Saturday, January 26, 2013

This is how children grieve...

Tonight as I was putting on my boots for a quick trip to the store for some after-dinner ice cream, this conversation happened:

Daniel: "Mom, A-------- (his late Ethiopian mother) didn't write back!"

Me: "A-----? Don't you mean G------" (his living Ethiopian father)?

Daniel: "No, A----------! She didn't write back!"

Me: Extremely puzzled look. Then: "She can't write back. She's dead, sweetie."

Daniel: Extremely puzzled look.  "I know that!"


And this is how it happens... the sudden shift from the ordinary to the sublime, from prose to poetry. One minute you are putting your boots on and the next you are explaining to your child about heaven and memory and the finality of death.

Children don't mourn the way that adults do. They don't grieve, for example, at church on Sunday morning, or during other times that we adults schedule for our spiritual and emotional connection to the unknown.  They mourn in unpredictable, erratic, cyclical ways.  Little spurts of memory or understanding can propel them to grief at odd times.

Daniel and I have talked about his Ethiopian mother while walking to school, in the car heading to the dentist, while avoiding doing homework, in the middle of hectic dinner preparations, etc.  He's shared the story of her death with his grandmother over ice cream cones, and with his dad during breaks from Superhero play. We purposefully bring her name and her memory up often, but we have learned that we cannot predict nor direct Daniel's grief.  Talking about her over dinner will not trigger tears. But a homework assignment to think of problems to solve will lead him to talk about not everyone having shoes. Which will lead to talking about how his Ethiopian family does not have shoes. Which will remind him that if his mother had had a pair of shoes, she might not have contracted the illness which killed her.

Our son knows, of course, what happened to his first mother.  He was there, watching everything unfold with 4 year old eyes.

Our daughter was a tiny infant when their mother died. Lily's understanding of her story is limited, right now, to "Ethiopia" and "crying all the time".  Recently she cried while seeing some photos of herself from the care center. Today she cried over them a little bit more, saying "I miss my baby toys."

She is very much invested in me as her Mommy. I cannot leave the room for a moment without her following me. When I give her a kiss she says, "Why you kissing me mama?"
I say, "because I love you."
"You love me?" she replies. "All the time?"
"Yes, baby, all the time."

Recently Lily and I started having conversations about our skin color. How she is brown like Daniel and Daddy and I are pink. I can see her 2 1/2 year old brain struggling to put the pieces together:

Brown skin + pink mommy + Ethiopia + missing baby toys = ????

It used to stun me, these abrupt departures into the shaky, murky land of childhood grief. I would struggle to hold back my own tears as I gave space for my son to talk the way that he wanted.  I've grown more accustomed now... but he can still surprise me.

It turns out that tonight for some reason, Daniel remembered how last Mother's Day we wrote a letter to A------ together and then burned it on the roof to send our letter up to heaven.

She didn't write back.  

You might think that this revelation brought our six year old to be stricken with grief again, to cry and to scream. But that is an adult idea of grief.  For Daniel, it is just one more piece to fit into the puzzle of his life.  Dead people don't write back.  Check.

We talked for a minute about A------, and then I finished putting my boots on and went for the ice cream. Vanilla, which my son ate 3 large scoops of.  Then he went to bed and I went to the computer to write.

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