Friday, January 10, 2014

3 Ideas about grief that completely changed my perception of my childhood

I'm currently reading through Hope Edelman's Motherless Daughters , as a personal challenge for the new year. Some would called it a resolution, but in many ways, it is a gift to myself. (Maybe all resolutions should be gifts, actually.) 

Last week my thoughts centered around the concept of identity, how a loss of a parent, a mother in my case, weaves itself into the fabric of an individual's identity in a way that, for me at least, feels inescapable.

Today my mind is focused on a section of "Chapter 1: The Seasons of Grieving", in which Edelman elaborates on the ways that children grieve, in contrast to how adults grieve. It is my not-even-close-to-an-expert belief that everyone, no matter the age, grieves a loss differently, but I was fascinated to learn what research suggests about the children vs. adults grieving process.

Three of Edelman's ideas in particular completely changed my perception of my own grief in childhood, a process I considered abnormal at best, and gave a sense of normalcy that I have craved for years.

1. Children may wait, but it's not the delay you might think. 

It took me a year before I really felt symptoms of grief. A full calendar year. I felt sad at my mom's funeral, but I didn't cry. The months following were filled with awkward silences in our home and a sense of did-this-really-happen gloom, but the tears, the pain, the depression I thought would surely arrive just never showed up.

I remember feeling like something was wrong with me, because grief seemed so immediate for the adults around me. I considered myself somewhat of an emotional misfit, as if I lost my ticket to the grief train somewhere, or someone forgot to give it to me in the first place.

The first anniversary of my mom's death came and went.

And then, shortly after that, it was there.

I remember trying to go to sleep one night, in the fall of 1993, and I was listening to the radio. A song came on (I can't even remember now what it was), and I was very suddenly and very violently stricken. I ran down the stairs to my father, crying, vomiting, desperately trying to catch my breath, and missing my mom terribly. It was a shocking experience.

Edelman explains, though, that in most cases, grief for a child begins 6 to 9 months after the death of a parent; scholars believe children "wait" until the surviving parent begins to cope better.

I had my ticket, alright, and I didn't misplace it. I was just booked for a later train.

2. Children may play, but it's not the denial you might imagine. 

The morning that my mom passed, I was scheduled to audition for a competition team at my dance studio. I remember practicing the night before, all over the house, determined to do well (lots of 'jazz hands' going on), and I remember telling my mom before I went to bed, "Don't forget to wake me up at 7:30. Don't forget!"

When I woke up after 8:00 on my own, I was beyond irritated. I ran down the stairs, on my way to, in the words of a ten-year-old-Lauren, "let my mom have it." (Skinny pre-teens with unruly hair and an obsession with purple leg warmers can be very intimidating, right?)

After my dad told me my mom had died in her sleep, I ran to the bathroom to compose myself, and then I came out to find someone to take me to the audition. I had my pick of almost the entire town, whose citizens were either all physically at my house by that point or had a casserole dish represented. A neighbor volunteered and away we went.

Back home, my brother and I spent the rest of the week eating as much macaroni and cheese as we wanted and stuffing our faces with the best pound cakes in Alabama. We played board games and rented movies with our cousins. I thought, more than once, "This isn't supposed to be fun. Stop having fun. Be SADDER, Lauren." But I couldn't.

The subsequent years that followed found me more invested in playing the piano, in enjoying the dance team I auditioned for, in forming friendships with other girls. Playing. Lots and lots of playing.

I recently learned that I am not alone in this experience. Edelman writes, "Children can't withstand severe emotional pain without support from an adult they trust. Instead of grieving openly, they often speak through play."

No wonder I enjoyed the "play" part of my first therapy sessions more than the "talking" part.

3. Children may stretch it out, but it's not the inability to cope you might believe. 

Because children do not have the emotional maturity to conceptualize and grieve a loss of a parent in the way an adult can, their grief spreads out as they develop these emotional skills. Edelman uses the phrase "They do it in the midst of the rest of life."

My grief cycles in and out, a rhythm that beats stronger during those life-changing moments--starting high school, going to college, falling in love, moving to a new place, having a child--but never truly goes away.

I am happy. I am excited about my life. I am surrounded by people who I love and who love me. I want to wake up in the morning.

But I still wake up a motherless daughter.

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