A grieving child is not easy to see. The gamut of emotions we feel as adults when we lose someone we love run through our children as they, too, try and process their loss. When my children were faced with the loss of their father I realized how real this was. And despite the books I read to help me parent them through their grief, and the support network I created for us to help surround them with the love they needed to heal their broken hearts, I was not prepared for the anger and aggression that took place in our home following their father’s death.
For my eldest daughter, 7-years-old at the time, the anger was internalized. She became introverted and quiet and was only willing to be with me. She needed my full attention and she wanted to stay close to me to ensure that I would not disappear as her father had done. But her need to be close to me was confronted by an intense anger: she was mad at the world not only for taking her father, but for stopping her from being allowed to say goodbye. Her father’s family, hurting and opting to re-direct their pain by focusing their energies on being angry with me, decided that the children were not entitled to see their father before he died. As such, they moved him from a palliative care unit some 20 minutes from our home to the city of his birth 4 hours away. No matter what rationalization was forwarded from either his family to the children and I, or from me to the girls, one reality remained true: the girls were not able to say goodbye to their father before he died. As the anger boiled in my eldest daughter, and new synaptic connections were being made between her feelings of security and love and her understanding of family. She began to question whether anyone loved her: if her family had made this choice to deny her the opportunity to tell her father she loved him before he died, what did it mean to be loved by family? Who was there to trust? What did trust look like? How could she be sure that I would remain if I went to work, or to get groceries, or walked downstairs to check the mail in our condominium? And as her questions continued to grow and an increase of negative emotions became connected to her brain’s understanding of “family,” she was quick to anger. This resulted in her body and mind processes remaining locked in the lower, deep region, of the brain. Every decision she made was one of primal survival: flight, fright or freeze. And often, she chose “freeze,” unable to feel her body much less her emotional processing as she worked through her grief.
For my youngest daughter, 4-years old when her father died, the anger and rage was overwhelming. To release her rising emotions, she would yell, grunt, and scream any chance she got. She began to attack the people around her, including her sister. She was typically joyful and optimistic, but with her father’s passing, she struggled to understand what had happened. How was she to go on without a father in her life? Why did she have to accept that he was gone? Why did he look so frail the last time she saw him? Why was he so angry? Why didn’t he have hair? Why couldn’t he walk or run? Why didn’t he play with her? Why did she want to cry so much? I realized as we tried to work through her feelings and address her experiences with her father that she had never known him healthy. And I think that this bothered her as well, making her angry that she was denied happy experiences with her dad. When I told her he died, she asked for a picture of him with hair. It was then – watching her look at his picture with a blank look as if she was staring into the eyes of a stranger – that I realized that his battle with cancer, unending treatments, and physical effects of a life filled with a cocktail of drugs served to him on a regular basis in a clear, plastic bag marked with a skull and crossbones image to indicate it was hazardous material, resulted in our youngest daughter never having a father in her life who was able to live up to the expectations of dad’s among her friends. Thus, for her, the synaptic connections made between “father” and “family” and “unhealthy” and “sick” were truly troubling. She was mad that her family did not look like others, and she was struggling as this was reinforced by healthy fathers picking up their children from daycare. And with each experience, the connection between “family” – “father” – “sickness” – “unhealthy” – “anger” grew and cemented until she was filled with rage needing an outlet.
For all of us, this time was nothing less than trying. My reaction was not always positive. I was grieving too, and saw ahead of me an eternal challenge to figure out why the girls were yelling and fighting. And though I understood intellectually that they were grieving and they were in emotional pain, I was not able to find a way to re-direct the behaviours or create new, more peaceful synaptic connections within any of us. I also wanted to scream – maybe this was what their mirror neurons were sensing as the girls’ anger boiled over. As my neocortex or the higher region of my brain went offline, I mirrored that, too, for the girls. We lived together in the house, but we each felt isolated and alone. That was what preempted my attempts to find ways to help us re-center, find peace, and find ways to strengthen our bond so that we could collectively – as a family – create a new life for ourselves. I began to call this “our new normal” and the title became our hook. It was a way of helping us think more simplistically about what it looked like in practice to create more positive synaptic connections in our brains moving forward. In fact, this helped us begin to strengthen our family values. Sure, we weren’t like the “typical” family anymore, but we were still here. And we wanted peace and knew that the anger and rage being expressed no longer assisted us. It was time to release the anger and, as Siegel and Hartzell explain in “Parenting from the Inside Out,” no longer be ruled by our limbic system or emotional centre. We could make different choices. And we are. Every single day.
With love, light, and healing,