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Anticipatory Grief

My son, eight years old and afraid
he’ll catch this virus and die, is already

mourning. Even if I live to be old,
he says, I still don’t want to die

at the end of my life. He can’t bear
the thought of that great loneliness,

the lack of all that matters. Underneath,
I suspect, is a greater, darker fear that

his dad and I will catch this virus and
orphan him. His nightmares are on the rise.

He packs his anxieties into an old, metal
Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box, jagged-

cut printer paper scrawled with wavering
graphite lines filling the steel void. Often,

at night, the box isn’t enough, so he gathers
twelve small worry dolls into a huddle on

the bedside table. When the ‘D’ word [death] seeps into his consciousness, he asks for a doll,

into whose tiny, cloth ears he whispers things
only she can hear, then tucks her securely

under his pillow. I tell him, wrapping my arm
around him in the dark, I can be his worry doll, too.

He doesn’t speak, but pulls my hand to his chest,
to the exact spot, he’s told me, that gives the most

accurate reading of his pulse. Then, he presses his
hand, small and warm, over the back of mine.

This piece by Melissa Joplin Higley appeared first on Writer’s Digest. Melissa Joplin Higley is the Grand Prize winner of the 90th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition.

Melissa Joplin Higley has traveled internationally as a sound engineer and has worked as a trumpet teacher, yoga teacher, editor, manuscript reader, and writing consultant. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches writing at SUNY-Purchase College. She currently lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y. with her husband and son. Find her online at

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