How to celebrate Father's Day when Dad had just died was the heart-wrenching question Melanie Bloom and her daughters faced in June 2003. In April that year, Melanie's husband, NBC correspondent David Bloom, died suddenly from a fatal blood clot while covering the war in Iraq. Two months later the family was still reeling from the shock, and ignoring the day didn't seem possible.
So on Father's Day, Melanie suggested that her children, twins Christine and Nicole, and Ava draw pictures and write letters or poems to their dad. Then they visited his grave and the girls read what they'd written, says Melanie, 42. "It was sad, but very sweet."
But the next Father's Day, the girls didn't want to visit the cemetery or attend a Father's Day barbecue that friends were holding, and Melanie agreed. "If the kids say, 'Can we visit him?,' we do. But if they don't want to, I won't push," says Melanie, noting she plans to do the same this Father's Day. "I let it be organic."
That has turned out to be a good motto for the family. Dealing with the loss of a soulmate is hard enough for any spouse, but doing so while helping your young children grieve is especially difficult. A soft-spoken at-home mom who was married for 13 years, Melanie faced her hardest parenthood challenge in helping her family cope.
David was just one month shy of his 40th birthday when he died from complications of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that started in his leg and traveled through the veins to the lungs, where it caused a pulmonary embolism -- a blocked artery to the lung. He had been sitting for long periods in an armored vehicle, was dehydrated, and turned out to have a genetic clotting disorder that made him more prone to DVT.
Ava, only 3 at the time, had trouble grasping his death. For months after, she barely ate or talked and slept fitfully. "I'd hear Ava crying out in the night, 'I want Daddy!'" Melanie recalls. Sometimes Ava asked Melanie difficult questions, like "Why can't I die and go to heaven and be with Daddy?" Melanie tried to reframe the questions -- "I think what you mean is you miss Daddy" -- but says it was heartbreaking "to see a little girl grieve. She was just devastated." It took eight months before Ava was herself again, laughing and talking. The twins were able to verbalize their questions and feelings better and had more of an understanding of death. Often they'd want their mother to tell stories about Dad, but early on, Melanie -- who was dealing with her own agonizing grief -- sometimes found it too painful.
"They'd say, 'I miss Daddy' or 'Tell me a story about when Daddy was little,' and I wasn't as strong as I am now," says Melanie, who burst into tears easily at the time and saw a therapist to help her deal with her husband's death. (Her older girls also saw a therapist.) But rather than shut down the conversation, she would suggest that they call David's mother if she felt on the verge of crying. "It was good for the girls and for David's mother because she couldn't talk about her son enough," she says.
After a few months, the pain became less raw, and Melanie and her girls took comfort in remembering David. Recently, when they were out driving, Christine recalled how her dad used to say to her, "I love you to the moon and back," a line from Sam McBratney's popular children's book.
"It's not like we sit around all day saying, 'Do you remember when?' But it's a way of including him," says Melanie. "I do believe David is in heaven, looking over us, and I try to impart this sense to the girls." But she is also careful not to overwhelm them and reads their cues. "If a day goes by and none of the children mention David, I don't bring him up," she says. Though she's kept up a few photos of David -- a shot of him at work and a family portrait are on prominent display -- she says, "I didn't want a shrine to him in my home. You need to strike a balance so it's not a constant reminder of a painful loss."
After David's well-publicized death, Melanie received more than 80,000 condolence letters. She couldn't get one of them out of her mind; a woman wrote to say that after hearing how David had died, her husband had his leg pains examined and was found to have DVT. "In her letter, she said, 'Your husband saved my husband's life,'" says Melanie.
A year after David died, Melanie began to think about working for the Coalition to Prevent Deep-Vein Thrombosis but worried about how it would affect her children -- and herself. "I didn't know how it would feel to talk about such a personal loss," she says. So she asked a friend whose husband had also died young, leaving behind two small children. That was NBC Today show host Katie Couric, who had been a colleague of David's.
"Katie was a good friend to David and reached out to me early on," she says. Couric, who became an advocate for colon-cancer screening after the disease took her husband's life, responded unequivocally: Do it. "She told me it would show the girls that tragedy can strike and that we can turn it around and turn it into something positive," says Melanie.
About a year ago, Melanie began volunteering with the coalition, giving speeches around the country about the warning signs of DVT -- swelling, pain, redness, to name a few -- as well as the risk factors, including restricted mobility, obesity, cancer, and pregnancy. "The harsh reality is that if we had known, David's death could have been prevented," she says.
These days, the girls proudly wear the coalition's black, white, and red ribbon. They often tell their mom what she is doing is "cool" and wonder when they can start campaigning too. "It feels right," says Melanie. "David would be proud of what I'm doing." Though her children still have down moments, now they associate their father's name not only with sadness -- but also with helping to save others' lives.
And God Cried Too: A Kid's Book of Healing and Hope by Marc Gellman. "My twins still pick this one up and read from it when they're feeling blue," Melanie says.
The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide by Helen Fitzgerald. She found this to be a useful tool for helping children cope.
Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief by Martha Whitmore Hickman. Melanie says the short insights helped her face the day ahead.
Living When a Loved One Has Died by Earl A. Grollman. This book's simple poetry gave her comfort.
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope With Grief by Marge Heegaard. Melanie calls this paperback workbook "a gentle guide through grief and a tactile outlet for children's pent-up feelings."
Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2005 issue of Child magazine.