In the weeks since my mother-in-law has passed away, people have come up to me and asked ‘Are you alright?’, ‘How is Joe doing?’, ‘Are things beginning to settle down?’ and my knee-jerk reaction is to smile reassuringly at them and say that yes. Of course. I am holding down the fort while my family slogs through this. Everything is going to be alright.
I have answered this question dozens of times in the last two weeks, and then immediately second guessed myself. Should I have said something different? Should I have said ‘actually, no, the whole universe feels like bizarro world, and more so, why are my relationships with other people who have nothing to do with this at all, feel like they are changing?’ or perhaps ‘I’m okay, but my father in law wants to sell his house, the apartment in Florida, plus close down Linda’s office downtown and sell her van…I think he wants it all done by 6pm tonight, meanwhile my husband is slowly building up a list of things that are important to him from their house… I’ve measured the square footage of our house… and I’m pretty sure we are going to have to sleep in the backyard from now on.’
The truth is, I don’t know how to talk about grieving, or pretty much anything other than pleasantries. Perhaps it’s a side effect of being a stay at home parent and only having toddlers and young children to talk to for the last 8.5 years. But it’s so awkward, right? (No? Just me then?) The whole idea of figuring out if the person asking ‘how you are’ is really asking or if they will be ten steps past you before ‘I’m good’ has even tumbled from your lips. Finding the words that will sum up the entirety of the loop in your head about any given difficult situation and then narrating it in such a way that wont make the other party back away very slowly is hard!
But not for kids.
Kids get it. They aren’t born with empathy, but somewhere along the way they pick it up and run with it. When was the last time your co-worker returned from having a cold and you sing-songed her name while dancing circles around her? Or did your friend forget her snack so you let her have your stuffed animal at rest time, just to make her happy? At what point do we lose the ability to comfort and touch the people around us without restriction or gracelessness?
Yesterday at Marilyn’s school she was sitting at a table with another child when he said ‘So your grandma is dead, right?’ to which Marilyn replied ‘Yeah, but her name was Amma. She died. She’s in heaven now, but we cannot visit.’
Him: ‘Are you sad?’
Marilyn: ‘Yeah. I have a stuffed animal she gave me though. He’s a leopard.’
Him: ‘My grandma died too.’
Marilyn: ‘That’s sad. Did she give you a stuffed animal?’
Him: ‘She gave me a lot of books.’
Marilyn: ‘Do you want this orange crayon?’
Him: ‘Yep. Thanks’
Two five year old kids able to identify a common sadness, share sorrow, and then move on. That’s pretty neat. Or this conversation Sam had with me one evening after Shiva.
Sam: I just feel so sad.
Me: I know. But this is a sad thing, so that’s okay. Even though it doesn’t feel good.
Sam: Do you think Amma knew she was going to die?
Me: I’m not sure Sam. But I know she wasn’t scared, Daddy stayed with her the entire time.
Sam: I am going to need a lot of hugs.
There are times when nothing feels as good as a hug. A lot of hugs. For many days or weeks. Why don’t we, as adults, simply ask for what we need? Why is the craving to be comforted seen as weakness?
The Monday following my mother-in-laws passing, I sent the kids to school, worrying that they might cry, or become upset, and that maybe their peers would not know how to react to them, or they would feel embarrassed by their tears.
Sam, being older, held himself together for most of the day, seeking out a few trusted teachers to share his heart with. Marilyn spent the day alternating between being okay, and being full of tears. Marilyn’s peers showered her in affection, at one point, a full class group hug happened. At another, mysterious drawings full of sunshine and hearts, ‘I love yous’ and ‘feel betters’ ended up in her cubby. The next day, friends were bringing in toys from home for her, so great was their desire to make their friend feel better.
These stories, were the most healing and enlightening part of the past few weeks. To see my children encircled protectively by their friends and drawn close to be loved. I didn’t need to worry about how my kids would handle feeling sad. Feeling your feelings seems to be something we lose touch with in adulthood, but for kids, everything is a Big Feeling, all experiences, sad or happy are chances to bond with their fellow humans.
Lucky them, lesson learned.