Sunday, November 20, 2011

question: grieving openly around children

This question is from my lovely friend MA who would like to remain mostly anonymous: 

Do you think it is bad to grieve openly around our kids, or not to do it at all? Do you think they are growing up with a sort of ..shadow? I know I always, every day, miss my brother who was my mother's first child and stillborn. My mother only talked about him twice, and I don't know anything other than his name and that he is dead. And I have felt an intense sadness all my life. Is being open about it a better idea? Or worse?

Thank you for this question. I just want to express my condolences. I have known you for four years now, and I did not know you lost a brother in this way, like my own child. I imagine that growing up in this way was confusing--to feel grief and not understand it.

This question was sent to me a month ago and initially, I thought I had heaps to say about it, then I kept staring at it, turning my head, re-reading it. If it were a three-dimensional object, I would have taken it up, spun it around, held it, studied it. I would have allowed the weight of it to sink into my arms. I would have made notes on it. I would have seen it is a loaded question for me, and not coincidentally, issues I have been thinking about lately in regards to my own life. So, I am grateful to visit this topic. Thank you, love.

The truth is I don't know what is bad or good, what is better or worse, but I can only tell you what my philosophy is and what approach I am using with my children and what I experienced coming up. I have written about this here, about raising my children with a dead sister. I'm sure my views will evolve and change. One noticeable change is that the immediacy I once felt to connect them to Lucia is diminishing. Not that I don't want them to develop a relationship with her and grieve for the loss they experienced, but I don't want to force them to grieve. I want to give them the space to come to those questions on their own timeline, and not force them to love and grieve Lucy the way I do. I include Lucia where it seems appropriate. I will always stop any conversation, event, daily routine to answer questions or talk about grief with my children, and to allow them the emotional space to feel sad and to miss. Lucy is my child. I never deny her to my children.

You asked me if they are growing up with a sort of shadow. And I think yes, of course. My husband and I have a shadow too. We lost a child, and that is never really gone no matter how much we acknowledge Lucia and integrate her into our lives. That shadow is our grief. It is the space where we imagined a daughter, where she fit into our family, where she is not. The depth, breadth, weight, height of our girl is simply a darkness. We will always see it. We will always grieve. It is okay. We grieve because we love her so damned much.

I grieved and still grieve openly in front of my children. The early months of my grief were so powerful that I couldn't contain it if I had wanted. I couldn't have grieved entirely separately from Beatrice, even if I wanted to, though often I did grieve alone and away from everyone. I just had to pay attention to grief. It demanded everything of me. Yet the equally demanding nature of having a twenty month old, for that is how old Beatrice was when Lucia died, meant that I was very present most of the time with her. It is not that I didn't feel that claustrophobic grief perched, talons deep into my flesh, on my chest, constantly pecking at my heart all day, but rather, I just did what I had to do, because a twenty-month old needs to eat whether her sister is dead or not.

There were times when crying overtook me while I toasted bread and spread butter on it for Beezus. I sat uneating, head cocked, watching her take her small sparrow-like bites and tears fell in spite of myself. But in general, I used Beezus as a way to hold those emotions at bay and just remain in the moment. My inner dialogue mostly was like this:

Take out bread. Put it in the toaster. Lucy is dead. Holy shit, Lucy is dead. Why isn't this toast popping? Lucy is dead. Bread pops. Pull out bread. Butter toast. Cut it up into squares. Lucy is dead. Put it on plate. Call Beezus to the table. Grab her put her in the chair. Listen to her voice. It is a bell. Her voice is angellic. What would Lucy's voice sound like? I am weeping uncontrollably. Stop crying. Lucy is dead. Baby Bea is eating. She is eating. She is alive. She is so cute. "You are so cute, Beezus. Give mama kisses. YAY, butter kisses." She is perfect. So was Lucy. Lucy is dead.

But mostly, when Beatrice went to bed, I broke down. I screamed and howled. I cried and wrote Lucia's name a thousands of times in a notebook. I allowed myself to feel the full weight of the grief that I had been carrying. I allowed it to crush me and to cry about it.

So, did I grieve openly? I did. Did I really grieve openly? I didn't.

I did not and do not now express all the emotions I feel around my children. And I don't think any adult should. Not joy, or grief, or anger or lust, you get what I am saying? My children are young, and their emotional understanding is limited, so I don't put all those heavy adult emotions on them. I don't scream at the top of my lungs when I am angry. I very often pause and breathe deeply, because that is what we do as parents. And I shake off the immediacy of the anger. We rein in our emotions and parent. It is the same with grief. It is particularly difficult with grief because grief is like the hobo train hopper of emotions--it comes in the form of sadness and anger and guilt and jealousy and apathy and all those emotions we misplace. So, it is particularly difficult not to scream at a two year old for very normal two year old behaviour in the early months of grief. But we cannot succumb to those impulses, no matter how urgent they feel. Anger is a normal, healthy response to something that scares us, but what we do with it defines us.

In my childhood, I didn't see my mother (or father) cry until I was well into my twenties. It was a weakness in our house to cry or express any negative emotion, like anger or jealousy. Emotions were not encouraged. If you feel angry, there is something wrong with you. I grew very ashamed of my very normal emotional responses. My parents taught me that you suck it up. The effect of that has permeated and deleteriously affected every aspect of my life. Swallowing my emotions did not teach me that there weren't problems, or that my parents weren't depressed, it just taught me that emotions were weakness. That I was supposed to be different, or special, or superhuman. It was a kind of terminal uniqueness--death by being special and a-emotional.You suck it up and drink. I have learned through coming to a point of acceptance in my alcoholism that I either have to spit it out or drink it down. Lucy's death was the catalyst for my sobriety and for really looking at my approach to my emotional well-being. I could no longer stuff the grief and negative emotions into the deep recesses of my body where they were allowed to create a rotted out hole in me. I could not hide the crying, or the emotions. I couldn't ignore the very demanding emotional rigors of my daughter's death. And I had been taught throughout my entire life that the emotions I was feeling were weak, pathetic, unbecoming, and downright wrong. Today, I understand that I don't have to live with shame on top of grief.

So, I am trying teach my children that all emotions are okay, but what we do with them defines our character. Being able to express themselves and have the emotional intelligence to understand what they are going through, I think, will be a gift to them. To see their parents experience their emotions in a healthy way, i.e. grieve and cry and light a candle, rather than get loaded and pass out on the couch, hopefully will help them when they face the grief they will feel about Lucy's death. One thing I have learned in recovery is that just because I feel something doesn't mean I have to act on that feeling. Feelings change. But actions remain permanent.

Have you every seen that book Everyone Poops? I tell my children this: Everyone poops and everyone cries, though they usually don't poop and cry at the same time. I think seeing their mother and father cry might make them both more compassionate adults, give her the permission to be true to her emotions that I didn't have. At least that is what I am hoping. What do you think?

For Cathy from Missouri, I am going to be answering your incredibly beautiful comment/question from this post tomorrow. Thank you for asking it. And as always, I am always willing to wax and muse on any questions you might have about religion, parenting, sobriety, kids, crafts, arts and anything else. I read a lot, so there is that too. You can email me at uberangie(at)gmail(dot)com.


  1. This was so important for me to read today Angie. You see I haven't posted on my blog in almost 2 weeks. I started my period a couple days ago and I just haven't been able to stop crying for days now. I know Hormones ARE WONKY and they are not great when combined with grief. I have just felt overwhelmed almost like it was the first month after Camille died. On the 30th of this month it will be 5 months. I cry in front of my son. Less than I did initially but the last couple days the crying is uncontrollable. He looks at me and says "I love you mama" "I wish Camille was here to hold her and teach her how to eat" Sometimes he will rattle out a huge list of things he wishes to teach Camille. It breaks my heart but I love it at the same time. When I give him kisses and he wipes them off I tell him they have already soaked in all the way to his peaceful spot. He says "yes, right next Camille" The problem is my short fuse. My patience is short these days and geeze it is frustrating to me. I had to appologize like 3-4 times the other day. I believe crying in front of him is important, I try to be really honest and talk to him about grief and love and happiness and being grateful and anger and apology. I know we all do our best but sometimes it just isn't good enough. I wonder if it would be different dealing with grief without a 2.5 year old around, but it is what it is. I cry but don't always BALL in front of him. He knows when I am crying like while I am driving because my voice gets all breathy and I space my responses out and have to suck big amounts of air in to try and hold back the buckets. I remember reading blogs after Camille died saying that between 4-6 months things get really hard again. That is where I am and I know it is harder than I anticipated it would be. It feels so fresh all the time. People ask if it is getting easier, in all honesty what is 4 months when my daughters ashes are on my library shelf. It feels like yesterday that she was safe inside me and also and eternity since I have been with her. Grief is tricky and comes when we expect it and when we don't. I think we all do the best we can.

  2. This post dredged up a bunch of feelings. I gave you credit on my post (I'm sure you're honored, smile). Thanks. Seriously, I appreciate it. I need to feel more.

  3. There was just no option for me; all 4 of my girls were here, every day, all the time - all too old and too aware not to be grieving desperately themselves.

    I think it would have been odd for them to see me not sad, desperately sad. I think they would have wondered if I would just have moved on if they died too.

    I think it matters, to bring our future generation up to be less repressed than we are. My dh shuts up and moves on so fast, that I felt guilty for looking at Freddie's photos 2 days after his death. Max would have preferred me not to, I think.

    19 months on, my girls do not appear harmed by my evident grief. I think in some respects it was a good thing, to have a parent who grieved openly and one who dealt more privately and internally. It helped them to see we are all different. It helped my criers to cry and my private, closed daughters to know it was okay not to.

    And of course, 19 months, nearly 20 months on, they see that Freddie is still loved and missed but that we are upright and together and focused on love and recovery. And if, gods forbid, this happens to any of them (and I have 4 daughters, it so easily might) I hope they will remember that when it happened to me, to us, I and we recovered and found a new place to be that was still upright. And so will they.

  4. I recently met a woman in her 20's who told me that her mother only told her of his sisters (twins) death fairly recently. She was angry that she didn't know, and it also filled in the pieces for her. She never knew why her mom was so sad some of the time. I think honesty is the only way to go here. I don't know what I'll tell George, but I don't plan on lying to him. He had a brother and he died. Where I'll go from there, I'm not sure.

  5. My mother lost a child at 7 months. She still, after the death of my boys, will not talk about the baby. I don't know if it was a boy or girl. I sit here typing and I can't tell you if I have a brother or sister. It's hard to know what to do...

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  7. Far too many typos in my first attempt.

    I know this is far from the point but . . . there is a book called 'EVERYBODY POOPS?!' The whole concept of everybody does x, y and z (has accidents, burps, farts, has tantrums, gets in a stress) is my constant refrain, usually concluding with EVEN the QUEEN! Wonder if she gets a mention in the book?!

    This was such a beautiful, considered post. I have certainly also mentioned G to J even since she was a baby. If I could use the word privilege in relation to this situation, I suppose I would say that losing one of twins from my first pregnancy gave me the privilege of time. Unlike Bea or Merry's girls, Jessica was far too young to understand and she will never have that immediacy I might have wished to give her in the first months. I can certainly understand that impulse, it is one that I definitely had and has now died away.

    I suppose I'm just muddling on as best I can. I agree with you, that full on adult emotions are not appropriate, and also that hiding emotions that aren't palatable, well that's not going to work either. Spit it out or drink it down. Sometimes it is that stark a choice.

    I'm one who has always had to spit it out because I'm no good at dissembling or containing. I've always considered it as a weakness. As Merry has said, I've always wondered if, I expressed no sadness or emotion, over G's death if J might not feel that I would not mourn her if she died? Or if she had died instead?

    Could ramble on for longer but perhaps I might take this back to my own blog! Thank you for such thought provoking writing x

  8. I sent my children away at first. Needing to really be able to wrap my mind around the whole idea of death and my baby not coming home. I felt bad about that but I think now that it was good. I was able to calm down some and control my grief in a way that was not so dramatic and crazed. Now when I cry or fail to get off the couch all day, I can say to them, Mom is having a bad day. I tell them it is okay to be sad and I miss their little brother but I still love them and I just need a moment for my heart to hurt a little. Then after I cry and have a hard time, I talk to them about their brother and I share the few memories we have. I think it good for them to know that we are grieving and understand that the love we have for them and their sibling is unconditional no matter if we are holding them or wishing we could hold them.


What do you think?