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, or...do 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.