Support For A Child In Grief

I didn’t need to answer the phone to know that something was wrong.  Teen sons, in my experience, don’t just call Mom out of the blue.  A trembling voice confirmed my fear – something terrible had happened.  Beagle’s good friend, one of his posse, has died.

I find myself telling the news to everyone I cross paths with – not for any hope of consolation, but rather to solidify the truth.  Repeating the words moves me toward acceptance.  Beagle doesn’t know why, but he’s doing the same thing.  He didn’t want to talk at length about the tragedy, he just wanted to tell me, then hang up the phone and tell the next person and the next, until he could believe what he was saying.

In the hierarchy of horribleness, the passing of a child trumps the list of losses that one could encounter in a lifetime.  Few things are more cruel and bewildering.  When a life is cut far too short, the facade of relative safety and structure that outlines our typical days explodes, leaving us exposed to the elements of reality.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life does not belong to us.  If it did, we would get to decide when it ended.

I have been around this block before, of course, and I know my way through grief.  But Beagle does not.  He is barely a man-cub and not yet fully versed in love and loss.  The time has come for Husband and I to teach lessons we had hoped would not arise for many years.

We cannot spare our boy any pain.  We can only hold a space for it, allowing it to express itself in any of its wildly varying forms.  We begin to paint a picture of grief, leading by example with unrestrained tears, voiced regrets, and demonstrations of strength and support.

We show and tell Beagle that no matter how mature you become, you will struggle with death.  The very fact that you have dared to love and connect to others means that you will suffer loss.  Try not to hate love for loss.  Try not to hate life for death.  Keep your heart open.  Don’t construct walls where doors should be.  And promise me you won’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of masculinity.  Real men DO cry.

Beagle, you were meant to cross paths with your friend who left so soon.  The chapter of time with him is done, but the story doesn’t end.  The two of you will eternally be connected.  You will remember him and integrate him into your future with stories and rituals.  You will find ways to honor him.  You will introduce him to people who will never meet him. 

Eventually, happiness will touch your sorrow.  You will smile when you think of your time together instead of feeling drawn into the pit of your belly.  Don’t rush the healing. And don’t prolong it for anyone else’s sake.  Let it evolve in it’s own time.  Trust your heart to guide you. 

We were all lucky to have known this sweet boy.  Thank you, Beagle, for bringing him into our lives.  Know that we are here for you, supporting you as you leave the innocence and carefreeness of your youth behind.  You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to.  You are far from alone.

How To Stick To A New Year’s Resolution

A woman sat at her desk at 10 a.m. counting the minutes until lunch.  She was staaarrrving, she said, despite the fact that she had eaten breakfast just 2 hours before. Self-deprivation was masquerading as hunger in response to the woman’s decision to give up sugar entirely, thereby prompting her refusal to partake in the customary mid-morning coffee and donut run.

I took a step back in case she decided to take a bite out of my arm.  I’ve seen this level of desperation before.  It follows the January 1st festival of resolution-setting that can create misery amongst otherwise happy, even-tempered humans.

Resolutionists have good intentions to better themselves, but many make the mistake of declaring war instead of transformation and end up embattled with an enemy they can’t defeat.  They decide that they’re somehow failing and they plot a course of action so extreme and unfriendly, they can’t possibly sustain the motivation to pursue lasting positive change.  It’s as if they’re running away from themselves, leaving behind the person they are for the better version they want. 

But we can’t outrun ourselves.  Wherever we go, there we are, judging and shaming and should-ing all over ourselves.  If we fail to prepare properly, we find the journey of self-improvement to be  lonely and impossible.  So we turn back, unable to see it through to the end.  Then, of course, we emerge with a new reason to be disappointed in ourselves.

If we want to create meaningful change, we have to change our personal stories.  Instead of running the script of defeat in which it’s sooooo hard to lose weight, or to break a habit, we begin to introduce compassion. 

In this softer story, we love ourselves enough to change eating habits thoughtfully and gradually; we  resist temptation by showering ourselves with simple comforts and words of encouragement; and we muster up the same patience with ourselves that we would grant to a small child who’s learning a new skill.

The secret to change is love, plain and simple.  (If you snorted bitterly when you read that, take a breath.  It’s truer than true.) When we meet ourselves without anger and resistance, we find compassion instead of contempt.  Via the loving way, we encounter no enemy within, no destructive thought to sabotage our goal.  There is only kindness, pulling us along, picking us up, and making us feel like the better person we want to be.

Change can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.  Now that January has come to a close, I hope to find all of my friends in good health and spirits – unbeaten by their own austerity, and unintimidated by the smell of a donut.

He, She, It, They

On my 10th birthday I received the #1 toy on my wish list – a remote control dune buggy.  I recall the rapture of childhood as I steered the car around my house, watching it flip when it hit a wall.  I was in heaven….until an aunt walked in and saw me playing with it.

“What are you, a BOY?” she asked in a trill voice with an unmistakably judgmental tone.

My elation turned to deflation.  That single question bore into my core with the essence of my wrongness – the wrongness of my desires, the wrongness of surrendering to utter happiness, the wrongness of ME.  I had exposed myself without any forewarning and I suffered a painful blow in consequence.  It was no longer safe to be vulnerable.

The sting of this injury to my self-esteem guided me years later when I became a mother.  Determined to do right by my own children, I subscribed to gender-neutral philosophy.  Bedrooms were painted in greens and whites, and toys were chosen for merit – not gender appeal.  A part of me wanted my first-born daughter to like ‘boy toys’ so that I could unabashedly support her in the way that I would have appreciated when I was a child.  But my darling little girl had other ideas.

One of Principessa’s early nicknames was Girly.  This photo might explain why.

Girly expressed her passion for all things pink and glittery in over-the-top style.  One almost got the impression that she had been assaulted by her dress-up box. When given the choice between a toy car or a doll carriage, she opted for the carriage and bedazzled it.

As she grew, Girly continued to live her life mostly within societal expectations for her gender.   Nonetheless, I paraded through parenting carrying a torch I adopted from 1970s feminist, Marlo Thomas. The “Free to Be You and Me” movement saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity.  I adore this concept and the way in which it was conveyed – through entertainment.  It was a friendly and palatable invitation to broaden limited thinking.

The same may be said about the modern movement to blur gender phraseology – except for the ‘friendly and palatable’ part.  The suggestion, or growing demand, that we alter the use of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ to ‘they’ or ‘it’, is an attack on long-held grammatical rules. As one linguist said, pronouns are like hardware and not so easily changed as nouns which are more like software.

When one is trying to convey a point, especially one as complex as gender identity, one must make the information user-friendly.  If the audience can’t understand the language, the message is lost.  Such was the case of the student who received an acceptance letter from Brown University that referred to her as they. The girl and her family were understandably confused and off-put.

One can sympathize with those who identify with alternative gender context.  They want to be referred to in a way that feels authentic to them.  If someone called me Sir, I’d take offense because I identify as woman.  We crave self-identification but we loathe labels, especially ones that feel incorrect or offensive.  

It’s clear that binary concepts of gender are outdated, but language structure is not.  Altering language to avoid offending, may be, in theory, a righteous thing to do.  But when it meddles with comprehension and clarity, it looks more like a stunt or a passing fad.

I once knew a man who taught his dog obedience with nonsense words.  The command SIT was KETCHUP.  He had great fun with this, and his dog didn’t care because the intention was understood and unchanging.  But no one else could instruct the dog unless they had first learned the language. 

Words are just a bunch of letters thrown together for the purpose of communication.  They have no meaning except that which we assign to them.  The problem is that humans don’t always agree on meaning. We can get very emotional about words.  

Freedom, evolution, and expansion of the mind change how we think about things so we feel the need to change what we call those things.  But if we cannot agree on language, communication suffers.  If communication deteriorates, society follows suit.  The poet Margaret Atwood said, “War is what happens when language fails.”

Sometimes in war we arrive at the question, “What are we fighting for?”  Is it tolerance we’re seeking by changing the language people use to describe us?  Do we become more tolerant as a result of the language we use?  Or is it the opposite – is respectful language a result of tolerance?

This conundrum is not easily solved.  But one thing is certain, if we communicate with closed fists, we’re bound to propagate the very problem we’re trying to alter – intolerance.  Perhaps, if we focus less on words and more on intention, we will preserve not only our ability to comprehend each other, but our civility as well.

City Girl and the Space Invader

Peach, a fear-filled girl like her mother, was the only person home with me when something went ‘bump’ in the night. More accurately, the something went ‘tap, tap, tap.’  My desire was to hide under the bed covers and hope that whatever made the sound would disappear. But protective mothering instincts kicked in when I realized that whatever it was could harm my little one if the only adult in the house didn’t get her trembling butt out of bed.

The sound was loud, persistent, and not reactive to me turning on every light in the house, which made me even more scared and truly on the verge of utter panic. This anxious mental state, combined with a 2 a.m. stupor, dulled my deductive reasoning capabilities. When I couldn’t find the source of the sound, I began to entertain the idea of ghosts trapped in my walls.

The tapping sound seemed to stop when I approached a certain interior wall which gave me hope that it was a living critter and not other-worldly. But it didn’t match any of the crawling, scratching sounds that I was familiar with.

When I polled friends the next day, every one of them initially offered the ‘mouse in the wall’ theory and proceeded with tales of their own experience with rodent invaders. But I too have been-there-done-that and this was no mouse!

One wise sleuth guessed ‘woodpecker’ which seemed like a possible match so I ran with it and started consulting the knower of all things. Google informed me that woodpeckers have sharply-clawed toes and and strong, pointed beaks that act as a chisel and crowbar. This is disturbing information when said bird is within the confines of one’s house. When I got to the part about a woodpecker’s 4-inch long tongue that can wrap around its skull, I closed the page. Visions of a vicious and frustrated bird pecking my brains out while clinging to my face made me shiver.

I am countrified enough to know that woodpeckers primarily eat insects, which adds a layer of disturbance as my house may be infested with termites. A reasonable thing to do would be to call an exterminator or a critter-extractor who would be happy to divest me of a large fee to rid my house of unconfirmed pests. Or, I could wait for the space invader to present itself by pecking a hole through the wall, thus declaring its exact whereabouts and whatabouts.

Neither of these options is attractive to me or to Husband who is a staunch do-it-yourselfer. But as the occurrences of nighttime prowling have not abated, we need to take action.  Suggestions are welcome..as long as they don’t involve a City Girl crawling into dark places with a gunny sack and a flashlight.

 

Who Am I? And When Will I Know?

Peach came to me with a delighted look on her face after receiving a compliment from a friend who told her, “I wish I had your life.  You’re so cool.”  This surprised Peach who, of course, spends time thinking the same thoughts about others. 

She repeated the words several times, testing my reaction, seeking validation and convincing herself that it could be true.  ‘Cool’ isn’t a concept she’d tried on before.  Did it fit?  Could she pull it off?  We are what we believe we are, but how do we know what to believe?

I wish I could say it’s only tweens and teens who absorb the opinions of others in order to define themselves.  But too many times as an adult I’ve caught myself feeling good or bad based on another person’s criticism or compliment.

In my book, Tween You and Me:  A Preteen Guide To Becoming Your Best Self, I advocate for girls to know themselves, be themselves, and love themselves.  What I don’t highlight is how challenging the first step is.

Figuring out who we are is lifelong work.  We’re like a slow-cooked meal that needs extended time to simmer before emerging from the pot in the form of palatable dish.  Becoming a mature person who understands herself takes patience and practice.  It requires us to spend time on the inside, releasing the flavor of us, bit by bit.

A sage will advise you to ‘Listen to your heart’ or your gut, or some such organ, to guide you through life.  But if we haven’t established a relationship with our innards, this advice is useless.  We’re likely to choose the more convenient but tenuous path of adopting the world’s idea of who we should be.  Seeing ourselves in the mirror of the world can be helpful, but the world can only show us how we are.  It can’t define who we are.

Certain Native American tribes had naming ceremonies, sometimes beginning at birth.  The name reflected a virtue the parents hoped for the baby to have.  This would be replaced in adolescence in response to a strength for which the child was known.  As an adult, another name might be granted to reflect an expectation for the person to live up to.  The process of identification was fluid.

The goal in getting to know yourself isn’t to land on one comprehensive definition.  The goal is to become skilled enough at turning inward that you can see, understand, and act in accordance with your true vision and values as they apply to any given moment. 

As parents, we want this for our children.  We want to know that they’re armored with self-confidence and immune to the judgmental world.  We want for them what we still don’t possess for ourselves 100% of the time.  The best we can do is meet them where they’re at, not trying to change anything, and not expecting adult-level responses to the feedback that hammers them every day from all directions.

I offered Peach an observation of my own.  “I see a girl who is growing and learning every day.  I see a girl who is a good friend and loves her family.  I see a girl who wonders about things with an imaginative mind and works tirelessly at creating.  This girl has ideas worth sharing and a future that’s bright. And I think that makes you pretty cool.”

Peach smiled at this and said, “Thanks.  I think I can see that too.”

Big Girls Should Cry

Friend is a self-described control freak and I love her for it.  I adore a person who’s self-aware and can be unapologetically true to herself.

‘Control’ works for Friend.  It makes her feel safe.  She knows how to stay in her comfort zone so she’ll operate at optimal capacity.  For the most part, this works well for our friendship. Until….Friend’s controlling tendencies cause her to suffer.  Then I, in my emotion-loving, demonstrative Italian way, need to step in.

As a controller, Friend doesn’t cry.  Ever.  She likes to tell herself that she doesn’t need to.  But I don’t buy that hogwash for a second.  Friend is forthcoming about her predisposition to ulcers.  And she makes her own association between stuffing down negative, raw feelings and the resultant deterioration of her innards.  I encourage her to let it all out but this is like asking a zebra to shed its stripes.  It feels too naked and vulnerable.

Sometimes, when Friend is moved by emotion and I hear the feeling creeping up in her trembly voice, I poke the sensitivity for her, hoping that the tears will find their tipping point. But Friend is a master represser who doesn’t yet trust in the beauty of unbridled expression.

I won’t give up on her because I want her to enjoy the All-Access Pass to Life.  I want to help her see the depth and beauty that lies below the surface of the happy human experience. 

This sounds macabre.  But in truth, the realm of darkness balances the lightness of life.  It provides a broader range within which we can explore the vastness that might otherwise be limited by our own fear of discovery.

Life is like an amusement park with benign kiddie rides as well as thrill rides.  If we choose to sit on a bench watching wistfully as the more daring park-goers ride the Tower of Terror, we might feel safe and content but we’re shorting ourselves the full experience.  If we eschew our own emotional roller coasters such as grief, depression or loss, we miss the thrill of having conquered the entire range of emotions at our disposal.  We become observers on the sidelines of our own life, not daring to dive into our limits.

When I rode my first upside-down roller coaster at 40 years old, I nearly fainted from fear.  But the feeling quickly passed and was replaced with immense satisfaction in having allowed myself to participate.  The same response happened during my first public speaking event, and my wedding, and every other situation in which I am the center of attention.  Our rollercoasters are everywhere. 

Unlike me, being in the limelight is a safe zone for Friend.  But feeling and expressing downbeat emotion is her roller coaster.  I have to remind her sometimes that no one actually ‘cries their eyes out.’  And that if she ‘breaks down and cries’ she won’t actually break.  She will simply bust through the barrier that has been holding in all the hurt.

I propose a reciprocal fear-conquering goal for myself and Friend.  One day, I will put myself in front of a large public gathering to tell a heartfelt personal story, and she will sit in the audience, moved to tears, begging for tissues, because she refuses to stop crying until she is spent.  Afterwards, we will both feel shell-shocked and nauseated, but we will have each other to lean on.  When we recover, we will toast to our bravery, then, most likely, we’ll head back to our comfort corners where I will observe on the outskirts and she will smile her way through distress.  But at least we’ll be able to say that we defied our demons and lived to tell about it. 

Growing Pains

Friend is facing her first experience of launching a child off to college and is beginning to do the mother-bird scramble.

“Should I be doing something?”  she asked with a slight hint of panic.  “Did I forget to give my son some sort of key family experience?  Will he grow up and say ‘you never did this with me….’?”

I laughed out loud because this is what friends do when they’re smug about already having moved through a parenting stage that a girlfriend is struggling with.

“It’s simple,” I told her.  “No, you shouldn’t be trying to make up for missed opportunities.  Because yes, your son will tell you that you short-changed him in childhood – no matter what hoops you’ve jumped through to make his life spectacular.”

Knowing this doesn’t stop us parents from trying to over-provide as we send our babies out into the world.  For yours truly, sending my second child off to college this year, my un-nesting ritual included a trip to the pharmacy to prepare an insanely sophisticated First Aid kit, the likes of which could patch up a wounded soldier on the front lines of war; one who also suffers from cold, flu, sunburn, allergies and bug bites.

Let’s face it, this milestone is big-huge for parents, not just kids.  We want to make sure that we’ve checked all the boxes.

When our babies were small, we had growth charts that told us if they were getting what they needed.  Then we had academic progress reports to inform us.  What nebulous system, besides coming of age, do we use to reassure us that they’re adequately prepared to be solo in the big wide world?

We know, deep down, that all will be well.  But we may also secretly fear that our child will crash and burn.  And worse, that it will be our fault – a result of some failing on our part.

This is a rabbit hole that my mind has fallen into more than once.  Like earlier this summer when I determined that 14 year old Peach didn’t have enough structured activity to keep her from melting in to a lazy pile of teenaged decay.  In short, I panicked and began arranging to-do lists for her to complete.  I lectured her about the balance between work and play, giving and receiving.  And I admonished her for her resistance to my lessons.

“The only time you’re growing is when you’re uncomfortable.” I told her, stealing wisdom from a blog I had read that day.

“Uncomfortable?!” she repeated.  Check.  Double check.  We were both miserable thanks to my reactionary measures.

So goes the learning process.  I’m still growing too.

Friend and I poked fun at ourselves, which always serves to lessen the growing pains.  We decided that our misguided fears about parenting are borne of the immense love we have for our children. 

Love and fear are catastrophically intertwined.  It is these two reasons, only these two, that drive all of our actions.

I give to my child because I love him AND I fear that he will suffer without my support.

I withhold from my child because I love him and I fear that he will be spoilt.

Same. Same.

I tried to explain this to Peach by way of an apology.  “If I get crazy, you’re allowed to ask me what I’m afraid of.” 

Peach might just be brave enough to confront me with my own fear.  If she does, I promised to be okay with the discomfort, because I’m told that if one masters discomfort, one can master anything.

There’s plenty of discomfort on my doorstep as a parent of three, and letting go has been challenging.  But I think, overall, I’m doing pretty well with it.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

%d bloggers like this: