An Ex-Husband's Dying Last Wish

Filed under: In The News

Judah, age 3, and his mom Victoria Rosner. Credit: Victoria Rosner

A man leaves his pregnant wife, only to return when he gets a death sentence, and asks her for the biggest act of love a parent can give.

What happened to Victoria Rosner is something that would never enter your mind in the realm of possibility. It's not something that would ever pop up in a game of "what if?"

Five years ago her husband of nearly a decade served her with divorce papers when she was seven months pregnant with their son, and gave up any custody of the boy.

After the birth of her son, Judah, she moved to another state and began a new chapter as a single mom. Two years later, her ex-husband called to say he had terminal cancer and would be dead within a year. His dying wish? To get to know his son.

Rosner grappled with his request but ultimately granted it. ParentDish spoke with her, now a full year since his death.

ParentDish: Your recent piece in The New York Times starts with the death of his preschool classroom's goldfish. Can you talk about how your son deals with death in the larger world among his peers and other people he meets or knows?
Victoria Rosner: Judah had a friend come up to him and say, 'I heard your daddy died.' And the kid looked a little scared and said, "Does that mean you're not going see him again?" And my son for some reason was really not in the mood to talk about death so he put his hand on the other kid's shoulder and said, 'Yeah, but it's ok. I'm alive. You're alive. Let's have a playdate.' And the other kid was fine with that and they ran off.

Another time he walked up to a friend of my mother's and said, 'You know, we're all going to die one day.' For him, that was really making conversation. And for her it was very shocking.

Losing a parent, like any other major experience, becomes a part of who you are. I don't think the expectation is, 'Oh, it'll go away,' or 'Oh, we won't talk about it anymore.' It just changes form over time.

PD: It's been a year since your ex-husband died. How is your son, Judah, who just turned 4, dealing with it now?
VR: I've seen my son go from really focusing on the loss of his father -- 'Where's daddy? I miss daddy. I want to see him. I want to talk to him' -- to a broader consideration of what death means and how it enters into his life and affects the people he knows. So there's been this kind of broadening of his understanding. And he still will sometimes say, 'I miss my daddy,' but he's really shifted to a certain extent.

I feel as long as there is development and change, it means he's processing it, taking it in and doing the work that he needs to do to come to terms with his experience. How does a child so young handle both the concept of death and its personal ramifications? I think one of the reasons my son struggles is given his age, cognitively, he just couldn't take in the permanence of death. So initially he asked a lot of questions like, when was his father going to stop dying, or where was he, where had he gone? He was sort of treating like a puzzle he had to solve. I think that understanding the permanence of death is a gradual process for children.

Sometimes he will ask me quite serious questions or say things that I think are quite serious for him like, 'I want us to die together,' and 'Are you going to be sad when I die?' He's really exploring death and its relationship to him and me. Other times I think he takes it in stride. We were at a museum the other day and there was a security guard who mistakenly thought that Judah was there with his dad and said to my son, 'There's your daddy. Go run and catch up.' And Judah stopped and turned to the guard and said, 'My daddy's dead,' and then he ran off to play. So in that sense I think it can be a matter-of-fact thing and something he doesn't need to dwell on if there's something more fun happening.

PD: How do you respond to him when he asks if you're going to be sad when he dies?
VR: I deliberately try to say different things at different times because I feel like there are answers that he's searching for and I want to try different things and see what comforts him the most. So at one point I might say something like, 'You and I are not going to die for a really long time so it's not something we need to worry about.' I might say, 'I'm going to be with you as long as you need me.' Or, I might say, 'Sweetheart, it's 7:30 in the morning, Mommy hasn't had her coffee, I'm not ready to talk about death.' And I think that's really good to say, too, so he understands that death is not something everybody wants to talk about all the time. I think it's my role as a parent to teach him that how the things he says resonate in the world, what's appropriate, how other people feel about what he's saying and doing. So he's finding his place with it.

PD: Have you had him meet with a child psychologist or read any books together that are geared to young children coping with death?
VR: I haven't had my son meet with a therapist -- although that's something I'm totally open to in the future -- but I have talked to therapists to get guidance in talking to young children about death, because it's my son's nature that he is very verbal and he's kind of talking all the time and it's all I can do to get him to stop talking every now and then. I really feel that at this point he's really sharing everything with me that's on his mind and I can try to help him reflect or help answer his questions. He talks to other people about it, too, which I think is good because it's good to get a range of responses.

There are many books that are written to explain death to children. I bought one that was recommended called Lifetimes. It tries to explain death by talking about the life course, everything is born, everything dies. But he quickly came to refer to it as "the dead bug book" or in some cases, "the death book." And at that point we just stopped reading it and kept having our own little conversations about things.

PD: How did you explain to him that his daddy wasn't living with you?
VR: One of the things that makes this process not insurmountable is that for little children, in many ways, there is no normal. No normal family. No normal way of life. There's just what we teach them to expect. And because they're so flexible and open to whatever the world's presenting to them, I think that if we offer it to them, they're willing to accept the idea that there are a lot of different ways to have a good family and a happy family.

And I do share memories of his father with him and we look at pictures of him so he knows that that's an important part of our past. I've also tried to give him a real sense of extended family. He spends a lot of time with my parents, his uncles and aunts. And he has a new cousin who is seven months old. Sometimes he'll turn to me and say, 'Mommy, we have a great family!' And he'll walk up to someone on the street and say, 'This is my mother! Her name is Victoria!' So there's an evident sense of pride, which I think is great in counterpoint to the necessary experience of loss that he's also endured.

PD: How do you know if you've made the right decision?
VR: I hope I've made the right decision. People I've spoken with who lost a parent when they were children have said they treasure every photograph and every scrap of memory they have with that parent. It's all so precious and their curiosity about the deceased parent is boundless. How could I withhold from my son something I knew he would cherish so much later on? Yes, grief is a part of the package, but I believe he would eventually have gone through a different kind of grief if he'd never been able to know his dad.

PD: What about forgiveness? Have you forgiven your ex-husband?
VR: People who've heard my story seem to have focused on forgiveness and what it means and I think that forgiveness is a complicated process but I like the idea that we don't have to see this as a state of mind, that it can be in the doing, and you can express forgiveness with an act. Which is not to say that I've totally forgiven him. Forgiveness doesn't have to be an all or nothing process.

Watch Victoria talk about forgiving her ex-husband on The Today Show with Matt Lauer.

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Related: Storytelling to Help a Grieving Child

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.