Because I'm the Mom

How mothering pervades all relationships in life.

Can Parenting While Grieving Force You to Heal?

Daughter: “A kid has to think like a Mom when their Mom is in grief.”

What happens when your children bear witness to your shattering grief? How do you parent? How do you answer their questions? How do you narrate your own undoing, while coming undone, and trying to be a strong role model of healing? (And still remember to buy toilet paper.)  

I've been thinking a lot about this as people ask how I'm doing after the sudden, shocking, traumatic death of my remarkable younger brother. I never know what to say. I do not talk about it. But I can - and somehow feel compelled to write about it, to describe what that pain looks like while I'm parenting. I guess writers write, even through the darkest places, maybe especially through them. And it's while parenting that you must be most alive, most aware, most connected. 

I came across something I wrote about a shopping trip with my daughter, a few  weeks after our loss. As usual, my daughter was grilling me and I was trying to explain my experience while being so deep in it I was barely coherent.

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Reading it over I'm reminded of an essential truth of grief and healing: you can come so far, and yet nothing has changed. Most of all, I'm reminded of one of the many gifts of parenting, especially mothering. No matter what, you are not allowed to give up, to indulge, to sink into the fog of Deep Grief, to give into your Great Ache and what? Who knows. Because when you are a mother, you still have to go to Target.

Here's what I wrote about a shopping trip with my daughter just a few weeks after my brother's death.

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.

My (then) 7-year-old daughter: Mama, are you crying because you're still in grief?

Me: Yes, sweetie. I am.

Daughter: What does that mean, exactly?

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 my brother 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.

Daughter: 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.

Daughter: The rest of your life?

Me: That's the deal.

Daughter: Am I in grief?

Me: You certainly are. We all feel it and handle it differently.

Daughter: I would like a new purse.

Enter 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.

"Mama, you have to say 'no' to me."

In the middle of an aisle stuffed with fluffy comforters and furry pillows, my daughter leans against something satiny soft and hardens her eyes: "Mama, you have to say 'no' to me."

Me: What?

Daughter: You have to say 'no' to me.

Me: What do you mean?

Daughter: Before you were in grief, you used to be The Mom 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 feel bad about it. Say 'no, you can't have that fuzzy pink pillow that would look sooooo cool in your room, like a teenager.'

Me: No, you can't have that fuzzy, pink pillow, that ....whatever you said, (drift off mid-sentence).

Daughter: See, 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) How did you get so wise? You are so right. Let's put it all back.

Daughter: 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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