Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

"Mama, are you still in grief?"

When your child bears witness to your grief
This post is a response to Being Honest With Children by Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D.


What happens when your child must bear witness to your shattering grief? How do you parent? How do you narrate your own undoing, while coming undone, and trying to model healing? And remembering the sunblock.

I am unable to write about or describe the pain I am in, having lost my remarkable younger brother last week. I cannot approach that. I cannot follow the Buddhist teaching of "leaning into the sharp points." Not even close. But I can - and somehow feel compelled to - describe what that pain looks like while I'm parenting. I guess writers write, even through the darkest places, maybe especially through them.

I can't stay home. I can't see anybody I know, risk having to conduct any human interaction. I can only be with my daughter, doing things. How about buying things? She suggests a trip to Target. We haven't been there in so long. We drive to Target. I cry most of the way.

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Leah: Mama, are you still in grief?
Me: Yes, sweetie. I am.
Leah: What does that mean?
Me: It means I am really, really sad, that I am having a hard time staying focused on things, that I am crying a lot, that I am thinking a lot about Uncle Squish and missing him terribly. It's completely normal what I'm feeling, how I'm acting. I am not mad at you; it has nothing to do with you. I'm just fogged up with grief. It's like being half asleep, but instead of that sleeping feeling, it's just an overwhelming sadness that makes me cry instead of nap.
Leah: How long will you be in grief?
Me: Well, some part of me will be grieving the loss for the rest of my life. But as time passes, more of me will come out of the fog and will be more fun again, laugh loud again, be driving you crazy again.
Leah: The rest of your life?
Me: That's the deal.
Leah: Am I in grief?
Me: You certainly are. We all feel it and handle it differently.
Leah: I want a new purse.

In Target.
I can't say no. Not to anything. Ginormous beanbag chair. Sure. Throw it in the cart. Pink sparkly sneakers. Fine. On and on. I can't say no because every fiber of my being is quivering, pushing impossibly hard, holding back any milli-thought or feeling related to anything anywhere close to the truth. I cannot handle the truth. All my resistance, my entire system, is at war with The Real. I cannot say no to my daughter's requests, not because I think the giant purple flowered beanbag will ease her pain or somehow soothe her. I'm not thinking at all. I am fighting for my life, with tremendous strength and discipline, against It All. If I slip, if I get distracted, if I spend one ounce of energy in resistance to any other stimulus, I will come undone. Again.

In the middle of an aisle stuffed with satiny comforters and furry pillows, Leah leans against something soft and says: "Mama, you have to say ‘no' to me."

Me: What?
Leah: Mama, you have to say ‘no' to me.
Me: What do you mean?
Leah: You used to be The Mama who said no to most stuff. Now you're saying ‘yes, okay, fine' to everything. It's not good for me. You're saying yes and then you're going to realize what happened and you're going to get really mad and I don't want you to get really mad. Say ‘no, Leah, you can't have that fuzzy pink pillow that would look sooooo cool in your room, like a teenager.'
Me: No, Leah, you can't have that fuzzy, pink pillow, that ....whatever you said, (drift off mid-sentence).
Leah: See, Mama, no fussing! I'm saying, "Fine! No problem. I'll save my allowance and if I really want it, I'll buy it for myself!"
Me: (Coming back to life) Oh sweetie, how did you get so wise? You are so right. Let's put it all back.
Leah: A kid has to think like a Mom when their Mom is in grief....can I still get the beanbag??? PULHEEEZ!!!

 

 

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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