A Child or teen under covers in bed

How We Grieve Without Losing Our Way

I spent the weekend nursing my children’s wounds.  Not new wounds—although Lottie did catch her finger in a door and Caden stepped on a tack.  This weekend I nursed the old grief that surfaces every now and again.

Our social media highlight reel paints a picture of fun family time spent together this weekend.  We ran the Jingle Jog 5K, planted bulbs, and debuted one of our Nutcrackers (with two ballerinas in the family, one Nutcracker a holiday season isn’t enough).  The kids finished their homework and did their chores. We paid bills and wiped down filthy kitchen cabinets.  It was a productive weekend, with just the right balance of family fun and quiet downtime.

I’ve learned none of that matters when it comes to processing grief. It arrives on its own schedule.

Grief arrives on its own schedule

It started when Simon snapped at me in response to my teasing him.  I apologized quickly. “What’s the matter, Love?” “This house is so stressful,” he responded.  “Everyone is always coming and going. It’s never quiet.”  I moved into solution mode.  “How can we make things better?  What can we do differently? Let’s talk about it.”

Because he’s fifteen, the conversation devolved quickly.  He’s unhappy.  He’s not sure why.  I’m too hard on him about grades and work and all the other things mothers are too hard on their sons about. He’s always moving between houses, and each house is filled with people and noise.  Nothing can be done about his situation.  He unloaded, growing taller as we talked, detailing the ways his life doesn’t match his expectations. I understand.

Caden watched Simon talk to me, in the sneaky, intrusive way little brothers spy on their older siblings. He watched Simon unload and shifted from snoop to caretaker, worrying about me.

Lottie took one look at her brothers and me and began gnaw to on her fingernail.

All four of us were suddenly swirling in a vortex of negative emotion.  I’m worried about Simon, Caden’s worried about me, Lottie’s sad and Simon’s mad.  I know from experience those emotions can trigger other, deeper ones for us, as they do for anyone touched by grief.

My first line of defense is distractions

Milkshakes couldn’t fix it. I called Billy (my ex) and asked him to stop by under the pretense of dropping a forgotten school book.  Sometimes we do that— ask the other to stop by so the kids can spend some time in the kitchen with both parents.  Sometimes it helps reset them, reminding them that even after the divorce we are still a family.  It worked a little.  Simon joked with us both about his history homework and Lottie sat in her daddy’s lap for a bit.

After Billy left, a movie together on the couch and our favorite comfort food dinner helped hold everyone’s focus.

At bedtime, Lottie worried that I was sad.  I answered honestly.  I was sad that her brother Simon was feeling unhappy, but that sadness is a normal part of life.  I reminded her she doesn’t have to take care of her Mama. We read an extra two pages in her book, and I sat with her until her breathing grew slow and deep.

Simon had moved entirely past his meltdown by bedtime, as teenagers do.  I revisited it, telling him that happiness all the time isn’t a realistic goal, but a thread of contentment in one’s life absolutely is.  That I would work with him and his dad and his stepparents to get to a solution that provided more happiness if this one didn’t.  “I’m fine, Mom.  It’s fine.”

I was dismissed, the topic closed

I found Caden crying in his bed as I went to tuck him in.  He’d been outwardly the happiest of the three all day, his pleases and thank yous and I love you moms at the ready.  Exhausted and tucked under the covers, the effort caught up to him.  “I’m sorry about Simon,” he whispered.  “When Simon is mad or Lottie is yelling you look so sad,” he continued, “I don’t want you to be sad.”

I don’t know what to say, so after a long pause, I tell him the truth.  That I am sad.  That I feel the hurt his brother and sister and he express keenly.  That hurt can sometimes trigger other feelings, especially for people like us, who have survived loss.  That a good and happy life can still sometimes be sad or hard, and that’s what today was.  I stroke his back and he’s asleep almost before I finish talking.

This morning, all is well.  Simon wore a coat to the bus stop, Caden remembered his debate club meeting after school, and Lottie brushed her hair without being told seventeen times.  They are cheerful and chatty and focused on the week ahead.

I send my children off to school and mourn our broken hearts

Nursing old wounds is tricky work; it transfers the weight and pain of the wound.  It is lifted from their small shoulders and dropped heavily onto mine.  I feel that pain, it becomes and begets my own.

I mourn and I remember.  I remember healing takes time and requires repeated nursing, even years after the wound.  I remember that these days are better in every way than the early days of our grief. I remember our tribe is large and we are not alone. I remember we are strong.

The same is true for you, reading this.  You are strong.  You can nurse old grief without allowing it to consume you or your children.  You are not alone.

This post originally appeared on This Life in Progress. It has been reprinted with permission.

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