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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Grief and Parenting

I had a plan to write my first article for The Mommies Network about parenting while living with grief. I tend to ruminate on things for days before sitting down to begin the process of writing which, since I became a first time parent, has meant that much of my writing has dropped off dramatically – sometimes I find it so difficult to think of what to write on the grocery list, I can't imagine writing anything coherent from the muddle of thoughts in my head!

This though – this is important. It's about how we embrace life after we have experienced great loss. It's about how we live our authentic selves while shielding the people we love, particularly our children, from the chasm we sometimes fall into. It's about finding our way back to joy everyday.

You finally fall asleep.

Out of pure exhaustion, more than anything, you sleep for a few hours. When you awake, there's a split second where everything is ok, before your brain has quite realized that it's opened your eyes and you are about to begin thinking about what exciting things the day offers.

Then you remember and it feels like your ribcage caved in. You pull the blankets over your head and contract, silently screaming, trying to do it where no one else will see, just as you'll do throughout the day. And you wonder why you should get up. Maybe, if you just close your eyes and sleep some more, when you open them again none of this will be true.

But it is and there's nothing to do, so you get up and go through the motions, knowing that if you keep yourself productive, eventually you will be able to get through a day without those silent screams, even if your heart feels like it's got a great big gash in it.

This is the human condition. What I'm feeling is no more unique that what any one person feels when they lose a loved one.


I wrote the above piece 4 years, 10 months, and 8 days ago - 2 days after my younger brother, Ian, died on a summer night in Alaska, 215 miles from where my sister and I had fallen asleep in our home after our Solstice bonfire had been rained out.

I live in numbers now – 7 days until the day he would have turned 30. 1 month, 19 days until the 5th anniversary of his death. My son has been on the planet for 6 months and 6 days without knowing his uncle.

A week ago, Easter Sunday, I was getting ready to bring my son, S, to the church where my partner, a divinity school student, is the membership coordinator. The morning had been easy and I was feeling silly, so when my sister wished us a "Happy Zombie Jesus Day," I pulled a face and goofed with S, talking in a death metal voice about all the fun things we would do at church that day. I stood up, caught my breath, and immediately broke down. See, Ian loved music and, while in college, he dj'd a weekly metal music show. In those 5 minutes of play, it felt like he was there with me, making S laugh while head banging away.

The rest of the day I was in a funk, which is pretty much the absolute worst way for a future minister's wife to behave on Easter. I have carefully crafted a veneer over the years since Ian died, a solid grin that can usually mask even the deepest fissures in my heart for the moments I need to be present and joyful even when I feel hollow inside. There is something about parenting, though, that is peeling away that veneer, leaving me raw again.

I think it's partly a matter of grieving once again, this time on behalf of my parents, now knowing the connection that one can have with a child. I'm also, obviously, grieving for all of the things S won't experience with my brother, the things that Ian could have taught him that my partner and I will never be able to.

With that renewal of grief comes, first, the internal narrative saying, "Oh EFF this! Haven't I already done this every day for almost 5 years? I just started being able to get through a day without zoning out in abject sorrow and now I'm back to breaking down in a puddle of tears again????" And then, fear follows.

Fear that I will once again be encompassed by that loss, that I will struggle to function at even the most basic level. I have a family to nurture now – I have no time for grief! On top of that, I want to protect my boy from the empty spot in my life, the ache that had doused the spark in my eyes until he came along.

The reality is that living with grief is part of being my whole self, though. I have been irrevocably changed by the experience of losing Ian and, while it's important that I remain in a space where I can care give and also participate in good self care, part of being in that place is allow myself moments to let grief through the door, to give it it's own special place of value in my house.

During these next 7 weeks, the hardest time of the year for processing through my memories, I am going to adventure intentionally with my son. Once a week, from today until June 21st, I am going to choose an activity that my brother would have loved to do and I'm going to experience it with S.

I wonder if this is how we find ways of moving through the dark moments: shielding the new slivers of light we help to create in the world while slowly building up that flame of joy so that the shadows stay in the corners where we can visit them when we need to, but are not overwhelmed by their presence.

Post submitted by TMN's Content Team member Julia Terry

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