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It hit last night. An outpouring of grief and loss and all that had changed in his world since… well since he was old enough to remember. It started early on in the day. Constantly at my side, clingy, irritating, pushing buttons and doing things to attract attention. Over and over, I put the jigsaw puzzle I was tussling with, the presentation I was working on, the spoon I was stirring with, down, and turned to him. “You have my full attention, what do you need?” And each time, it was pushed aside, he wasn’t ready (or able) to express whatever it was that was bothering him.
As we got closer to bedtime it was brewing, the behaviour was getting more boisterous, nothing was right, he wanted this, he wanted that, but not this way and not that way. It was somewhere around this point that I realised this was not boredom, this was not “focus on me, not your work mummy” I realised we were heading for a big tsunami which had been coming for weeks.
After the last “it’s not fair, why can I not have your laptop to load up my games?” and the accompanying slam out the door, (and boy can he slam) I got up from the sofa where my partner and I were watching Ozark, and said “carry you on watching, I’m going to be a while.” I knocked his bedroom door. “Can we talk?” “I hate you,” came the reply, “you never let me do anything, you always take everything away from me. You’re more interested in your work than in me.”
I got onto his bed and held out my arms. He came straight in, snuggled into my chest and he let rip. I mean really let rip. It started with “You won’t let me have your laptop, you won’t let me have the living room TV in my bedroom, I didn’t get pizza for dinner tonight,” and I listened, occasionally saying “you are so mad at me aren’t you? I’m sorry you are so mad at me.” I don’t know how many times I repeated this or versions of it, just reflecting back to him what he was clearly feeling without commenting on what he said was the trigger. And then somewhere about 5 minutes in, when he finally understood I was really listening to him, we got to it, the torrential outpouring of loss and grief. The real stuff. The stuff you can’t hide from when it smacks you up the face. I’ve got to hand it to him – for an almost ten-year-old, when he finally feels brave enough to express it – he does it remarkably well.
He sat straight up and looked at me, tears streaming down his face. “You left my dad… you took me away from my dad… you moved me away from my school and friends… I loved my house in Greenisland… you ruined my life… I want it to be 2016 again when it was just you and me… I want it to be 2013 when it was you me and Dad… I wish I’d never been born, then you and Dad would still be together and I would live with both of you, (you have to appreciate the mix up of a child’s reality and fantasy here)… you care more about living closer to your mum and dad than me living close to my dad – how do you think that makes me feel?”
Bam! There was the question. It was like a kick up the teeth. The decisions I had made, for us, without consulting him. Now to be fair he was four years old and didn’t really understand the basis for the decisions that were made, and despite having a good co-parenting relationship with his dad, we do now live an hour apart, rather than the 20 minutes it used to be. But that is irrelevant, because right now, I had to suck up the fact that my decisions impacted him beyond the day on which they were made and long past the situations in which they needed to be made, had passed. My decisions now had come to bear and I had to deal with the feelings of loss and grief that happened as a result.
I took a deep breath and thought here goes - off the diving board, dark waters below – let’s crack this issue wide open. “I’m sorry Jacob. You are right to be so mad at me. I made all these decisions that affected you and I didn’t ask you how you felt about them. I made all these decisions and they hurt you. I’m so so sorry. I took you away from your friends and your school and your home and I didn’t ask you about any of it. You must have felt so confused and lost. I’m so sorry. I totally understand why you are so angry at me and feel so hurt. I would feel the same if someone did that to me.”
I didn’t make promises that I could change these decisions. I didn’t justify the reasons for those decisions. I just apologised for the pain he was in. For the loss he had experienced. He threw a few more examples of things I had done to him. (I’m pretty sure one of them was giving him an unreasonable bedtime!)
It was surprising how quickly the tsunami left. Cuddled back into my chest he hiccupped a few times and then asked could he watch TV for a little later than usual tonight. I gave in. “Sure” I said. (So sue me – I was exhausted, he was exhausted, I was fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to stay awake too far past his bedtime anyway).
This grief comes around every so often. It’s like a tunnel that he spins around and every so often he touches the jagged edge and it hurts and then the wound opens and we deal with the outpourings. It can be triggered by anything from a particularly good weekend with his dad and the disappointment of coming back to the mundane of me, or it could be watching his friends’ Dads’ pick them up from school and he realises his can’t. Life throws curve balls at him too, that ricochet him back into that jagged edge, like Corona Virus, which stole his summertime with his friends, and will steal the 10th birthday party he had dreamed to have. These losses just reopen the trauma of his most deep running loss. I know my pending marriage to my new partner and his dad’s pending marriage to his new partner will also open a wound, and while it will be a happy, happy, day for me, consideration has to be given to how it will be another loss for him.
We can’t stop our children from feeling loss and grief, it is part of life. But how we teach them to deal with it when it comes is important. Ignoring it, devaluing it, or pretending they are too young to have these feelings, that they are silly, insignificant or misunderstanding the situation is not helpful. You don’t have to solve it. You just have to empathise with it, normalise it, feel with them. I am preparing myself for more loss and grief to come. Send wine.