Leah Berenson
Leah Berenson
March 29, 2024 ·  5 min read

‘Both My Parents Knew They Would Die Before I Turned Nine’

Sydni Dunn shares with Vice News a beautiful memory she had with her mother in her final days. She recalls they went to a $1 matinee at their local movie theater, where she saw one of her favorite movies at the time. Sydni recalls that they had the whole theater to themselves. It was a school day, which is where she should have been too. She shares that because since they had the theater to themselves, they did cartwheels and danced ballet in the aisles. However, despite the uncertainty they faced as a family, her mom likely wanted to make sure she felt loved, happy, and secure.

Sharing a Hardhitting Moment

When they got back to the car, Sydni says, “She (Syndi’s mom) turned to look over her shoulder at me, sitting in the back in my booster seat, and calmly began: “Sydni, I want you to know if something ever happens to Mommy, if Mommy goes to live with Daddy in Heaven, you will be safe.

She also recalls in the movie, The Little Princess, that the girl’s father came home at the end, although hers never would. Sydni’s father had passed away from AIDS, and her mother was also losing the same battle. Her mother had told her several times about the plans for her future. She would go live in Louisiana with her aunt, uncle, and 2 cousins. Despite one day losing her mother, after having lost her father, she would gain new siblings to play with. Sydni would be near her grandparents and would live out a new adventure.

Image Credit: Sydni Dunn

That might be why my mom prompted the after-movie performance, to get my mind off the plot. Or she simply wanted to have some fun with her little girl. Either way, I’m happy she did: It’s one of my most cherished memories, and the afternoon remains in my mind so vivid that I can smell the popcorn and feel my belly ache from giggling,” Sydni says fondly of that special memory.

Sydni, reflecting on the moments they’d just shared in the theater, couldn’t understand that her mom would be going anywhere anytime soon. “I was certain it wasn’t going to happen. She was sick a lot, sure, but she wasn’t dying. After all, this was the same woman who moments earlier had lifted her arms over her head and tip-toed around a movie theater like a ballerina.”

A Mother’s Love Equates to Preparation

Preparing for the death of a loved one, especially parents, seems impossible. However, her mom worked with her to help prepare her as much as possible. Sydni also notes that after her father’s passing, her mom did all she could to keep him an active part of their lives. “Though he was no longer physically with us, she incorporated my father into our daily activities.” Her mom would instill into her, ‘My Daddy would have liked my new Tweety bird sweatshirt. My Daddy would be so proud of what a smart girl I was. Or My Daddy was the artist behind the pink cotton-candy sunsets we admired on our evening walks.‘ Syndi concludes with, “She taught me discussion was a healthy part of the grieving process and assured me that my feelings of sadness and social isolation were not only justified, but normal.

Sydni went through a hardship that many of us cannot even imagine. She was just a young girl and life had thrown some pretty intense circumstances her way. “At the same time, she (Sydni’s mom) stimulated my independence: I chose my own outfits. I prioritized my after-school activities. I was trusted to call 9-1-1 for help if she needed it. She also exemplified strength and instilled in me a sense of self-worth. I was strong and brave. I could do anything. It was us against the world.”

Rediscovering Happiness

For Sydni, and most likely others, the most important part of losing someone is the memories we create with them prior to their passing. Sydni recalls that these moments permanently live within her heart. “We spun ourselves dizzy in giant pastel teacups at Disney World. We thumped broom handles on the ceiling to silence the upstairs neighbor who practiced “My Heart Will Go On” on the organ.” She also shares, “We stacked cafeteria trays with pies of every flavor at Luby’s on “Friday Pie Day,” our special tradition.”

Her mom also left behind for her, memories that she would discover as time went on. “Other memories would only reveal themselves over time: After finding a stack of pre-sealed envelopes during the move to Louisiana, I learned my mom was behind the secret admirer cards that had once filled our mailbox. I discovered photographic evidence of my mother laughing, bent over a paw print stencil with a bottle of baby powder, creating Easter Bunny tracks around our home. She archived album upon album of photographs of our life, each snapshot labeled with the location and date.”

Dealing with Grief

Sydni’s mom taught her a valuable lesson that many of us don’t learn until much later in life. Assuming we ever learn it all. Grief has a funny way of not fitting into any kind of box. It shows up unexpectedly and catches us completely off guard.

It doesn’t have any rhyme or reason. Additionally, grief doesn’t just arise from losing a loved one. Sometimes, grief can be associated with sudden big life changes. It can come with readjusting plans when the new job or new house falls through. It can come from wanting something, such as getting accepted to a specific university, then getting a rejection letter.

Grief impacts everyone differently, but Syndi learned early on that it’s important to address these feelings. It’s important to talk things through, to know that they’re not uncommon or unjustified. Facing every aspect of loss is also really important.

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