It’s been 15 months since Ricardo left us. I am aware that I have not been writing much about him and, as time passes, I feel a calm and serene presence around us. I keep thinking of him every single day of my life and many times he will bring a laugh to my day, when I remember a joke or create a new one to our ever-changing repertoire. My son is happy but moments of sadness will come to him the same way as to me. And it is ok. It is normal. And, somehow, expected.
Grief is defined as a deep sorrow in my dictionary. A very simple way to define such a complex emotion. Grief comes and goes, in waves, confused, untidy. It can be divided in five or so stages: Shock and denial; anger; bargaining; depression and acceptance. These stages will not present themselves in order, necessarily, and you may revisit some of them more than once. It is that complicated for adults – imagine for children!
‘The most important factor in how children react to the death is the response of the adults who influence their lives’, explains a booklet about children and grief that found my hands when Ricardo was sick. I read it a few times and keep it in a safe place for reference. Here is what I learned from it:
1. A child should guide us and not the opposite – Every one grieves in a different way. You can’t really tell when it is time to grieve and when it is time to stop grieving, so let your child guides you through her needs. Remember that a good chunk of our communication is non-verbal. Be aware of it and pay attention to your child’s behaviour. My son was very aggressive at the beginning. He would scream and get angry with me but, in fact, he was angry with the situation, with his Dad’s death. And that was fine. Hard, but fine. It didn’t take long until he changed his feeling to another stage. If we can separate our own needs from their needs, we will be able to follow their guidance in a better way.
2. Their stages are different from ours – The booklet calls them ‘dimensions’ of childhood grief and they can be an apparent lack of feelings, physiological changes, regression behaviour, ‘big man’ or ‘big woman’ syndrome, disorganization and panic, explosive emotions, acting-out behaviour, fear, guilt and self-blame, relief, loss and loneliness, and reconciliation. My son went through a few of them, but not all of them. He would spend time playing and I learned how important it was for his grieving, as a protective mechanism allowing him to detach from the pain the only way he knew.
3. Grieving will occur anyway – My life story has taught me that a secret is the worst enemy of almost all soul maladies. Death is not different. So, in our home, we talk openly about it and about Ricardo. We remind ourselves stories and incredible things about him. My son loves to hear funny stories about his dad! And it was always like that, even when he was sick. On the last two days of his life, his son would go to his bed and put his favourite stuffy, Bacon, on his side. Ricardo’s door was always open for his son and I do believe that this helped the three of us during this process. ‘Sometimes parents don’t want to talk about the death. They assume this will spare children some of the pain and sadness. The reality, however, is that children will grieve anyway’, says the booklet, adding that ‘to help them through grief, parents need to establish a relationship in which the death is talked about openly. Children need to understand that grief is a natural feeling when someone they love has died’.
4. A child will not necessarily cry – My son was 5 years and 7 months old when his dad passed away. He didn’t cry. Not even one drop felt from his eyes. I don’t know what I was expecting but I found it confusing, but then realized that a child will cry when they get hurt physically. Maybe a couple other reasons, but death is such an abstract thing in their lives that they can’t associate with crying. They also don’t really understand the concept of ‘forever’ and, depending on their age, they might think it is temporary. My son did cry months later and he saw me crying many, many times. As sad as it was, it was also a beautiful transitional period of our lives.
5. Death can be scary – Being Ricardo’s primary caregiver was a privilege, as I mentioned here before. Not easy at all, but a privilege nonetheless. Ricardo decided that he didn’t want a funeral and I respected it. Now I understand the importance of the funeral as an opportunity for friends and family to support and comfort each other, to say their good-byes, and honour the life of the person who has died. I think my son would benefit from it and that is why I insisted in asking Ricardo what he wanted to do with his ashes. My son came to the funeral home with me to pick up Ricardo’s ashes but he didn’t want to leave the car. I then realized how scared he was with the unknown. The booklet alerts us that attend a funeral should be a choice, children shouldn’t be forced to attend it and they need to know what to expect, what they will see and experience.
I could keep going on this list as grieving is such a complicated feeling, but I will stop for now. What can you share with me about your own experiences with grieving?