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a child's grief

a child's grief

Everybody goes through phases where they think life has handed them a big bowl of shit. Life's unfair, why did this have to happen to me, etc. Self-pity is something we have all wallowed in at some point. And then you come across someone whose bowl of shit is a lot bigger than yours and you cut the self-pity and wonder how that person can deal with everything they have been handed.

I'm thinking of my former mother-in-law. Several years ago her father was brutally murdered. In April of 2001, her 30 year old son died of a massive heart attack. In September of that year, her mother died. Two days ago, her brother died.

Me, I'd be curled up in a fetal position in bed, railing against the bitterness of life. Not her. She is the one comforting everyone else. My son included.

DJ has not taken the death of his uncle well. It was one of those deaths that came out of nowhere. One day he was in the hospital, not feeling well and then he was dead. When I told DJ about it he cried for half an hour.

I realized at some point that he was not just crying for his uncle, but for all the other deaths that have occurred in his short life.

Last night, before his baseball game, he said he was going to try and have a good game for his Uncle Paul. Unfortunately, he had a rather crappy game. So on the way home he cried, feeling as if he was a dissapointment to his uncle who was surely watching him from the clouds above.

He then started talking about Uncle Rob, the young man who died of a heart attack. He talked about how much he misses him, how it was unfair that he died so young, how he wishes he could spend just a little more time with him. He talked about Nanny (his great-grandmother), a funny, loving woman who DJ was especially close to.

DJ feels bad that he never cried for Nanny. She died on September 12, 2001, when our lives were in a bit of upheaval and there were 3,000 other deaths staring at him from the television. Nanny's death seemed almost normal to DJ; she was old, she was sick, that is the way people are supposed to die, not by terrorism, not by crashing airplanes. He accepted her death well back then, because it was the most normal thing that happened that week.

But now he feels bad that he didn't mourn her properly. He feels bad that "everyone he loves is dying." He feels bad that when my own grandmother died (she lived upstairs from us), he was younger and didn't get to spend enough time with her even though she was just several feet away from us all the time.

I don't know what to say to him. I don't know the right words or the comforting words. I just hug him and try not to give him the pat answer of this is life and everyone dies. I recognize his feelings and tell him it's ok to cry, it's ok to mourn Nanny now even though she died over a year ago. He's only nine years old. The sensitivity and complex emotions he feels sometimes frighten me.

Is there such a thing as feeling too much, as being too empathetic? He hates when he has to play baseball against one of his friend's teams because he doesn't like to strike them out or get a hit against them. He apologizes when he reaches first base. He gets upset when I'm upset. He cries if he even imagines that someone is mad at him. I don't believe in the "boys don't cry" adage. I let him cry, I let him get his emotions out. Holding them in will only turn the sadness to anger.

So there we were, in the drive-through line at Burger King last night, and I had to pull over and get into the back seat with him and hug him, because that's all I know how to do. I can't find the words that will comfort him, I can't lie to him and tell him don't worry, I'll never die on you. I can't bring back all the people he is missing right now. I can't explain to him why his uncles are dead and there are still rotten, evil people walking around.

When we get home, he wants to find pictures of his uncle, his great-grandmothers, anyone we know who has died. He is afraid that the memories of his uncle who died last year are fading already, so we talk about him for a bit, replaying some of the moments they shared together. DJ likes mementos. He wants to have something of his uncle's to remember him by. He asks me if that's weird.

I take him into the kitchen. I want to show him something. I open the freezer and pull a tupperware container out of the back. Inside the container are four meatballs, frozen solid since 1998.

The night before my grandmother got sick, went to the hospital and never came home, she made those meatballs. She called down the stairs, like she always did, gave me the container and said they were for the kids for dinner the next evening. I put them in the freezer, knowing that we were busy the next few nights and I we weren't going to be eating dinner home for a couple of days.

After my grandmother died, I could never bring myself to throw away the meatballs. In October, it will be four years that the container is sitting in my freezer. It will probably stay there forever, because it is the last thing she gave me, her last act of love for my kids.

DJ stared at the meatballs for a few minutes and smiled.

Today is the wake, tomorrow the funeral. I won't be there; too many weird feelings and awkwardness between the ex's family and mine. I only hope DJ's father can figure out how to comfort him or say the right word to him. You can't explain. There is no explaining the complexities of life and death, especially to a nine year old. I suppose all we can do is hug and hold and let him him cry.

I wish it were easier. I wish sometimes that being a parent didn't leave me feeling helpless.


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Both of my grandmothers died within 7 months of each other. I felt the same way the DJ felt...why didn't I feel bad then? To be honest, I did feel a little badly...but I knew that they were going to die eventually. The US has an interesting view on death. In Mexico, there are celebrations as well as cryfests.

Still...we don't always have to bust out crying when someone dies. I hope that he feels better.

you are a gem in the rough.

oh, honey. if you want to go to the wake, don't skip it because of weird feelings. when my father's brother died last year, my mother went with me to the wake and the funeral. they've been divorced for almost twenty years. you need closure too, and i'm sure they'd love to see you. huge hug


The way you handled DJ's repressed and current grief proves what so many have said before: You are a very good mother. Just because you felt you couldn't find the right words, should not leave you feeling helpless. You found the right ACTIONS. DJ is clearly a sympathetic boy and you knew that words would not work, but the meatballs (and hugs) would. Thank Jeebiz for mothers like you.

Hercules, CA

DJ is the best little boy ever. What a sweetheart. What a mom.

:: still taking copious notes on "How To Be A Mom" :: Michele, write a book already, so I can stop writing this stuff down... :)

I'm tearing up over the meatball story. You are such an incredible mom!

Is this the same Uncle DJ had dreams about?

Yes, he's the same one, Nicole.

here's that post

Heh, that reminds me, sitting in my parents' fridge at home is a jar of prunes that my grandmother preserved for us. She would give us prune preserves every year for Christmas. Whenever my brother and I stayed over at her house, she would make us eat prunes in the morning.

That last jar of prunes has been sitting in there since December 1988, the last Christmas before my grandmother died.

We also joke that she haunts our liquor cabinet, because we would go away on family vacations and then come back to find the liquor cabinet door wide open, keychain mysteriously swinging.