The morning I discovered my brother Matthew had died, there was no hiding it. The shock sent me into a volatile state. I threw the phone against the wall, shattering it, then hurled myself into the front room of the house, banging the doors and walls and weeping, while my daughter sat listening at the top of the stairs. Hours later we were at my parents’ house, where everyone in the family had gathered, and over the next 48 hours, she experienced all the sights and sounds of our collective and profound loss.
But like a great number of mothers (and fathers) after a bereavement, it wasn’t long before I attempted to pull myself together and go back to normal. And although at the heart of this was a desire to protect my daughter from my grief, I ended up distancing myself, creating a strained, unhealthy atmosphere. My understandable worry over the effect on her of what she’d seen made me cautious and reticent. It was as though we were communicating through glass, and the result was that I was no longer present as a mother in the way she needed me to be.
It’s impossible to be the parent you were after someone you love dies, because you aren’t the same person. But how do we explain this to our children? Death is one thing. But revealing your vulnerability too? This can feel irresponsible and unfair.
I’m not so sure it is. Your child is a sponge at the best and worst of times; they see and feel the enormity of everything, especially loss. Hiding it risks alienating them from you and the new reality you’re experiencing. Though they may not fully grasp all the complexities of the experience, they can have more emotional understanding than we give them credit for.
One night, not long after Matthew died, my daughter told me she could see his face in the moon. I had been holding it together for months, but I cried and cried there and then in front of her. At that moment, there was a humbling role reversal. Like a mother she held me, and told me it was all going to be all right. Then we wrote a story about the moon together. We giggled; talked about magic, colour, and life.
We reconnected over my grief, and I realised that by attempting to shield her from it, I had been both underestimating her intelligence and denying her access to the world we were used to sharing. Without that crucial, intimate moment, I’m not sure either of us could have moved forward in the way we needed to.
What was incredible to me was that she had initiated it. My sadness, and Matthew’s death, were there in her mind already. I knew then that it was possible to handle and explore my grief with her, because she was open to it. A year on, and she will ask a question or make a remark about Matt, usually sparked in some way by the moon and that shared memory, and off we go.
We shouldn’t force our grief on our children, and should certainly try to avoid living it through them. It’s important to respect their capacity to share this burden with you, and be alert to when they might have had enough. But I like to think they have the strength of birds – that is to say, an ability to keep moving forward even when the air is turbulent.
Allowing them into your grief-stricken world, while it feels risky, can be a way of maintaining that crucial parent-child connection. It helps you keep a hold on them, and them a hold on you. It’s likely that any feelings of sadness they have reflect changes they sense in you. Who are you to them now, they might be asking. What does it all mean?
If you keep the channels open, neither of you will become lost in translation. The grief, while all-consuming at times, won’t be strong enough to break your bond. You will begin to rebuild your shared world. As Mary Oliver wrote in her poem Wild Geese: “Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine / Meanwhile the world goes on.”