take up knitting, but she took a sewing class at the library. She joined our church’s girls’ choir and began a serious study of music theory and voice.
There are times I sit in the pews looking at 20 girls in purple robes singing Faure’s “Requiem” and Bach’s cantatas and wonder how in the world my child could make a sound so loud and pure and piercing that it feels as though both the stone walls of the cathedral and my own body will crumble as it goes through us.
She makes things. Wonderful things.
Her stuffies never did come back to life, but something remains of the life they once lived. Grief means you remember. Maybe in this way, grief gives us courage to continue living after loss, to move into the next part of life, to create something new. We do not have to lose the memory of a thing, a time, a person we have lost. Grief means we get to remember.
Love and loss create us, and grief allows us to embrace that new creation. If no love is ever wasted, then no grief is either.
In the end, Mary didn’t give her stuffies away. She kept the special ones, which is to say, she kept all of them. They, along with my son’s Legos, my husband’s “Star Wars” figures, and Emmeline, my Cabbage Patch doll, are in the attic now.
The night we put them away, Mary went back to retrieve one to sleep with. Over the years, a few more have re-emerged to sit on her bed, where she holds them at night. They may no longer come alive, but the memory of the life they once lived and the love she once poured into them still exists. The love that she, or anyone, pours into the world will always exist.