Grief and loss can make themselves known in unexpected ways.
Although I know this, it still often takes me by surprise.
Like last night, about twenty minutes past the time my kids should have been in bed. One moment I was continuing to wrangle my two children into the bathroom to clean their teeth, the next my daughter was in floods of tears, because ‘I miss Granny Flick. I miss her so much. And I miss Poppa John too’. And she wailed and wailed, melting in front of me.
I looked at her with a mixture of pity, confusion and frustration. This reaction seemed to have come from nowhere – the suddenness of the emotion was almost as extreme as that of a fire hydrant that had just been knocked over (and with almost as much flooding). I looked at my son, who just shrugged, also unsure what had sparked this emotional outpouring.
Just for context – nearly five years ago, my mother-in-law died, about nine months after her husband. Both had suffered long term illnesses prior to their death, in particular my mother-in-law Felicity, who had Alzheimers disease for over twenty years. By the time my daughter (and, in fact, her older brother) was born, Flicky was in the final stages of the disease, and past the point of having any interaction with her grandchildren. My daughter’s only recently turned eight, so she was very young when her grandparents died. Both kids are very close to my parents, and I didn’t think my daughter would have really any memory of her other grandparents, and certainly not Granny Flicky. But it was her grandmother who seemed to be the one that she felt the most strongly about, certainly last night.
And it wasn’t as if we had been even talking about anything to do with family, or grandparents, really – only to say that she would be seeing my parents the next day. Her reaction seemed to come out of the blue.
Initially, I was tempted to put this reaction down to end of term tiredness (and I’m sure that was a factor) and bustle her into bed. But I thought there was something else there. And there was.
As she explained, between sobs and through cuddles, at school, her class had been talking about their families as part of understanding their family ‘community’, over the past year or so, and we have been spending more time with my husband’s family and this includes some inevitable reminiscing. My kids love anything that connects them with their families – it provides them with a sense of belonging and being embraced within a family unit. Despite being so fortunate to have a large number of aunts and uncles, cousins (and second and third cousins), and one very active couple of grandparents (plus a great grandmother), she felt the loss of a part of the family that was no longer there – especially the one she hadn’t really known.
Although she hadn’t mentioned it before, the loss of her grandparents left my daughter feeling that a piece of her wasn’t quite there, that she would not really know them. She had slight memories (backed up by photos), of being cuddled, and of talking, with her Poppa John, although these were for progressively briefer periods as his lung condition made contact increasingly difficult. She had no memories, or photos, for time where she connected with Granny Flick – the closest we had was photos where we had laid her in her grandmother’s lap, and then had to hold on, as Felicity was not really aware of the baby that lay there. She was right – she didn’t have the chance to know this grandmother. And that was sad.
Not that she had quite these words for it, but she did sob that she ‘would never get to know Granny Flick, ever’.
It made me realise that you can miss people you have never known. Even if you are still only very young now, you can still feel a loss. And that this loss is worth acknowledging and sharing. In fact, by doing so, that can enable us to grow together in the shared connection and love of family members who are no longer with us, but in some ways, live on through their families.
And so, although I would have dearly loved for her to go to sleep, instead we spent 10-15 minutes in her bed, looking through old photos together, at times with me explaining the context of the photos, and at times with her and her brother in fits of laughter at some of the expressions (particularly when she was in the photo). We talked about the fact that I missed them too, and that like her, I also had a grandparent I never knew (one of my grandfathers died before I was born) – and that made me sad too.
But we also talked about how lucky we were that we had people in our lives who were so lovely that all who had known them did miss them. And how lucky we were that these family members could share with us, either through the stories they told, or the people they had become, so much of the family members who came before them. Plus how lucky we were to have the family that we DID have, with us now. And we agreed that we believed that they would be looking down on us from heaven, and then started joking about some of the things that they might be saying (starting with how astounded they might be with how messy her bedroom was – which isn’t really a laughing matter, in my opinion, but she thought it was funny!)
And after that, she went to sleep fairly happily. The next morning, she had a big cuddle in bed with my husband (who had been working during this time), because ‘he would really understand – he must miss his Mummy and Daddy too‘.
I’ve been thinking about the experience during the day *. Initially, while it was happening, I was upset too – it brought up a few regrets of my own, as I never really knew Felicity either (she was already a few years into her disease by the time I met her). But as it turned out, despite the unexpected outpouring of sadness, it was actually one of those times where we drew closer together.
Sometimes grief shared can be like this – through the darkness, rays of hope come through.
Have you experienced circumstances that, despite initial reactions, seem to bring positive outcomes?
*I can’t quite express why, yet, however it seemed to be quite relevant that this took place so close to Easter. Maybe because I find it a somewhat confusing period, emotionally – mourning the death of Jesus and then celebrating his rising three days later. It’s a mixture of sadness and gladness. Much as the feeling of having loved and lost is, I guess.