It was a beautiful, sunny day in July of 1999 when Maureen passed away. It had been only five days since her 31st birthday and like an abrupt ending of a movie, that was it. From the window, I saw birds hopping and sorting through life-sustaining valuables to bring back to their nest. They are full of life, I thought, but Maureen is dead.
Truth is felt – not understood.
I wondered what would become of her two children. They were still so small; Michelle was eight, Trevor was five. She doted on them with so much love, laughter and food – it seemed impossible to even offer them that now, without causing pain.
That evening, Michelle and Trevor’s dad sat them down on either side of him. He told them their mom would not be returning from the hospital – she was gone. Michelle buried her head in her father’s chest and Trevor ran off into another room. He returned with some paper and crayons and said, “Michelle! Here, draw your feelings – don’t cry, just draw! Here,” as he thrust the paper towards her.
In the days that followed, he hardly ever cried. He would often stand still in certain places of their house and look around, as if he could sense her haunting. His sister, on the other hand, would burst into sporadic tears over nothing. She became moody, irritable – even mean.
That was my first experience with children dealing with grief. At the time, I was a little surprised at their lack of sadness. I know now it was ignorant of me to expect them to mourn like adults and to think that grief was a one-size-fits-all emotion. I couldn’t discern the plethora of other emotions that children experience in trying to process the idea of death. What I saw then and only understood now were emotions like loneliness of the void their mother left, anger in the vulnerability they suddenly felt – anxiety and helplessness in the breakdown of routine, guilt because they were still egocentric, and the most heart breaking of all – yearning, as they scrutinized shadows for their mother – just to name a few.
It’s not that suddenly, I became this expert but recently, our family lost a really good friend. We had gone on Scouting events, celebrated Oktoberfest, and birthdays, and leftover Thanksgiving pies with Bourbon – it wasn’t supposed to end just yet. It forced me to recall the experience and do the research for the sake of my own children and their friend who is now facing a life without a loving dad. This may be their first rodeo but it certainly isn’t mine.
I’m not giving anybody ten steps to cope with grief, especially not children. You can keep your counseling to yourself and stick your meds up your ass – this was all part of the package from the very beginning. There is no right answer, just like there’s no wrong decision. The only true therapy is time and the hope that we have it.
There’s no right or wrong way of coping with loss. The best anyone can do is go on. Yes, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to not cry. Go ahead and laugh, go ahead and drink, eat an entire chocolate fudge cake if that’s what the moment calls for. Be a rock or be a hot mess – just be. Life goes on, however bleak it may seem.
As for Michelle and Trevor, they’re adults now. I wish I could say they turned out just fine, but I have no idea. They’ve cut ties and lost touch with everyone that had anything to do with their mother. Two years after she passed, their father remarried and that was the last we really saw of them. It seems their life was destined to be one abrupt ending after another.
For me, that’s the real loss and I’ll bet, that it’s just me. For them, it may have been the only way they could cope: to erase instead of cherish, replace instead of remember. Only sentimental fools get the luxury of being sentimental – she was not my mother after all. What do I know about the grief of babes.
If there’s anything to be said about human conditioning, it’s that strength and resilience can be cruel punchlines. We can’t say we want you to laugh but not laugh too loud. We try not to make life a joke but to get it. No adult quite believes that jokes are for kids, silly rabbit – but they can get it, too.