Resources for Those Who Grieve

DSCF0569When someone dies, and we are enveloped by our own grief, the thought of explaining what has happened to a child or grandchild can be truly overwhelming. Whether the death is sudden or is the culmination of an extended period of grieving, finding the right words is so, so hard.

A few years after our children came to us, our family pet — a much beloved border collie named Missy — was hit by a truck. Judging by the pile we found by the side of the road, she couldn’t have suffered. But the horror and shock quickly gave way to a kind of numbness that felt like swimming through mountains of batted grey cotton. Jut awful.

“I’ll bury her, if you tell the kids,” Craig offered. I’m not sure who got the harder task. All of us cried as I held the kids and waited for the initial tears to subside. “Why did Missy have to DIE?” Chris asked.

The simple answer was not the right answer. Missy died because she escaped the confines of our yard and wandered into a busy street. But this is not really what my son was asking. He had endured so much loss already — nearly his entire original family, except his sister. Why had God allowed so much pain to enter into one little life?

“When God sends a baby into the world,” I found myself saying, “He sends three things along: a gift to share, a burden to carry, and a job to do. When that job is done, if we stay close to God, he takes us back to heaven to be with him forever. Christopher, you have already been such a gift to us, and you have so much more to share. The burdens you have carried are so very big, and so very hard. I can only imagine that one day God is going to give you a VERY special job to do. Something that you could only do if you stayed very close to God. All that you have suffered, all that you have lost, can help you stay close to God if you choose. God does not cause our pain — he cries along with us, when he sees us suffer. And he always helps us carry it if we ask.”

I meant every word. And as the years went by, I realized that my son had heard me not just with his ears, but with his heart. He still feels the loss, but he trusts in the goodness of God. This, I think, is the best we can hope for when we explain death and grief to our children, that they understand that (1) death is a part of life and (2) suffering is never wasted when we offer it back to God.

In my last article, about starting the adventure of elder care with my mother, I mentioned that a woman named Jennifer Scott had sent me links to a couple of articles about coping with grief. These are not written specifically from a faith-based perspective. However, I think the information about what children are capable of handling at various developmental stages is useful, and so I wanted to offer it here as a resource for you.

Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death

Preparing for the Death of a Terminally-Ill Loved One: What to Expect, and How to Help the Entire Family Move Forward

Letting Children Share in Grief

The Bereaved Employee: Returning to Work

How to Create a Peaceful At-Home Hospice for Your Loved One

Keeping the Peace While Settling a Family Estate

5 Things You Must Know as the Executor of an Estate

When Mom Moves In: A Family Adventure

family 5“Congratulations! It’s a mother!” my sister joked when I told her that Craig and I had decided to extend Mom’s Thanksgiving visit indefinitely. Sandy is here to stay! Yeah!

Secretly I had hoped for this outcome, but wanted to give Mom a chance to acclimate to the reality of life Chez Saxton.  In reality, it went better than I’d ever dared to hope. The kids are happy, she is happy, and both Craig and I agree it’s the way things are supposed to be.

There was only one small hiccup, coming from my daughter. “But what if Mammy dies?” Sarah asked.

“Well, she will die one day — we all will, because it’s just part of life. We don’t know when Mammy will die, though — it could be months or even years. And that will be sad. But when her job on earth is done and it’s time for her to go to God, we will be so thankful for this time we had with her, won’t we?” She nodded. “And we will be happy that she spent that time with us, and not alone in that other place.” Another nod. “So … this is a good thing, right?”

A smile. “I’m going to go help Mammy with the jigsaw!” And she did. Then she went upstairs and shaved off her own hair. It seems her anxieties manifest themselves in hyper-sensitive hair follicles. That wig was a good investment!

I know that there are many people who are facing similar challenges with their own elderly parents, trying to decide how to care for them in their declining years. Financial issues, family dynamics, and diminished capacities all have to factor in to the decision.

And yet it’s also important to factor in the benefits: Another adult in the home can introduce a new, fresh dynamic to how a family operates. Old arguments and conflicts can be resolved in gentler, kinder ways with witnesses present (for both kids and adults)! As I listen to my mother interact with Sarah, patiently listening to her chatter away about makeup as she paints Mom’s nails a garish shade of gold, I breathe a sigh of thanks. I find myself slowing my pace, and noticing the moments. Mom’s dietary requirements mean healthier eating for all of us. And so it goes.

The question of “What if she dies?” still lingers. In my next article, I will post some suggestions from a woman who recently sent me some tips on helping kids with grief.  

The Long-Distance Daughter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALosing a parent is never easy. All the steps leading up to that moment, whether sudden onset or gradual decline, and whether physical or mental or both, bring their own set of challenges for those who are close enough to assist. But these past few weeks I’ve discovered that being the “long-distance daughter” is its own kind of hell.

Often there aren’t any good options. Drop everything and go? Maybe — of course, it may be only a temporary (and costly) solution to what is likely to be a long-term need. Meanwhile, jobs and kids and responsibilities pile up relentlessly. Airplane tickets cost money, and driving may not be practical.

Stay in touch by phone, praying, and wait for a call to come? Sometimes that is the only thing to do … still (and this may be the “oldest child” in me talking) it’s hard not to feel guilty about leaving the heavy lifting to siblings who have equally busy lives and equally limited resources.

Years ago, I remember my mother commenting how hard it was for her, as the oldest daughter, when her mother chose to move in with her granddaughter, my cousin. Mom felt that she should be the one to tend to her mother’s needs, and make her mother’s last days as comfortable as possible. Yet in the end, Mom’s role was one of welcome visitor, rather than care-taker. It was a painful, but unavoidable, reality: She was the firstborn, but not the one to whom her mother reached out for help.

Rationally, she may have understood why things turned out the way they did, just as I see the logic of my own parents’ choices: It makes sense to have the daughter with a financial background manage the finances, the daughter in closest proximity to handle the medical decisions, and the daughter who is an advocate in her professional life to advocate for my mother’s needs where she is. It is also true that, even if I were the best person for the job, I have real limitations due to the needs of my own family, not to mention the eight hundred miles between us.

Even so, I have to say, it stinks to be the long-distance daughter. With all the engrained sense of responsibility of being the oldest, it’s hard not to be self-incriminating and reproachful. And yet, having watched my own mother walk this particular path, I have witnessed some of the landmines. Resentment. Anger. Helplessness. Pettiness. Fear. Did I mention resentment?

And then, the greatest bugaboo of all: plain, interminable grief. She has not died, though she is no longer herself. A dying of a different kind.

Have you ever been a long-distance daughter? How did you get through it? What did you find helpful?

The Gift of Perspective

j0438992As weeks go, it was not exactly the stuff memories are made of — not good ones anyway. In our extended family, one was diagnosed with prostate cancer, another had a gall bladder removed, a third was hospitalized a second time for serious mental health issues. The school called, reporting an incident with one of the kids. On Valentine’s Day, my husband went to have a suspicious growth removed. Plus there was the whole matter of the relentless white stuff that God kept pelting down from heaven like some cosmic snowball fight he was determined to win. Oh, and our ceiling is leaking from our (second floor) bedroom to our (first floor) kitchen. If I’d lit a candle for every intention, I would have set the church ablaze. Yes, one of those weeks.

But as I sat down to lunch with a friend yesterday, she looked at me and said, “I can tell life is good for you right now. You are glowing with happiness.”

The funny thing is … I feel happy. My life is infinitely better than it was this time last year. Sure, we have to move (again) in two months … but it’s to a job I love, to work with people who give me freedom to do my best work, and trust me to do it well. Yes, my child had a problem at school … but both my kids are HOME, and I get to tuck them into bed at night. Yes, our heating bills have been more than $800/month for the past two months … but we have been able to put food on the table, even so.

The sick relatives are a bit tougher. It’s always hard when a family member is hurting at a distance. It’s natural to want to lift their burden, or at least carry part of it for them. More than anything, you want to do more than pray.

But sometimes … sometimes trusting God is the only thing to do. When we open our hands and offer our burden back to God, we become conduits of grace to bring about God’s will in this world. And that is no small thing.

So, go ahead. Light that candle. Pick up that rosary. Breathe deeply, and speak aloud your intention not to let worry and fear prevent you from trusting the Creator of all things good. Ask God for the gift of perspective, that knows our heavenly Father does not leave his children burdened by life to their own devices. Rather, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “He shouts to us in our pain,” making us stronger and more compassionate, better able to recognize and respond to the hurting world around us.

At some moment of our lives, each of us is called to live in the Pascal Mystery. Is God calling you to carry your own cross, in the footsteps of Christ? Or is he asking you to follow at a distance, like the Blessed Mother? Both are needed, but you will only have grace enough for one.

The Priest Who Loved Me, Part II (The Love Project, Day 31)

Today as part of the Love Project, I wanted to reprise an article I wrote several years ago upon the death of another great priest, whose humble service made an indelible mark upon my life. I miss you, Father Roger.

Memorial Day Weekend is a family holiday at the Saxton House. Four years ago this weekend, Chris and Sarah were welcomed into our family through adoption . . . and into God’s family, through baptism.

We always try to spend as much time as possible together, enjoying each other, on these weekends. And yet this weekend, I confess there is a bit of a pall over our festivities. Yesterday a dear friend of ours passed away — Father Roger Prokop. I wrote a little about him at Mommy Monsters.

Today’s Gospel, then, speaks very clearly to me today, from John 16:

“For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me
and have come to believe that I came from God.
I came from the Father and have come into the world.
Now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”

I wonder how the apostles felt when Jesus said this to them. Did they know just how little time Jesus had left? Did they contemplate what life would be like without Him? Did they suspect, even momentarily, that they would experience such profound spiritual intimacy with the Eternal One? Or did they simply get caught up in their dread and grief?

It’s been four years now since the Saxton Family became the Saxton Family. It’s been longer than that since Father Roger and I saw each other with any kind of regularity — we joined a parish close to our new home shortly after the kids arrived. And yet, I miss him. I know that, even now, he continues to pray for us — even as we pray for him.

Other priests — good men, all of them — have become a part of our lives. But Father Roger will always hold a special place in my heart. His life was to me a living reminder of the God who loves His children, no matter how far away they move.  Rest in peace, dear friend. 

Today’s Love in Action: Today please remember all those faithful men of God who have gone to their eternal reward. Thank God for how their spiritual fatherhood affected your life.

When a Loved One Dies: “Say His Name” (The Love Project, Day 14)

ol sorrowsToday at HuffPosts Parents I came across this poignant article by Jackie Moore, on how she survived the death of her 19-year-old son, by following the example and advice of her father. She writes:

Daddy’s words to me were simple and direct: “Don’t stop talking about him. You say his name everyday.” I’m not sure if I would have taken such direct advice from just anyone, but I knew my father’s experiences with loss. Daddy’s advice was him speaking what he had lived. The way I knew about my aunts, uncles and paternal grandparents was because Daddy didn’t stop talking about them. He said their names and his eyes lit up with the memories they invoked.

Every time I called him in the weeks and months after Jordan died, sometimes barely able to speak because I couldn’t catch my breath from crying, he would calm me, soothe me, always telling me he wished he could take some of the pain away. He never failed to remind me of his feeling that holding in my grief would make me sick. Then he would ask, “Are you talking about Jordan? You make sure you keep talking about him.” I always told him, “Yes, we talk about him everyday.”

To read the whole article, click here.

Today’s Love in Action: Do you know someone who has lost a loved one? Encourage that person to tell you a story of her loved one’s life. In that way, you will walk alongside your friend and share her burden, if only momentarily.

Laying My Burden Down…

Today in cyberspace I came across this post that talked about how we all walk through life carrying a burden like some oversized suitcase. For some, it’s divorce. For others, it’s infertility or some dark moment(s) from the past.

Our children each have a suitcase, too.

One of the things that struck me about this post is the idea that each of us have to learn how to take out and lay down the heaviest junk in our suitcase, so we can carry it. This doesn’t come naturally … and in point of fact, it’s something that in an ideal world parents teach their children.

When I encounter people struggling with divorce, I often refer them to Lisa Dudley’s website and her excellent book, “Divorced. Catholic. Now What?” For teenaged burden-bearers, I also like to give Lynn Kapucinski’s “Now What Do I Do?”  I just gave a copy to one of the girls in my religious education class, and her mother immediately wrote to thank me for giving her a resource to help them talk more openly and constructively about what the girl was going thorugh.

Is your child struggling with some burden or grief?  Don’t forget you are the one who is best able to help him or her process what she is going through. Get professional help if needed … but do talk about it.

My friend Judy Miller sent me this link about an upcoming adoption workshop she is offering, a six-week e-mail course that covers a variety of aspects of adoptive parenting.  If you’re feeling in need of a little extra support, this may be a good resource for you!

Happy Feast of the Annunciation!

small-family1Today we celebrate the Feast of the Annunication, the day the angel appeared to Mary and announced that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Incarnate Christ. Her gesture of obedience — the “yes” to God’s plan for her to become a mother while she was still unmarried, and to raise His only Son to manhood — was an act of pure courage.

God’s act, one of pure mercy. Despite the fact that the world didn’t understand, didn’t recognize, and certainly didn’t want the sacrifice … He came and lived among us, first as a helpless infant, then as a young man, then as a teacher … and finally, a living embodiment of God’s eternal grace.

Today, God continues to live among us, though in many ways His Spirit is resisted even more than it was two millennia ago. Lives through the Church, both through the sacraments and in His people. The Spirit continues to speak, through the ongoing tradition and teaching authority of the Apostles and their successors, through the written Word of God, and through divine interventions — miracles — all around us.

Most of the time, we think of these “miracles” as positive outcomes. A healing here, a reconciliation there, a flash of inspiration or transformation that yields tremendous spiritual fruit. And yet, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “God shouts to us through our pain.” From this perspective, even tragedies like this can, from a certain perspective, rightly be seen as divine intervention. Our Good Shepherd knows what it will take to reach even the most stubborn sheep.

May God grant that even in this situation, the shout of His Spirit fall on ears ready and willing to listen.

Ghosts and Superheros: How Children Cope with Loss and Grief

shadowRecently Christopher has been preoccupied with ghosts (thanks in part to his older brother, who in typically older brother style regaled his little brother with horrific stories of things that creep and bump in the night). We’ve talked to him about the guardian angels, who protect him through the night. But the imagination is a powerful thing, and several times Christopher has wound up in our room (on the floor in a sleeping bag).

His preoccupation with ghosts and superheros borders on the obsessive, I think … and yet, I hear that this is not uncommon with children who have experienced trauma. It’s part of the way they process what has happened. For Christopher, the superheros (such as his Pokemon DS) provide a distraction and escape from Big Feelings that just won’t quit.

I recently came across this article that describes the “Basic Ph Model” for how children cope with ongoing trauma and stress. This would have real applications for children who have experienced a real — and not just anticipated — loss. Many foster and adopted children would fall in this category, as well as children who has lost a parent through death or estrangement through divorce.

The article describes the six “copying styles” most frequently used by children, which include:

*  Beliefs (drawing comfort from their family’s religious and cultural values, especially through meaningful ceremonies)

*  Affects (venting feelings and emotions, often by talking with a trusted adult)

*  Social (seeking support and comfort from friends and extended social network)

*  Imagination (processing feelings through creative outlets such as drawing, play therapy, creative writing, etc.)

*  Cognitive (processing through problem solving and planning safety contingencies)

*  Physiological (physical activity as a way of providing a welcome distraction, giving the child a “break”)

Author Frank Zenere observes about this last strategy: “Directed physical activity has a dual benefit, allowing necessary buffer time and permitting informal processing of traumatic experiences to occur in a non-threatening format. Opportunities for formal and informal physical activities should be abundant.”

One of the hardest things any parent can do is help a child navigate the uncertain currents of loss and trauma. However, knowing what to look for — and how to adjust our approach to accommodate the needs of a particular child — can make all the difference.

Family You Don’t Get to Pick

christoper-communion-close-upThe past few days I’ve been corresponding (sometimes through the comments section, other times privately) with a couple of birth/first mothers who say they want to understand the implications of reunification from an adoptive parent’s perspective. One of them asked me (I’m paraphrasing here): “Why WOULDN”T you want birth family members at milestones like birthdays, graduations, and weddings? Don’t you invite aunts and uncles and extended family members?” (Yes, but no one confuses them with the parents!)

Each triad is so different it is difficult, if not impossible, to make blanket statements about how adoptive families should — or should not — navigate these situations. The saddest cases, of course, are those adoptive families that would like more information and/or contact, and have no way of getting it. On the other end of the spectrum are adoptive families who lie awake nights, contemplating a move to the other side of the country so birth/first family members don’t kidnap the children while they sleep. Most families, I suspect, fall somewhere in the middle.

As I’ve mentioned before, I was greatly encouraged by Patricia Dischler’s book Because I Loved You, in the way she described open adoption dynamics. It is reassuring to know that there ARE birth/first families who genuinely support the efforts of adoptive parents, and have no wish to supplant them. Frankly, I’d like to hear more stories like those … Stories of successful birth/adoptive family integration. (If you have such a story, I invite you to post it here, either in the comments or as a guest post or link.)

I have one friend, who is both a birth mother and an adoptee, who has the gift of a truly integrated extended family.  However, I can also point to six other triads I know personally, that have not been able to manage this for a variety of reasons, from lack of information about birth parents, to unwillingess of birth parent to have contact, to addiction or mental/emotional stability issues making it impossible to sustain contact.  

The prevalence of open adoptions is making it increasingly common for adoptive and first/birth families to sustain contact from the outset. As foster parents, we had weekly agency visits with the birth family of our children for the first year and a half — always a very intense situation, and one I would have given my right arm to avoid altogether. (I penned a little ditty about one of these visits here… in a post called “The Family You Don’t Get to Pick.”) Agency days were invariably the days when all hell broke loose, with wall smearing and food throwing and general surliness and craziness all around. It took 3-4 days just to recover, then we got to do it all over again.

Six years have passed. The kids no longer see their birth parents, and see their older siblings about once a month. And yet, clearly the memories are still very much present. Chris especially is missing his mother and siblings, which is a normal part of foster-adoption, the grieving. And as any mother knows, the only thing worse than enduring a loss yourself … is to watch your child go through it. You fill up the love banks as often as you can. You let him talk. You find ways to make him laugh, or play, or enjoy himself. Sooner or later, the sun comes out again. But part of you stays braced, just waiting for the next storm.

Today at “Heart, Mind, and Strength,” Greg and Lisa Popcak (who last year adopted a little girl from China) spoke with a mother whose six-year-old son was acting out in school (I caught only the last half of the conversation). Turns out they had been forcibly removed from their home, and the father had been forced to go to another state to find work. “Of COURSE he’s going to act out … His little world has been turned upside down!” exclaimed Lisa. They recommended a book called The Positive Child, which I plan to check out …

One of the greatest challenges of (foster) adoptive parenting is knowing how to handle the “ghosts” … and sometimes, the family you don’t get to pick.