Grief Through The Eyes of a 3 Year Old

Dear Grownups,

I need you to read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" by Tommie dePaola just one more time today, to see if Nana gets to come back this time after she dies in the story. I need to keep asking you if my Grandma is coming back and if I can visit her again. I need to hear the same answer, over and over, like a call and answer refrain. I need time to truly understand and process what "gone forever" really means. I need to play with my dollies and pretend that one dies over and over, comforting myself by allowing her to come back to life with my magical thinking within my pretend world.

I need you to know that I feel your big feelings, even when you think you are hiding them from me. I see the tightness in your jaws, the weariness in your puffy red eyes, the way your shoulders droop. I see your furrowed brows as you answer emails on your phones. I hear snippets of harshly whispered conversations and phone calls. I hear the tension and impatience in your voices, and I see through the false cheerfulness that you're using to cover your own fears, sadness, anger and confusion. I need to ask you why people seem so sad and mad, and I need you to reassure me that it's not my fault.

I find it distressing to hear comments like "She's in a better place", or "She will live forever in our hearts". I'm confused because dying means gone forever, but people say she is living and in another place. Why isn't she living with her family? Why can't I visit her?

I was frightened when I heard someone say, "Dying is like sleeping forever", because that means I don't ever want to let myself or anyone I love fall asleep or else we might die, too.

I'm scared because you told me my Grandma was sick and that is why her body stopped working. My daddy has a cough. He's sick. Now I worry that he is going to die. I don't want my mommy lying down in her bed because it reminds me of my Grandma lying down in bed when I visited her. I have to ask about all the people I know who are older. I have to know if they are sick. I have to ask if they will die, too. I need you to reassure me again that my Grandma's illness was different, that every cough and sniffle will not equal death.

I need you to understand that when I get easily frustrated with tasks I could easily do last week, that I need some patience and compassion instead of your criticism. When I wet my pants instead of going to the toilet, I need you to know that I am not being defiant, but rather, struggling with connecting to my own elimination cues as I struggle to understand the sudden changes in my schedule and the emotional reactions of the big people in my life. I am processing all of the huge feelings that are within and around me. When I ask you to help me put my shoes on or to hold the spoon for me while I eat a few bites of my dinner, it is not because I can't do it myself. I just feel really insecure right now and need someone to help me feel loved, cared for, and nurtured.

I need the safety net of my routines now, more than ever. I need regular meals, snacks, play, rest, and sleep. I need my bath and my bedtime story. I need my snuggles and my songs. I need my blankey and my stuffies, and everything that helps me to feel safe. I need as much "normal" as you can give me in the coming days and weeks.

I need you to understand that I may want your attention and love one moment, then may want to retreat into my own quiet space the next. I need you to understand that I am sensitive to all of the lights, sounds, smells and movement that come along with large gatherings, and that I may be easily overwhelmed. I need to not be tasked with being "on" as the "entertainment" to distract adults from their own feelings, and that I may shut down or melt down if I am the centre of attention for an extended period of time. I need you to protect me from becoming overwhelmed, and to help me when it's all become too much.

It's okay that you cried when you told me that my Grandma died, because it showed me that it is okay to cry when we lose someone we love, and that expressing big feelings is a safe and healthy thing to do. It's okay that you cried when you read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" the first time, as it taught me that good readers make meaningful connections as they read texts, and that good writing can evoke powerful feelings.

In this time of hurt and healing, please don't forget about me. I need you. I need you to model healthy grieving and self-care coping strategies. I need you to take really good care of yourselves so that you can take really good care of me.


Your grieving child


A “Working Mother”

I am currently a working mother, as I am at home every day taking care of my beautiful daughter and two fur babies. This job does not grant “sick days” but it is full of benefits, including delicious post-nap snuggles and the privilege of learning with and from a gorgeous cherub of a baby (almost toddler). In a few short weeks I will be a mother who also works outside of the home five days per week. I recognize that this will be a huge shift for everyone in the family.

A wise mother and teacher recently mentioned to me that parenting books always focus on how to prepare a child for daycare, but never seem to focus on the separation that mothers go through when they return to the paid workforce.

I will miss many things about not being with Willow every moment of every day. I will miss witnessing and being a part of the incredible growing and learning that happens every day. I will miss seeing some of her “firsts”.  I will miss the quiet contemplation of mid-morning and mid-afternoon nursing sessions when we shut out the world and snuggle in a dark room with a kitten or two curled around us. I will miss having the time to finger-paint without worrying about bedtime creeping up, the spontaneous midday moments of singing, playing the piano, ukulele, guitar, and assortment of percussion instruments. I will miss the spur of the moment walks together through the park, rolling in leaves, and finding things outside to squish in our fingers. I will miss cloud-watching in the early afternoon and listening to the sound of squirrels nattering in the trees. I will miss being the one to kiss boo boos and teach “open hand” gentle cat patting techniques. I will miss making up words to songs to match our activities, reading book after book after book, and coming up with chants to describe what we are experiencing every day. I will miss smelling freshly-sink-bathed baby after a lunchtime spinach explosion. In short, I will miss all of the precious time together that someone else will be enjoying with our daughter.

BUT… I am also really happy and excited to be returning to the other job that I love.

I’ve had some well-meaning mothers in my various circles ask me about my upcoming return to work (many of whom are mothers who did not return to paid employment after becoming mothers, or only did so briefly before deciding to leave their paid jobs to raise their children). The conversations usually start with a sympathetic tilt of the head, a frown, and the phrase… “So… I guess you’re going back to work soon…” Some of the comments and questions have been of a supportive nature, and some of them have been meant to show me the error of my selfish, career-loving ways..

-“But aren’t you dreading going back to work?” No. Not at all. In fact, I am excited to be returning to a fabulous job in which I feel valued, competent, and appreciated on a regular basis. I am thrilled to meet my new crew of munchkins and to find new and exciting ways to teach and learn from them. I am happy to work with caring teachers, settlement workers, specialists and parents who all want the best for our newcomer families and students. Am I sad about my time at home ending with my daughter? Of course I am. But am I sad enough to quit a job that is a huge source of my identity and feelings of self-worth? Not on your life.

-“Oh my goodness… how can you just leave your baby with a stranger like that?”  Riiiiight. Because carefully choosing a loving childcare provider with over 22 years of experience is pretty much the same as dumping our child off with the guy asking for spare change at the bus station.

-“Don’t you enjoy spending time with her?” Obviously I am going back to work to get away from my beautiful daughter. A mother couldn’t possibly enjoy spending time with her child AND still want or need to work, could she? Please refrain from implying that I am any less loving of a mother because I am choosing to return to a job outside of the home.

-“I’m so sorry that you have to go back to work. Are things that tough financially? Can’t you find some way of staying home?” Yes, we’ve had some unexpected financial shortfalls in the past year or so. Owning an older home in need of serious maintenance, a trimester of bedrest and having a baby will do that to you. But having major appliances die and unexpected structural repairs on the house are not the reason I am returning to paid employment. I am not being dragged back to my paid career against my will in order to pay off our line of credit.

Here is what many may not realize about Willow’s mommy:

I LOVE MY JOB. I mean REALLY love my job. I decided that I wanted to be both a teacher and a mother before I entered kindergarten. I am a proud third generation teacher who delights in seeing the light come on as a child makes each new discovery. I am obsessed with language development and watching children learn to not only navigate this new language, but also a new land with new clothing, food, customs, and often a whole new way of experiencing things and interacting with others.. I love helping newcomer families to find resources in our community, and it is such a privilege to see so many families, many of which did not come to Canada by choice but as a means of survival, not only survive but thrive in their new homes. The same part of my heart that makes me love being a mommy also makes me love being in a helping profession such as teaching.

In all honesty, if I was returning to my old factory job, I may not feel as strongly as I do about returning to work. I am one of the lucky few in this world who worked hard enough to finally get paid to do something that I am incredibly passionate about. I recognize that many of the women who are incredulous about my positive attitude toward returning to work may have left paid positions that did not fuel their souls or make them feel fulfilled and happy at the end of the day. I completely understand that leaving a child in someone else’s care to toil at a job I despised would feel different than returning to a career that is such a huge part of who I am.

I am so happy that women of my generation living in Canada have the choice to stay at home for up to a year after the birth of a child, with the guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them upon their return. I am thrilled that we have the choice to either return to paid employment or to continue staying at home taking care of a child or children, and I respect the individual decision that each mother will make about her own situation.

I know that returning to paid employment is not for everyone once they have a child, and I am thankful that so many women today have the CHOICE to do what their hearts call them to do. I will not apologize for going back to a career that fuels my soul and pays for a mortgage (not to mention the benefits that pay for a lot of expensive medication and medical testing supplies). I will not apologize for willingly and lovingly choosing to share my time with newcomer families, students and teachers. Teaching is an identity, and many of us who love teaching find that we consider ourselves teachers forever. Most retired teachers that I know still think of themselves as teachers, and many are doing things that seem suspiciously teaching-related in their retirement. You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher…

I will be a mom who will be modeling having both a career and a family, and hopefully one who can model setting appropriate boundaries and achieving a good work-life balance. I will be a mom who is lucky enough to be returning to a paid employment situation that I love and that makes my heart sing, even on the tough days (often especially on the tough days). Yes, it will be strange to be with other peoples’ children instead of with my own child.

Yes, I will likely shed more tears than Willow on that first day (although I know from my three years of working in daycare facilities that it is best to save those tears for the car if I want her to settle into her day and routine at daycare as easily as possible). But those tears will eventually stop, and I will sit with and breathe through the ache in my heart, and then I will get through my day and remember how much I love my other job. I will put one foot in front of the other like the incredibly resilient, strong and capable human being I am, and I will be okay.

“‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.” -B. Marley


Professional Aunties and “other-mothers”

My husband’s step-father congratulated me on being able to celebrate Mother’s Day this year as a “real” mother. I replied that I had always been a mother in my heart, even if I just met my child this year. I truly believe that Motherhood is a state of mind more than a state of producing or caring for a child.

Some children are lucky enough to grow up in functional, happy families with a mother who lavishes attention and love upon them. I’ve worked with many wee ones who have not had the luxury of being raised by “perfect” parents, and many have looked to me to fill a much-needed gap in their lives. I have willingly “tagged in” for Mothers who were working several part time jobs, mothers who worked the night shift, mothers who were too drunk or stoned to properly take care of themselves let alone a child, mothers with so many children they were too busy to give each the Individual attention he or she craved, abusive or neglectful mothers, mothers who had abandoned their children either physically or emotionally, mothers who were separated from their children by court order, mothers who were incarcerated, mothers who didn’t want to be mothers but were forced by family or religion to keep their children, mothers who were just too tired out by the demands of daily life that they had very little energy to give to their children at the end of the day. As a woman without my own children, I had energy, time and love to give to those who needed it most.

We’ve all heard the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”. As a teacher I know this to be true. But teachers aren’t the only people who love our children into the incredible adults they are to become. And even “good parents” need the help of other loving, nurturing adults to act as caregivers, role models and confidantes for their children.

Willow’s “honourary grandmother” has no biological children or grandchildren, but she is truly a Momma. She was a school teacher, mentor and union leader in her paid career, and is a “professional aunt” and great-aunt in her personal life. She has helped to love and nurture so many humans over the years, from wee little babies to Elementary French Immersion students, to struggling school teachers who needed just as much patience and nurturing as a newborn. I’m not sure that this woman could give as much as she does to other people’s children if she had children of her own at home to return to and worry about at the end of each day.

Does the Universe put some women on Earth with the explicit purpose of helping to raise and mother the children of others? I used to wonder if I was meant to be such a person. The desire of my heart was clearly to be a mother to my own child, but I spent a lot of time mothering the children of other mothers, and it certainly made me feel wonderful to be able to do so. When we realized that my body might not be able to carry a baby to term I wondered if God had arranged it in such a way so that I would always have the time, energy and love to give to children who were not my own. Perhaps I was simply looking for meaning in an otherwise meaningless and disappointing situation, but I have met some pretty amazing “other mothers” in this life who were able to give me or my daughter just what we needed when we needed it, and would likely not have been able to do so if they had their own children to worry about.

Willow’s Godmother and Auntie has no children of her own. While I was playing with my dolls and pretending to feed them and teach them how to read my sister was observing and documenting animal behaviour and watching taped surgeries on our television. I dreamed of becoming a teacher and a mommy. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian and living in a house with a big fenced backyard for her many animals to play in. Both of us finally have our heart’s desires.

While my sister deliberately chose not to have biological children, she made it very clear from the beginning that she wanted a niece. She literally stood outside our honeymoon suite on our wedding night chanting “Make me a niece!!” Of course, had Willow been born with testes instead of ovaries, Auntie still would have loved him, but her preference was quite clear.

Willow’s Godmother spoils her and dotes on her. She oohs and aahs over the photos and videos I send her. She is actually interested in every minute detail of Willow’s development. She will drive for six hours each way to spend one weekend with her niece. She took 20 photos of Willow in the same pose because the facial expressions were slightly different in each shot and she didn’t want to miss any of them. Would she be this enraptured with her niece if she had children at home to care for? Probably not. Would she be willing and able to travel so far just for a day and a half of baby cuddling time? Unlikely.

As Willow gets older I know that she will continue to need other women to “mother” her. She will need someone to be patient with her on days when my patience runs thin. She will need someone to listen to her tell her story about a funny incident at Daycare or school… a story that her father and I will have heard ten times already and will no longer react to in quite the way she is hoping for. She will need someone to talk to when she has her first kiss or her first crush, and it’s okay if she doesn’t want that person to be me or her father. She will need someone to complain to about how unfair her parents are when we don’t let her stay out as late as she would like. Enter the professional Aunties of the world.

Willow will be drawn to the women who can meet the needs that I cannot. She will find comfort and understanding in the arms of her role models and confidantes. Some little girls are drawn into gangs and abusive relationships of all kinds because they are searching for a sense of “family” outside of their own. My daughter is blessed to have many strong women in her life to act as her mentors and extended family, whether related by blood or by love.

Today, the day after Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate the love of the Professional Aunties/”Other Mothers”, the ones for whom Hallmark has yet to create a card or a holiday. The women who work quietly and largely unnoticed in the background to ensure that the human race moves forward in a kinder, gentler, more loving way. Thank you, professional Aunties and “other-mothers” of the world. Thank you.