Grief Stricken Kids Say the Darndest Things

They don’t LOOK emotionally damaged, but don’t think I’m not trying! 

I’ve done several book events for The Bright Hour like the one the Greensboro Library and GSO Hospice put on the other night (which was awesome, thank you again for making NER the community read!). I always enjoy discussing Nina’s work. It’s a welcome impetus to get in touch with Nina and my feelings about loss and grief. To talk to other people about it cogently, I need to boil down that stuff for myself, which is grief work I find helpful and productive.

And there’s the fact that I genuinely love The Bright Hour and can’t talk enough about Nina. Honestly, I go through cycles where I crave access to her so badly that I can’t imagine what I’d do without the book. Seriously, what does anyone do if they lose someone and that person hasn’t written memoir?

Still, as much as I like processing and talking about it, there are a lot of ways I’m blinded by, or at least myopic about my grief. Partly this is just due to the fact that grief is so constant and affecting. If you live with something long enough, you adjust to it without even realizing, the way the posture of someone who slouches out of insecurity or timidity seems to become their actual physical form over time (or the way people grow to resemble their pets – beware any blobfish owners!).

Beyond the sheer force and persistence of grief, I have an unconscious tendency to see Nina’s death as something that happened primarily to me, which is an obvious yet problematic distortion. Nina was a daughter, a sister, a friend, and—maybe most importantly—a mom to other people. Her death was dislocating for all those other people and causes them ongoing pain, too.

I know this intellectually. I try to remember it in practice – to ask others about their experiences of Nina’s death and not only focus on mine. I’m successful to varying degrees. But the book events make a good object lesson / reminder that I can probably never be too vigilant about not placing myself too much at the center of grief over Nina’s death. At an event I’m the literal center of attention, the person speaking, or being asked to answer things about Nina’s death and its impact, about her book, and about what life has been like without her.

The funny thing is: I am not the actual center. I didn’t write the book. I’m only doing it because Nina’s not there. I’m not the only one who can answer the questions about the impact zone left from Nina’s death. Her dad, her brother, and my kids at least are others who are all pretty directly situated to respond to those issues.

It’s not that I think it’s wrong for me to be the one speaking for her. She and I discussed me doing it before she died, it’s what her editors wanted, and I do think I’m in a better position to be Nina’s vicar here on earth (you can call me Pope Not-so-Innocent I). We spent the better part of 20 years together and I was her confidant and aide-de-camp through the book writing process (as well as the rest of our lives, which was the subject of the book, after all). There are other people grieving for Nina, but for the most part, I think it’s ok for me to take the lead on this stuff, because if Pete (Nina’s dad) or Charlie (Nina’s brother), or one of Nina’s friends is feeling displaced or dislocated in their grief, they can talk about it, communicate about it, problem solve their own grief (or tell me when I’m being a dufus). That’s not as much the case with my kids (though the older one is so emotionally articulate it sometimes scares me – like I may be playing catch up here soon, and he’s definitely capable to telling me when I’m a dufus).

For instance, I asked the boys what they thought after the event the other night. Almost in harmony they rejoined: “it was OK, but your jokes really weren’t funny.” D’oh. I pushed back a little and pointed out that I wasn’t really telling jokes or going for laughs, more trying to occasionally lighten what can be a very heavy subject — the death of a young mother from breast cancer (And also, my jokes were too funny, you overly-critical, unemancipated little ingrates!).

That’s when they opened up a little more about how it feels to be Nina’s kid at one of these events: adults looking over at you, thinking you’re “cute” or “adorable,” and generally making a fuss about you. And your dad sometimes mentioning you or even getting a laugh specifically about you. In front of over 100 people. Apparently this feels bad for nine and eleven year olds, which any dad less thick than a (very readable, yet literary) memoir would have known.

It should not have come as a surprise that, while I might enjoy positioning myself to maximize exposure to all things Nina-related, the boys may not want any part of that. It turns out that kids can sometimes be self-conscious (who knew?), and also may like defining themselves instead of being characterized by their dead mom or living but unfunny and inconsiderate dad.

I didn’t even think twice about bringing them, and not because I think they make good showpieces. If anything, I’m always a little terrified that one of them will recite the lyrics to an inappropriate song I’ve played in the car and some attendee with call social services. I brought them because I view them as integral to our family, obviously, but also to our loss. Like my father in law (who was also there, and frankly, also being cooed and stared at—sorry Pete!).

But there’s the rub: of course they are integral, but they didn’t get to make the decision for themselves. It’s the whole dilemma of childhood. They also don’t see themselves in the same way I do, or the audience for Nina’s book does. It’s not that they’re not interested in Nina or her book. And they don’t generally enjoy FOMO. But the fact is, a book event on an adult memoir about death and dying in the evening at the central library doesn’t scream “kid friendly,” even if it weren’t your mom’s book.

That’s the part I think I get most wrong. These guys don’t always get to choose how they grieve or mourn. This makes some sense, they’re too young to really understand or generate solutions for the issues that come after a tremendous loss. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have input or control over whatever engagement with their mom’s death they have. And the last thing in the world I want is for the kids to wind up resenting The Bright Hour or any of the events organized around it.

Which brings me back to my sometimes problematic focus on my own grief. Parenting is hard not because it’s made up of tasks no once can handle. It’s because there’s so much important stuff lying way down in the granular detail of childhood development. In retrospect, I saw the event mostly in terms of myself: what did I have to do to get ready, what was the format, who made up the likely audience, etc. I made arrangements for the kids – made sure there was someone to look after them, fed them dinner, etc. — but I never took the time to look at it from their perspective. If I had, they might not have come at all. Or at least they might have helped me tell fewer (or better) jokes.

2 thoughts on “Grief Stricken Kids Say the Darndest Things

  1. Cancer parenting, and I suppose grief-parenting, always feels like such a bizarre situation to me – like a twilight zone of managing children when you yourself sometimes feel like an adult fetus. And yet, stepping back, so many of the challenges, the needs to show up, are not particularly cancer, or grief-related, but life-related, and are just magnified by the lens of the particular situation that the poor parent finds him or herself in at that given time. I can completely feel for you, in that it can be unsettling when you're immersed in these challenging, intense moments, that feel so critically fundamental to whatever parcel of life you're trying to create, and your child decides he DGAF about the imperative to appreciate the present situation…or maybe that's just my two year old.

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  2. Two year olds DGAF about anyhing!! They’d nuke N. Korea as retribution for saying no to extra Wheatabix. 🙂 I’m sorry you are going through metastatic momming. Ugh. I still don’t know how Nina did it. I don’t know how anyone does it. I don’t know where the reserves of strength and resolve come from. I still want to throw a tantrum every Monday morning. And I never had cancer. I try to remind myself that my kids aren’t “grief kids,” just kids who’ve experienced grief, like many others. But there’s also the reality that t does affect them—it’s not just childhood stuff and they are actually going through grief whether they can articulate it or not (older one can and does; younger one can but WILL NOT!). Mostly I feel like parenting is shake n’ bake with a totally opaque bag and some mystery ingredients… 😬

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