Sunday, March 15, 2009

On Helping Little Ones Grieve

When I write, I tend to begin composing things in my head long before I write (type) them out on paper (the computer screen). This morning I had begun to compose a post on anger, but the events of this evening have sent my thoughts in an entirely new direction altogether.

Tonight when we arrived home from church, I had many things on my mind, not the least of which was my grandma’s hospitalization, which was scheduled to begin today. It turns out she has a broken and/or dislocated hip, but the doctor agreed she could attend her (surprise) 81st birthday party yesterday and come to the hospital today to see about possible surgery. From there she will be heading to her new home at a long-term care facility (read: nursing home) that is yet to be chosen.

I had chosen not to reveal any of this to my daughter as I knew it would beg lots of questions, most of which I simply cannot answer at this point. My daughter is a very sensitive soul and gets that quite honestly as I gave her a single dose, and her mommy gave her at least a double. Even before my wife passed away, my daughter showed sensitivity to anyone who was hurting or in any kind of need. That has increased ten-fold over the last two years. Yet another phone call brought all of that to a head this evening just before bedtime.

Over the last two years I have learned to read the signals regarding the level to which my daughter is grieving. Most days she is pretty happy-go-lucky. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t inquire about her mommy. On the contrary, that is a rather routine occurrence. But she does so in a way that lets me know she’s interested in knowing, but is not experiencing a particularly difficult level of sadness at that moment.

Then there are what I call her “rough periods”.

After my wife first passed, these periods were marked by anywhere from 12 to 24 hours of extreme and inexplicable irritability. Once I learned the signals, I knew to be prepared for lots of questions and even more tears afterward.

As time has passed, these periods have morphed into something else entirely. Gone are the short-term periods of irritability. They have been replaced by longer periods of fairly normal five-year-old behaviors. It usually starts with her wanting more attention than usual, though sometimes that happens without being attached to a rough period. The initial tell-tale sign is when she gets in bed to snuggle with me during the night. It usually happens just before the alarm sounds in the morning, but she will often stay there till I wake her up to get ready for preschool. The second day it is usually an hour or two before the alarm and gets progressively earlier until she is spending about the second half of the night in my bed. This will go on for anywhere from 6-10 days before she decides to let me in on the fact that she’s grieving.

She is on Day 5 of the current cycle.

Now, I know that many parents allow their children to share their bed, but I have never been one of them. In fact, when she was sick as a baby, I told my wife that I would sleep with her on the couch just so that we would not start the habit of having her in our bed. I had (and have) known too many people who have struggled to break their children (and themselves) of this habit, and I wanted no part of it from the get-go.

This, however, is different. I think this gives her a sense of protection and, in a strange way since we’re asleep, a sense of undivided attention. It is her way of reassuring herself that Mommy might be gone from us, but that Daddy is still here and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I assume that as she gets older and the patterns change yet again, she will be able to verbalize her reasons for doing this, but for now I am fairly certain that these conjectures are probably pretty close to the mark.

Back to this evening. I was out of the room and did not hear the phone ring. When I reentered said room, she looked at me and said “Grammy just called. I think someone’s in the hospital.” I knew who it would be, but listened to the message before I said anything else to her, just to be certain. Now, to give my mother-in-law the benefit of the doubt, I don’t think it probably ever crossed her mind that I had not told my daughter about things yet, though I’m sure I mentioned it to her on the phone the other night. They are in a hard place right now, my father-in-law being the one brother of the three who has been left to make the major decisions regarding their mother’s care. I do not envy them, and I do not begrudge this oversight on their part.

That being said, I also did not enjoy being put in this position at this moment. They were not privy to the fact that their granddaughter was having a rough period right now. It is information I don’t often share unless it happens when we are visiting, as it makes it harder on everyone that we live 800 miles away. They also did not know that I was waiting to tell her until there was more information and/or it was closer to our trip to see them next month. But as I said before, I do not fault them for leaving the message.

The bottom line is that she heard it and I had to do damage control for an hour following. She understands that Great-Grandma (to her) is very old and that people usually die when they are very old. It was the one way I could think of to explain to her that I was not going to follow suit after her mommy died at age 28. She has mostly reconciled herself to that idea, though that will certainly not make it any easier when that day actually arrives. The parts that are not so easy to understand are why Great-Grandma has to be in the hospital, why we can’t see her right now (distance), and why she can’t go back and live in her own home by herself like she did before all of this. Those are all tough questions. You’d think when you’ve had to explain why Mommy isn’t coming home that these would be a piece of cake, but they’re still difficult.

The hour following the phone call tonight was full of questions and tears, followed by more questions and still more tears. She was better when I put her to bed, but there will be more questions tomorrow. These decisions and circumstances can be difficult for an adult to comprehend. Being a five-year-old makes understanding that much harder. And of all times, it has to be happening during one of her rough periods. She started talking more about her mommy this afternoon, so I know the hard times there are coming soon. Only now they will be mixed with questions and grief about Great-Grandma’s situation.

And I haven’t even told her about our hairdresser’s son yet.

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