Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Parenting Crucibles: Childhood Grief

My children were 4, 7, and 11 when their brother passed away.  That day, seemingly ordinary in every other way, Atticus slipped away from us peacefully in his sleep.  As I look back on his little life now, three years later, it seems impossible that a baby has ever been more loved. Our days revolved around him and we doted on his every move, fighting over who got to hold him next.  When love is so strong, it’s only normal for loss to be devastating.  Atticus’ death plunged our family into an indescribable darkness.  We found ourselves crushed under the weight of our grief. 
     Several weeks after the funeral, I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of crying.  As I hurried into my girls’ bedroom, I found them wrapped in each other’s arms, both sobbing.  I crawled into bed with them as my oldest daughter, Leah, simply said, “Atticus”.  As we all cried together until sleep finally provided some relief, I wondered, “Is this life now?  Is this what every day looks like… forever?”  Something in me shifted that night, as I realized that as their mother, I still had to parent my living children- grief and all.  A thought started racing through my mind- “How on earth do we survive this?”  We were beginning to function in some ways again.  But we were changed, we were aching, we were falling apart in the quiet moments.  I struggled to understand- is this just what life looks like now, after we’ve known death? 
     I woke up the next morning determined.  I started researching and reading everything I could get my hands on.  We read picture books about grief that normalized the experiences we were having.  We found a support group for children who had lost an immediate family member.  I sat by the grave with the children that it comforted to do so, and went on long walks with the one that it didn’t.  We leaned into the discomfort and the pain, and stayed there until it became comfortable.  We looked at pictures, made memory books, screamed and punched pillows; we said his name when we could and we stopped when it was too hard.  We baked a lot of cookies.  We would spend time looking at his little clothes;
we gave his diapers away to a homeless family.  We drew pictures and planted a tree.  We would catch each other noticing babies in public and put our arms around each other knowingly.   We pushed ourselves sometimes, and at others we retreated and cried some more.  We learned to be patient with how individual our grief was, and recognized that what helped one of us wasn’t always going to help another.  Most importantly: we learned that love doesn’t end with death.  We let that sink deep into our hearts and we taught ourselves how to live again.            
     One “side effect” our family has experienced from our experiences with grief is that we have learned to be each other’s biggest cheerleaders.  This past Thanksgiving, as I watched the youngest family members playing, I was overcome with my own grief once more.  I know now to give myself some space and time to “feel and deal” with the wave of grief as it comes.  As I escaped for a moment, my oldest son, Ben, now 14, followed me.  “Mom?” he asked as I headed down the stairs, “You ok?” I took a deep breath and tried to explain, “My heart will always wonder what these days would look like…” I had to stop as the emotion took my breath away. Ben finished for me, “…if Atticus was with us.”  My boy, now bigger than me, scooped me up in a giant bear hug and continued, “Mom, he’s so proud of us for living.” 
     Grief is a funny thing.  Before my son died, I thought about it all wrong.  When your child, or someone that dear to you, dies- you don’t ever recover, get over it, or move on.  I had to erase from my mind those false notions, and all of the expectations that came with them.  What you actually do is this: you survive and you grow until you choose to learn to live again.          
     “Though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways I never thought possible before- not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness.  I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within the pain the grace to survive and eventually grow.  I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am.  Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.” – Jerry Sittser

Grief resources for children:
● Sesame Street has a “grief toolbox”, which is a great place to start a conversation about loss with young children.
●  The Dougy Center is a national organization for grieving children and has a helpful breakdown of grief responses in the different stages of child development:
They also offer this tip sheet for caregivers:

Some of our favorite books are:
The Invisible String- a string of love connects us all, and isn’t severed with death.
● I Miss You- a gentle explanation of death.  Also normalizes that feelings of loss, and you aren’t alone in the grief you feel. 

Local Utah Support Groups:
● The Bradley Center, South Jordan, Utah
●  Canary Garden, Orem, Utah

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