Thursday, February 2, 2012

Talking to Bean about my mom...and her death

I have been wanting to sit down and write about this since it happened yesterday, so it made me laugh when the writing prompt for BlogHer's NaBloPoMo for today was "tell us about your mother."

I've already talked about her a bit here, but right now talking about her death - and specifically how to talk about her death with my children - is much more pressing.

I have no idea what I'm doing.  There is no how-to manual for talking to your children about your own childhood trauma.  I'm sure there are various thoughts and books about how to talk to young children about death, but I'm also quite sure they're all as useful as any other parenting manual - a great place to start thinking, but not really a lot of practical advice.

Plus, I am unwilling to stifle conversation about my mother simply because it involves or is somehow tainted by the fact that she died.  My children are already deprived of knowing her in the flesh.  I want them to know her in whatever ways they still can.

And I would love to sit down and have planned, prepared discussions about this stuff...but discussions don't work that way with Bean!

Take yesterday for example...

We were driving by the elementary school nearest our house.  It has a fence around the playground, near the road.  He asked how you get in there.  I told him there was a gate, and that you can also go through the building.  I told him that he will go to that school if we don't move (we will probably/hopefully move in the next two years).

He asked, "will I be able to visit the people who live in our house when we move?"

I answered, "No, honey.  We won't know them."

He asked why we couldn't see the house, and I told him "because it wouldn't be our house anymore.  But I know how you feel - I have wanted to go see some of my old houses after I moved out of them."

I told him about running through my old neighborhood when we were last in Texas, and that I sort of wanted to see the inside of that house but I couldn't.

He asked me all sorts of questions about the houses I had lived in:  which one was the biggest?  Which one was the smallest?

And then...

Bean:  "Did Grandma Nita die in one of the houses?"
Me:  "Yes.  In the small one."
Bean:  "She died and then someone came and took her away?"
Me:  "Yes.  They took her to the hospital and tried to keep her from dying."
Bean:  "But her heart stopped working?"
Me:  "Yes."

At this point I am waiting for him to ask another question.  He doesn't.  I realize I need him to ask another question, and for the topic to meander away. 

Me:  "Do you have any more questions?"
Bean:  "No."
Me:  "Ok.  Could you please keep talking?"
Bean:  "You want me to keep talking?" (said with surprise...usually I am saying "no more questions!  2 minutes of silence!  Mom's brain is full!")

I texted a friend about this after the fact.  She asked how I felt when he brought this stuff up.  "Extreme nothing with a side of holy shit panic?  Gratitude that he is interested...sadness and gratitude and frustration that he cannot comprehend.  I asked him to keep talking - started to have a flashback and needed his little voice to keep me here."

So many emotions over this.  I love talking to him about Grandma Nita.  I love that he is interested, and that he remembers what I tell him (like that it was her heart that stopped working).  I love his sweet innocence - he doesn't know it's impolite (and weird) to ask me so directly about my mother's death.  He doesn't understand the profound sadness or the ongoing grief.  Thank goodness he has no reference for that at not-quite-four! 

On my run this morning I was digesting all of this and whether I should have handled the conversation any differently (I think not).  I also got to thinking about A-Train's sobbing over being reprimanded because he hit me repeatedly - and the (gentle) reprimand was sort of shocking to him.  Sometimes it seems like my job as a parent is to balance and temper opposing forces:  their innocence with harsh realities; fun with responsibility; cleanliness with joy in mud puddles.  I could go on and on.

This parenthood thing is not straightforward.  Sometimes I take comfort in thinking we're all just muddling through, trying to inflict and sustain as little damage as possible.
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