When Everything Changes



What do you do when the unimaginable happens? Where do you go in your head? How do you process a grief that threatens to take over? Obliterating, devastating, horrific grief that may ebb but won’t subsigrieving-angel-aj-schibigde.

The death of a child. The cessation of promise. Extinguished hopes and dreams. Your worst fear realized. My son’s best friend died Saturday night. For many years my son’s only real friend. His parent’s are wrecked. They are two of the most loving, accepting, nurturing, proud, parents that I know. An oasis in a sea of phony, upper-middle-class, over-educated, entitled, judgmental people. I include myself in that sea. Except when I am with them. When I am with them I can take off the armor and be real, warts and all. I can share the truth and they accept me. More importantly, they accept and love my quirky child. My brilliant, ADHD, socially awkward boy. When he is with them he shines brighter, he laughs easily, he is gotten.

Their son wore green. Every day. For six years. Every day a green shirt, or pants, or both. He was so intellectually gifted it stunned me. He made my gifted child look average. He challenged me in his gentle way and always made me smile when he spoke with his oddly enunciated, hard to place accent. Perhaps a mixture of his parents North Western cadence and our North Eastern, suburban Philadelphia drawl. He was polite and could be reserved at times, but outspoken and charming when at ease. He attracted people to him. His friendship buoyed my son and protected him from outcast status. I can’t measure the depth of my gratitude for his presence in my son’s life.

And now he is gone. I am only just wrapping my head around this ugly fact. When I told my son he looked at me like I was crazy.

“What,” he said, “No, that can’t be.” He put his head in his hands. He looked at me with disbelief.

“Mom, what, how why?”

And there’s the rub. Why? The unanswerable why. The question all kids ask their parents. But Dr. Google can’t help answer this one. No one can.

My almost fifteen year old son began listing the stages of grief, according to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. He told me he was in stage 1, denial. I told him I was too. With the help of Dr. Google, he and I looked them up and read that the stages are not linear. We go back and forth through them, we skip around.  I think I went through all the stages yesterday. There was a lot of information out there on the interweb. We thought this was helpful:

five stages of grief – elisabeth kübler ross

EKR stage Interpretation
1 – Denial Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality, etc., relating to the situation concerned. It’s a defense mechanism and perfectly natural. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with a traumatic change that can be ignored. Death of course is not particularly easy to avoid or evade indefinitely.
2 – Anger Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, and/or with others, especially those close to them. Knowing this helps keep detached and non-judgmental when experiencing the anger of someone who is very upset.
3 – Bargaining Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempting to bargain with whatever God the person believes in. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?..” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.
4 – Depression Also referred to as preparatory grieving. In a way it’s the dress rehearsal or the practice run for the ‘aftermath’ although this stage means different things depending on whom it involves. It’s a sort of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness and regret, fear, uncertainty, etc. It shows that the person has at least begun to accept the reality.
5 – Acceptance Again this stage definitely varies according to the person’s situation, although broadly it is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must necessarily pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.

(Based on the Grief Cycle model first published in On Death & Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 1969. Interpretation by Alan Chapman 2006-2013.) http://www.businessballs.com/elisabeth_kubler_ross_five_stages_of_grief.htm You can learn more at the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross foundation: www.ekrfoundation.org

I know from experience that grieving does not end. It mutates; fades to the background, then rears its head and catches you off guard, surprising you with its ferocity. But it never leaves for good. Mourning for the death of a child, the death of promise, the death of dreams, lasts a life time.

The tripod family left bereft with one leg missing. A tripod still stands, still supports weight, but the balance is more tenuous. We will support them, try to help restore balance in their world, but it is forever changed. On this frigid, white, frozen morning I long to see a flash of green. Long to see the sly smile, to hear the clipped lilting voice. The chasm is open, we look into the abyss and know we must go on. How? One foot in front of the other; baby-steps. Why? Because it is our only choice.

Advice for My 13 Year Old Daughter

My daughter is a 7th grader. Ah, the memories of 7th grade, the cliquishness, the insecurity, the puberty. Not a pretty time. She is very different from me in some ways and just like me in others. The differences, she has innate confidence and athletic ability, she does not procrastinate, she is not dreamy, she is a realist and pragmatist. The similarities, she is very socially aware, she is organized and plans out her week, she gets anxious about what to wear and managing friendships and doing well in school. Unfortunately, her anxiety triggers mine and we get into some pretty unpleasant screaming matches and power struggles.

Last week she was preparing to go to a National Squash tournament at Yale University with her dad as chaperone. Huge difference from my childhood. First of all, as a 13 year-old, I was unaware of the existence of Squash, a semi-elitist sport. Secondly, I would have sucked, not been able to hit the ball, let alone be 1st on the team. Thirdly, my father would not have taken me.

I was thrilled that my husband was taking her. He plays squash and he manages her anxiety much better than I. She was not thrilled. She would be the only girl whose dad was her chaperone. The other girls would go shopping with their moms and she would be on her own, no parent to buck up or be her anchor. Making it even worse in her mind, her dad planned for them to have dinner with friends in New Haven on the first night instead of going to dinner with the team. And thus began the anxiety tornado. She started with, “they are all gonna bond, and I won’t be there. I’ll be left out. This weekend is not just about squash it’s about bonding as a team and I won’t be there on the first night!”

On the one hand, she had a great point. On the other, they would be eating three meals a day together for the next two days. She would have plenty of time to bond over mediocre food at chain restaurants. It got worse from there. “I have nothing to wear, my clothes aren’t cute enough.” Umm, not too much we can do about that at 8 pm the night before you leave. Of course, it was all my fault. I should be going to Yale with her, not dad. I should have gotten her cuter clothes, even though she refuses to go shopping with me for fear of being seen in public shopping with her mother. I remained calm as she ratcheted up the drama level. But, the winds of anxiety would not be slowed. They quickly whipped up to gale force at which point I got caught in the eye of the storm. I screamed and yelled and said things I regretted as they were coming out of my mouth. The dog hid behind a chair, my son retreated to his room and finally, my husband came upstairs and tried to calm us both. Eventually, we came to tears and re-conciliatory hugs, a packed bag and bedtime.

The next morning, after meditating I wrote her a note that I put in her bag. The note was my hard-won advice for dealing with anxiety, minus the anti-depressants. Here it is:

Dear C*****,

I love you so much. I am so sorry that when you get nervous and anxious it makes me anxious and I am often more harmful than helpful. I have some tips to help you through anxious times.

1. Know that anxiety is about fear of the future. When you feel it coming on ask yourself what you are scared of. Sometimes naming your fear can help calm you.

2. Once you know why you are feeling anxious, you can try to take yourself out of the emotional tailspin by being really rational. For example, the Fear: What to Wear. The rational thought:

1) As long as I am not naked I will be alright.

2) No one that matters will notice or care what I am wearing.

3) I always look OK if my smile and attitude are in place.

More tips later – love you, Mom

I am not sure if my note helped her. I showed her where I put it and told her to read it on the train to Yale. She did not mention it. It is fine if she read it and scoffed. The note helped me. The heartfelt apology soothed my guilt. The advice came from the heart and from the lessons I’ve learned and from the yoga I practice. I needed to write that note, to remember to take my own advice.