FRUIT HEIGHTS —Stephen Havertz remembers the day his daughter approached him sobbing.
“I asked her what was going on,” he said teary-eyed, "and she wouldn’t say anything." Then she started talking about death.
“I asked her how often do you think about death, and she said, ‘I think about it every day.’”
She cried some more and then she told him, “I don’t want to die because I‘ll miss you guys too much.”
Emmalee Havertz would lose her two-year battle with cancer a month later, on Oct. 1, 2009, at age 9. Now her father is bringing the lessons learned from Emmalee's brave battle to others with the publication of "Dragonfly Wings for Emmalee," a paperback book featuring advice from a father who understands loss.
“I believe all little kids, not just Emmalee, all little kids who have cancer are extraordinary,” Havertz said.
But he said his Emmalee, or Emm as she liked to be called, had wisdom beyond her years. She had no signs of illness before she was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 17, 2008. She had stage 3 hepatocellular carcinoma, a cancer that usually affects adults. Her liver was infected with a large tumor and a liver transplant was not an option.
She continued to go to school off and on right up until the end of her life. When chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair, eight boys in her third-grade class at Samuel Morgan Elementary shaved their heads so that Emm would not be embarrassed about now being bald.
“I thought it was really nice of them,” Emm said at the time.
It was the interaction between Emmalee and others that prompted her father, a professional therapist, to begin writing "Dragonfly Wings," named for an experience the family had during the final time the family took pictures together.
It was the end of August and Emmalee was in a bad mood. She was tearful and upset until a dragonfly flew and hovered over her head.
Havertz said his daughter giggled and then told him, “I can feel the wind of its wings on my head. It tickles.” She never liked bugs, but for just a few minutes the little creature brought a smile to her face and laughter to her day.
Most of the book is about Emmalee and her emotional life journey. But it also answers questions in a quest to help others. He understands grief and loss; he lost his first wife in 2003, Emmalee in 2009.
"The death of someone creates a hole that really can't be filled," he writes in the book. "The person can't be replaced and a person must learn to live around the hole and accept that that hole is there and not fall in."
He doesn’t believe there are five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — a theory first introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969. He says he doesn’t think someone should be told they should feel like this or not, or that they should be done grieving after a certain amount of time. He says to try to predict ahead what feelings someone might have could be harmful, especially if they don’t feel those feelings.
He says it’s OK to have feelings and not push them aside or hide from them. The important thing is not to allow the feelings of grief to take over one's life. Counseling, he says, can be helpful for those who struggle with the loss.
What do you said about death? He details a few suggestions.
• What not to say:
"Get over it. There is no need to cry. You need to get a grip. You haven't moved on yet? Are you crying again?"
• "Borderline" things to say, depending on your relationship with the person:
"You are strong. I know you will get through this. I admire your courage. You have such strong faith. It is OK if you need medication to help you sleep or cope. I know they are watching over you. I know they are happy now. They are in a better place."
• Good things to say to a grieving person:
"I am here for you. Tell me about your loved one. What do you miss most? I am very sorry for your loss. Here is my phone number and/or email. Tell me about your favorite memory of... "
And finally, if they cry, it's OK.
To order copies of the book, go to www.DragonflyWings4Emmalee.com. Readers can email Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.