Your sister is learning some pretty grown-up lessens, not quite 5 years old.
Every night we blow out your candle and we say what we are grateful for. Vesta says things like “I am grateful that Harvey is here with us”, “I am grateful that we all live together”, “I am grateful that Harvey gets to meet Zig Zag [our new kitten]”. It took me several nights to realize that she was wishing. Make a wish, blow out the candle. Of course. My heart broke a bit further. I was confused at every gratitude she expressed but figured she’d just gotten her tenses wrong. She wishes you were here, she was telling me. She wishes our family was still together, that she and Daddy and I were all living together once again, that she knows that you are missing out, and we are missing out, on the life you should have with us, broken up or no. So, now we are saying one thing we wish for and one thing we are grateful for before we blow out your candle. She is not wishing for a pony or more dolls or a princess dress. No, she is nearly 5 and she is wishing away her loss, her losses. Every night, she wishes you back and she wishes our family back together. And then, this little girl with this big broken heart, tells me what she is grateful for. Sometimes I can’t hear them because I am lost in her wish. I am lost in how she is putting things together. Learning the nuance and intricacies of death and divorce as a preschooler.
Tonight, she chose Babar The Little Elephant to read before bedtime. Babar’s mother is shot and killed by a hunter. He cries over her body, later, as an adult, cries when he remembers her and then the king of the elephants also dies. We have many stories about death. Children’s books designed to help explain to her and make sense, normalize her experience, her own grief and her parent’s. We don’t shy away from death anymore in this house. It’s a reality we all live with but most have the privledge of sheltering their children from: skimming over, ignoring, not telling. Here, we talk about it, we try to normalize it because it’s normal for us, because it’s ours. But tonight, Babar’s losses got to her. As I read, she started to whimper and then to cry. I asked why and she said because Babar’s mom died and she won’t come back. I held her and told her “yes, that is very sad. We are all sad when someone we love dies” I was surprised at her real tears, as, up until tonight, she mostly parrots lines from books we have read about death and divorce or things we have said to her, like “We are sad because Harvey died.” I asked her if it made her afraid of something and she said “She’s afraid of hunters.” I assured her that hunters don’t kill people, just animals, so we are safe. Except, humans hunt and kill each other, I quickly realized before the words were even out of my mouth. But I didn’t say that to her, of course. I just hoped she felt safer and I was relieved for an easy answer to a fear, to a feeling, even though it’s not actually true. She said she was sad that you died. She said, “We have baby M and Baby G but I wish we had our own baby”. Was she parroting? Had I said that in front of her? Had she put that together herself: two of the babies she knows and coming to the conclusion that we don’t have our baby. I said, “Me too”, tears from my eyes now, and held her a little closer. I said, “I wish Harvey could have stayed with us.” My cousin had sent me a photograph and a story today of her family out to dinner and a man came<!around to the table with a basket of balloon animals. He told Baby G that he was picking a special one just for her and out came a ladybug balloon. My cousins said, “So we had dinner with Harvey tonight.” I told Vesta this story and she exclaimed, “I want to see the picture!”, forgetting for a moment her sadness and fear. I got out of bed to get my phone and show her. We decided next time she gets a balloon animal form our favorite story-time clowns that she will ask for a ladybug. We read another book, sang songs and she fell asleep before the final song was finished.
I want to do this “right”. I want to do this the “healthy” way. Does that exist? How do I acknowledge and validate her feelings? How do I surpress the urge to sugarcoat with a “but..” or an “at least…” statement to make everything better? Is it better to do that then to just let her feel her feelings? WIll it provide her a needed sense of security or teach her to always look on the birght side or make her feel confused and afraid of her feelings? I want to share with her how we remember, memorialize and keep alive our loved ones, feel them around us, so that her burden can be a little lighter. But does it make it lighter? Not always, not even often for me. How do I teach my child that she is safe and secure when she is not, when I am not, when no one she loves is? My year of losses has left me unable to do much of this for myself, let alone a child. I basically have to lie to her. Don’t worry, people with guns only kill animals. Don’t worry, mommy and daddy aren’t going to die. Don’t worry, Harvey’s brain didn’t work but yours does so you aren’t going to die. Are these the lies I tell myself too? Is this the illusion that I have to rebuild for myself so I can share it with her so she does not walk through her life terrified?
For those of us touched by death and divorce and any other loss, these are unanswerable questions, leaving us paralyzed at times on how to parent a child. We grapple with the duality of life everyday, that we will likely make it to the end of the day but there’s also a chance we won’t, no matter how slim and also without discernment or care, that chance is. There is the classic, stereotypical image of the overprotective, anxiety-ridden grieving-parent hellicoptering around her living children, creating neurosis and paranoia in her young. Later in their lives, it will be explained away by her friends and loved ones “well, her mom lost a baby” or justified in her own story “well, my mom lost a baby…”. But it’s different when you are that grieving mother and you have to do this daily dance or protecting them by both sheltering them from the truth and not sheltering them from the truth. By struggling with this new reality of vulnerability when you are charged with the job of making someone feel safe. By attempting to both live fully and joyfully, knowing full well that just around that corner may lie more death in destruction and if not this one, then one of them we inevitably come to. No one is safe, no one is spared. It will come. Just as the joy and the laughter and the love and the lightness. It will all come. Perhaps it is not a duality but an acceptance of wholeness, that the experience of being an alive human is one that changes unpredictably and often, that it’s so excruciating at times we think we might die from it and so elating at others we are certain we are destined for this most perfect moment.
And as she gets older, how will we explain this break-up? With the truth? With the revealing of our flaws? With a timed soften, lesson-learned wisdom? What will, what should, “mommy and daddy don’t get along anymore” evolve into? What are the gradients as she asks more questions, as she ages and starts putting things together? How much of ourselves do we share with our children? They sense us, they feel us, they know more about us than we know. Should we name it for them?
I was struck the other day by how I am learning that the trauma and the trouble that come to children of divorce is not the actual ending of the parent’s relationship but rather it’s the million daily changes, inconveniences, separations and missing-outs. It’s the robbing of a daily sense of rhythm and order and routine. Of knowing Daddy is coming home, then Mommy is going to work rather than being shuffled from school to friend to mom to friend to mom again, because mommy has to prioritize financial stability and independence over time together, regular dinners and routine. That daddy will miss the events, triumphs, disappointments and milestones of the weekedays and mom, the weekends. It’s three hours here or there with Daddy, one of which is spent in the commuting. It’s the crying in the car at every drop off. It’s that she’s in the middle of two separate lives, that she is the most important thing in two worlds, at the same time, that she still remembers and longs for to be one again. It’s that no more firsts or milestones or daily musings are shared with both parents. It’s a nearly five year old being asked to negotiate circumstances her parent’s can’t even figure out how to be in. It happens every day. We make through alive and well or we don’t or somewhere in between. We are resiliant. That is what we must teach, what I must teach her. Resiliency is key. Honesty, vulnerability, and resiliency. I don’t see much else anymore.