Sometimes I wish I could time travel to the future and check on my living kids. I would really appreciate some validation that I’m supporting them through tragedy and not creating avoidable trauma.
In other words – is my grief screwing up my living kids?
Lessons from the past
My family has had loss in previous generations. Some I always knew about, some I didn’t. None of it was a common topic or theme, but it was there. And it was all – to use relationship terminology – “removed.” It was my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation – not my own.
I feel a lot of empathy for what my ancestral women went through. They obviously didn’t have the internet to connect and support them, and they likely had slim-to-no support from their own families and friends. The compartmentalization and essentially ignoring what happened may have worked for some of them.
I’m not so sure. One elder family member was not very understanding when my infant son died and said some very hurtful things. I can’t help but wonder if it was her own personal trauma leaking out. What I do know, is I don’t want to react that same way towards someone who is hurting from the loss of a child.
Managing my grief
I, personally, cannot ignore or compartmentalize my son who died. He is part of my family, part of our story. His pictures are up, his birthday is celebrated, he is and always will be one of us. Our living children (ages 5 and 3) already know about him. There’s no pretending it didn’t happen now!
Like all parents, we engage in a balancing act. Grief is there, but it isn’t everything. There are moments, but they aren’t all the time. The balance we have feels right to us, and we try not to force the kids into participating in rituals. This will certainly be more of a challenge as they get older and have stronger opinions. For now cake, presents, hiking, and family time are all well and good – yet we are preparing ourselves for when the reasons behind these activities may make our living kids less comfortable with it.
It’s important to my partner and me that we don’t try to stifle our children’s emotions. We acknowledge and validate – even the negative ones. When they say they are sad, we try to understand why and sit with them. If it’s something minor (I’m sad because I didn’t get enough play time), we talk and try to work through it.
Not everything has a solution though, and when they are sad because they didn’t get to meet Obie, there is no easy fix. It is tempting to deflect and distract, but it’s not how we handle it. We say, “Me too,” and offer a hug. We assure them it’s OK to be sad about it.
Questions with hard answers
Sometimes we end up in very difficult conversations. I am currently pregnant, and my 3-year-old sometimes squeals that it isn’t Itsy Bitsy (our nickname for this baby) in my belly – it’s Obie. It makes my heart drop and I try to match her energy when I tell her that it isn’t Obie. Is she being silly? Is she confused? I try to suss it out.
Other times it’s more straightforward. Questions like, “Why did Obie die?” come up from time to time. We are as honest and age-appropriate as possible. It’s hard.
Are we doing the right thing?
Back to my wish… who knows? I wish I could visit the future and ask my living children at 15, 25, or 35 how they are. Should I have handled it all differently? Did I put too much on them? Was I too open? Not open enough? What’s the right way to do this?
They seem OK right now. They are joyful, they make friends, and they talk about Obie occasionally. They do get sad, but it isn’t every time they mention him. That said, everything could change. As they get older and understand more… will they have survivor’s guilt? Will they do the math and realize they might not have existed if Obie had lived? Should we prepare for these kinds of questions now? Send them to a qualified therapist?
Is there a right thing?
I don’t know. The right thing for my kids and my family may not be the right thing for someone else. What I think, what experts think, may not prove to be the best choice – because we won’t know for decades! It’s overwhelming.
For now, the right-est thing we are trying to do is continue modeling love, understanding, and validation. I really hope that’s enough.