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.

Love,

Your grieving child

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Love Is A Drive-By Fruiting

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I have “banana hair”, and I couldn’t be happier.  Tonight, our daughter was so excited to give me a hug that she was literally shaking.  I knelt down to her level with my arms out and she squealed and ran toward me.  In her excitement, she forgot to put down the banana that she had been eating, and it ended up mashed into the back of my hair and neck.

I have received the gift of being able to find the “bless in the mess”, thanks to the miracle that is Willow Mei.  From the mess of daily nausea and vomiting during pregnancy (which assured me of Willow’s continued presence right up until the day she was born), to the mess of experiencing hours of solid screaming (when she finally had the energy to find her voice after being too weak to open her eyes or cry), to the mess of waste products streaming out of multiple orifices simultaneously (proving that she was finally taking in enough nutrition to eliminate appropriately after three weeks of being unable to eat properly after birth), she’s given me reasons to find joy in all of the little things.  These things that others may take for granted or even possibly resent when they are happening, but may look back upon with a certain degree of fondness one day.  Like many of my silent sorority sisters who have been lucky enough to graduate from spending years praying for a child to finally having a living, breathing miracle, I don’t have the luxury of taking any of this for granted.  Perhaps one of the most precious gems in parenting after infertility and loss is that I don’t have to wait for “one day” to look back and feel love and gratitude for the messes, big and small.  I can and do appreciate it all now.

I remember working in a childcare centre where a little boy in my group was working in the sensory bin.  He looked up to see his mommy entering the classroom and broke out into a huge smile.  He toddled toward her, arms outstretched, with a look of pure joy on his face.  He reached his mommy and grabbed her around her calves, getting the mucky sensory bin material all over her legs.  She recoiled, disgusted by the material that had been lovingly deposited on her legs.  The little boy began to wail, likely upset by both his mother’s unexpected and sudden movement away from him as well as by the expression on her face. The mom wasn’t trying to upset or hurt the boy in any way.  She was just grossed out by the yucky contents of the sensory bin being smeared on her.  Who wouldn’t be?  We were able to clean everyone up and dry the boy’s tears, and everyone eventually went home happy.  It was a small moment that left a big impression on me, as it made me think about how our automatic reactions might be perceived by children.  If we string together enough of these small moments we can make a big impact on a child’s self-image.

With practice, we can be mindful of our reactions and of the messages we are sending to children with our body language and our words.  When I change Willow’s diaper after she has accidentally eaten a dairy product at daycare, what does my face look like as I register the sensory explosion before me?  What words am I choosing to use as I speak with her during the change?  When Willow helps me to tidy the kitchen after dinner by dumping the dirty cat food dishes into my drawer of freshly washed and folded kitchen linens, what does my body language communicate to her?

So… when I became the unwitting victim of a rogue banana, I giggled.  I held our little girl tighter for just a minute, kissed her sticky little toddler cheeks, and let her know with my words and my body that I was just as happy to see her as she was to see me.

Love is a drive-by fruiting.

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Farewell Ginger

Dear Nougat (a.k.a. Ginger),

You’ve had a hard two months. Likely the hardest in your short little life. You lost your home, your cat sibling, your three human siblings, and your human parents. You learned to survive on your own in the harsh Canadian winter with no reliable sources of food, water or shelter for the first few weeks. You roamed the freezing cold streets until you finally found a water dish, food bowls, and a cozy, insulated cat shelter with straw bedding on a porch belonging to two other ginger cats and their people. You endured bullying by hardened neighbourhood strays and bigger cats who technically have homes but who spend a lot of nights out in the cold with empty bellies. You learned when to slink off to the window well to let Felix have the warm spot between the doors, and when to hold your ground. You are such a resilient little creature. I have so much respect for you.

Despite all of the loss, violence, and harshness that you experienced on the outside, you always remained a gentle soul. I mistakenly thought that you were declawed at first, because I never really saw or felt your claws in action. You timidly accepted food and water from a distance, skittishly hiding around the side of the house at first, until we were safely back in the house. You slowly allowed the gap between us to decrease over the weeks, first letting me talk to you across the porch, then smelling my hand, then head-butting and meowing greetings to me, then sniffing Willow’s stroller or car seat every time she crossed your path, until you finally decided to jump right into my arms for cuddles this week, and to crawl all over Willow to cover her face in kisses. You snuck into the house and made yourself at home on the stairs, and I knew that it was the right time to coax you into a carrier to visit the veterinarian so that we could have you examined, treated, and hopefully find a loving home for you if you didn’t already have one.

You are a very lucky cat. Your human parents loved you so much that they had you microchipped. When we asked Dr. H. if she could scan you for a microchip, we were so excited to find out that you had a family that loved and missed you terribly. A family that had given up hope of finding you. Dropping you off at your home and seeing the children gush over you as you were reunited with your loved ones made my heart sing. You were home at long last.

Thank you for choosing our porch to claim as your own for the past several weeks. It was a privilege and an honour to gradually win your trust and affection, and to have you as a temporary member of our family. Thank you for being so gentle with Baby Willow and for playing “hide and go meow” with Tobi through the windows. Thank you for your patience when possessive Hana would hiss at you through the screen door to tell you to stop cuddling HER mommy. Thank you for reminding us that miracles can and do happen. You have left tiny ginger paw prints on all of our hearts and we will always remember you with love and warmth.

Congratulations on finally finding your way back home, Nougat. We will miss you.

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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

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“Good Baby”

As a teacher I have never been comfortable using the phrases “good girl” or “good boy”. These descriptions seem to indicate that a child is “good” when he or she complies with an adult’s wishes. The flip side is that we can then infer that the child is “bad” when not doing what an adult wants him or her to do. Semantic fussiness, I know, but it has always rubbed me the wrong way when I hear an adult tell a child she is a “good girl”.

I prefer to praise the specific behaviours that I want to encourage in children, so I aim to say things such as “wow, great work using those finger spaces today” or “thanks for listening so well at the carpet” or “good job tidying up the painting materials”. I find that children generally respond quite well to this sort of specific positive feedback, and it is not tied to their inherent worth as a human being, girl or boy (yes, yes, my equity training tells me that I must insist that gender is a social construct, but that’s a whole other blog post to come, in which the mountain of pink clothing in my daughter’s closet shall be discussed).

A woman at the community centre met Willow and asked me, as many others have asked in recent weeks, “Is she a good baby”? My answer was a resounding “Yes!! Of course she is!”

Let’s be clear: In my eyes Willow is perfect. She’s a miracle. She is my greatest teacher. She’s a joy to behold and cherish and she makes me a better person by her very existence. She makes this world a better place and I am so thankful to be blessed with her in my life when so many are denied this very joy. Of COURSE she is “good”. She is better than good… She is amazing.

The woman, like so many before her, went on with her line of questioning, unsatisfied with my answer that I have a “good” baby: “Oh, so she sleeps through the night, then?” Well, if you call a two hour stretch comprised of 45-60 minutes of actual sleep bookended by 60-75 minutes of quiet bleating noises (lovingly coined her “barnyard noises”) between feedings “sleeping through the night” then the answer is “yes”. Otherwise, like many babies her age, no, she is not sleeping for 8 hours straight. Does having a tiny tummy that needs food every few hours at night make her a “bad baby”? I certainly hope not. No more than my needing insulin and food at regular intervals makes me a “bad” adult.

I told the woman that Willow sleeps for a few hours at a time and that I am doing well with bits and pieces of sleep. The woman looked at me apologetically. “Oh… It must be so hard”, she said, shaking her head. “It’s all good”, I replied. And it IS all good. I was not just being polite. The human body is incredibly amazing. Humans can adapt to extreme situations, including sleep disruption, sleep deprivation… And we not only survive but thrive. Yes, I am often tired. Most parents of newborns are tired. BUT I chose the job of motherhood very deliberately and have been preparing for it for many years. I will happily trade sleep for the bundle of love nursing at my breast as I type this. The best part is that my new “boss” lets me nap on the job now and again, so while I lack long uninterrupted stretches of sleep I certainly get nice tiny chunks of sleep that allow my brain and body to sufficiently rest and recover.

The woman pressed on, “Well if she’s a good baby she doesn’t cry then, at least… right?” Well… She cries when I change her, she cries when I put her hat on, she cries when she is hungry, wet, gassy, hot, cold, bored, overstimulated, when the car comes to a stoplight, when the cat decides to stop purring by her ear, when the bath water stops running… But so do many other babies. Crying is how babies communicate with us and let us know what they are thinking and feeling. If I thought that crying to tell me that she needs a diaper change made her a “bad baby” then maybe I should have researched this a bit more before choosing to become a parent. I am indeed lucky that I don’t have a constantly screaming colicky baby, but even if I did… she would not be “bad”.

When Willow was sick for the first few weeks of her life she was a model “good baby” by the standards of the community centre woman as well as many others. She slept as long as we’d let her, and would have easily slept “through the night”, albeit with dire health consequences. She had to be woken and force fed with a syringe every few hours in order to stay alive. She had zero interest in eating and lacked the energy to suck at a breast or bottle. The doctors could not do an eye exam because she refused to open her eyes. She didn’t communicate by crying because she didn’t have the energy to cry. Apparently she was a “dream baby” since she was quiet and didn’t “bother” us. Heck, we didn’t even really have to change her diapers that often since she was dehydrated and not eating enough to produce an adequate amount of urine or stool…

I am so thankful for the dirty and wet diapers that demonstrate how healthy my daughter is now. I am thankful for the nighttime barnyard noises that let me know she is digesting her food. I am thankful for the screams I hear and the kick/punch combo I see when the kitten knocks a toy off the table that was being intensely stared at, as this demonstrates adequate reflexes and normal visual, auditory and brain development. I am thankful that my baby now wakes ME up when she needs food with a hearty cry, instead of me living with multiple alarms set, constantly pumping milk and preparing formula, forcing her to stay awake and forcing her to eat one mL at a time. I can laugh when an “incident” has me changing my clothes and her clothes for the fourth time in a day.

Is it hard to be a new mother? Absolutely. Do I resent my baby or my role as a mommy? Not a chance. Would I consider my child to be a “bad” baby, even if she never slept and screamed around the clock? Nope. She’d still be a perfect and cherished gift… no less wanted, no less loved. You don’t wait this long for a miracle and then ask to send it back.

Willow Bean, you are loved beyond measure. Always remember that.

Xoxo love,
Mombie

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