Parenting in the face of grief

9 Sep

Parenting in the face of grief

August 21, 2015

Joseph Wakim

The chapter headings in my book all begin with ‘How to …’ There is even a chapter titled ‘How to grieve’, as if there was such a ‘recipe’.

Of course, these headings are all tongue in cheek, as I clamoured for a ‘DIY Manual’ when I first became widowed. In my disorientation, I yearned for a lighthouse, somewhere on the dark horizon.

After a two year nightmare with breast cancer, we hoped and prayed that this monster would go away. But it was my wife Nadia who was taken away from me and our three young children who were all aged under twelve years at the time.

Unlike fatal accidents, terminal illnesses may trigger anticipatory grief. While my beloved was melting away like a candle before my very eyes, the shadows on the wall painted a picture of things to come: that day, the silence, the stillness, the darkness, the emptiness. I squeezed my eyes shut but this only accentuated the images of coffins, churches and cemeteries.

These flashes of anticipatory grief can also be a wake-up call to prepare the children for this life-changing experience. In my case, our faith helped me set the ‘stage’. When we recited the rosary, I referred to their holy mother (Mary) Mary in heaven. I referred to the rosary chain as a ‘hotline to heaven’ and the wooden cross as a bridge between this life and the next. I referred to the Creed and all that ‘We believe …’ as if all this would help my children to say goodbye to their mother. My bed-time stories took on themes and characters that subtly prepared them for this bitter pill.

But children’s antennas are sharper than we think and mine already noticed the gradual changes: tip-toeing around the house, more candles and incense burning, whispering instead of talking, mum becoming more bed-ridden. As their dependence on mum decreased, their dependence on me increased. Paradoxically, this was a blessing because their dependence kept me anchored to the here and now.

Then the dress rehearsals are over and the final curtain is drawn. I kissed my wife goodbye then rushed to my children to explain that their mother had now crossed that bridge.

Grief takes its hold on different people at different times. In some cultures, collective wailing is seen as helpful – better out than in, better now than later, better altogether than separately.

But we preferred to keep it in our family. Tears were triggered unexpectedly – from movie scenes, when they could not sleep, from school report cards, when we had bad days and their lips would quiver: ‘I miss mummy …’

As a father, there was no point burying my grief in my pillow. It was expressed rather than suppressed right in front of my children: ‘I miss your mummy too …’

Nadia died the day we moved into our new home, which may have saved us more painful memories. Her shadows never danced on these walls and her voice never echoed in these rooms.

I hung all her clothes in our shared wardrobe. To conceal my own denial, I rationalised this to my frowning children: ‘you never know, one day you may grow into them! You know how fashion goes in circles!’ The truth is that I knew nothing about fashion until they taught me in their teenage years, when I wore the pants but they chose them!

We created our own sacred space – a backyard water fountain crowned with her photo, smiling at us from every angle like the omnipresent Mona Lisa. ‘Mum’ remained an everyday word, not something taboo. It made no sense to hide her wall hangings, as we wanted death to be a part of life, not the opposite of life. Fortunately, we had a great collection of family videos that captured my wife in full flight – singing, laughing, dancing – and my children kept laughing with her.

Anniversaries, birthdays and Mothers Days became dreaded dates on our calendar. To lock ourselves away from the ‘cruel world’ and hold our breath would have been cruel on my children. They did not want to spend the whole day meditating on who they were missing. My children taught me that sometimes they grieve best by doing mundane things with mundane people, perhaps to remove the intensity.

Even our trips to the cemetery could have been guilt-ridden, so I asked my children how they felt.

‘I don’t feel that she’s there … is that a bad thing, dad?’

‘Your mum is already inside you and knows what’s in your heart.’

When they had to make Mother’s Day cards at school, we would place their cards in plastic sleeves and wedge them behind a vase.

There is a paradox with widowed parenting. On one hand, you feel like you are hopping around on one leg, falling more often, running out of breath more often, taking twice as long to do things because there is no adult for you to lean on. On the other hand, what you least accept is someone offering to ‘take the kids off your hands’.

Why? Because you learn that your children are afraid of losing you, for obvious reasons. God knows how many times I prayed ‘please take me instead – my daughters need their mother!’ But at a time of tumultuous changes in our family, I now had to be that constant, that lighthouse for them.

For us, the opposite of life was not death, but wasting this life. For us, the opposite of love was not hate, but fear. It was fear of the unmentionable C-word that delayed my wife from an earlier diagnosis. And it was fear that my children snapped out of me. Every time I nearly drowned in fearing the future, their immediate needs became my life jacket: Dad, I need help with my homework, I can’t sleep, I’m hungry, the printer is not working, I need a lift …

They didn’t care about my gender, they just needed the deed done.

Perhaps a dying parent’s candle is never really snuffed. Their remaining flame just flicks across to the surviving parent who needs to turn it up. Perhaps the lighthouse is not on some dark horizon, but glowing within us.

When we lose a key family member, we are still a family. In fact, we become best friends.

Joseph Wakim is the author of What My Daughters Taught Me, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, on sale now

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