The Irony of Reality
It has been said that, as a parent, you are only as happy as your unhappiest child. I would say, as an only parent, that oftentimes it is not their happiness but their grief by which we measure.
One of the things I learned early on in this journey is that active grief for children is lifelong. With every developmental stage, they hit their understanding of grief, and their reaction to it changes. It is a concept I have explained to teachers and coaches and friends and family along the way. Anyone who came into their life, who I felt needed to be armed with this knowledge, I tried to prepare for what to expect. The irony that I have had to face time and again is that it was me who was unprepared for what the reality of that would look like. That for as much as a parent I know my children, I have no real way of knowing when or how they will experience an increased intensity -and duration- in their grief. Children are only capable of grief in doses, which can increase with time. Sure, I can use my own experiences and triggers to predict when I think I need to find ways to mourn with them, or when to model ways to manage grief. However, there is no way of knowing when the process of their maturing will take them to places in their grief that, while I, as an adult, have been many times, they have not.
Perhaps the most sobering revelation of all for me has been that watching them go there will drag me from wherever I am in my own journey and dump me smack in the middle of where they are. Emotions and experiences that I have worked through I will relive again, not just through their eyes, but my own. It is heart-wrenching to see kids process the most painful aspects of the experience and the emotions that accompany them. It awakens them in me. It is devastating to see them struggle with the realisation that their precious memories of their Dad are becoming shrouded in the fog of the past, distorted by childhood understanding. It falls to me to bring these memories back into focus. To keep them present, however painful going into them might be for me at times. It forces me to acknowledge that active grief by extension is also lifelong for only parents.
While that may sound dramatic or fatalistic, it is actually quite the opposite. It is realistic and, while undeniably painful, encouraging.
In the first few years of this journey, my children were very private in their grief. Not given to wanting to share their feelings, despite what I tried to draw them out. So, I began finding ways we could mourn as a family, hoping that they would access and express their grief. I came up with activities for managing Daddy’s birthday and “dead-day” or traditions to honour him on Christmas and Father’s Day. All the while hoping to see some sign that they were processing. It was slow going at first. A glimpse here and there as they became active participants versus passive observers. But as my children have reached their teenage years, I am beginning to see the whisperings of realisation more frequently. The understanding behind why we do these things, at times, is too much. The anger that it is necessary. The utter sadness that it brings. The gentle whispers turn to full-blown howling fury with no warning. It breaks my heart to witness this, but it also feeds my soul, for I know that it is progress. They are doing the work of grief. They are learning to integrate their loss. They are naming their fears, not shying away from them. They are crying the healing tears that so long have been unshed. If they can do all that, then most surely, I can meet them wherever in their process they need me to.
So, as I sit here writing this on what should have been their Dad’s 45th, flowers in the fridge, popsicles in the freezer, cards ready to be written, my heart is full of immeasurable pride at how they continue to process what should still be unimaginable to children. I am as ready as I can be to meet whatever this day continues to bring. Knowing that with every tear and every story, they are coming one step closer to a true understanding of what they have heard me say a thousand times…
“More for having known, not less for having lost.”