I hear that question at least once a day, sometimes five or six times. And, I’m almost always at a loss for how to respond.
Mike and I were separated for months before he died, and honestly, I was emotionally and mentally checked out for almost a year before our physical separation. Yes, I’m sad that he died, and I have my moments. Like wanting to pick up the phone and call him to tell a funny story about something the kids did. Like crying because I really do miss him (the “old him” – the one I fell in love with, but hadn’t seen in years). Like knowing that I don’t (won’t) have him around to have my back when I’m overwhelmed with the kids or work or the house. But mostly, I really feel like I’m okay.
I usually turn the question back around to the kids, and how they’re handling it. It’s Ethan and Lauren that I worry most about. And it depends on who’s doing the asking for how much I divulge. For example, Ethan seems fine at home – he’s happy and playful, fully engaged, very animated. He occassionally mentions being sad about his dad, and we always stop and talk about it. But he’s really struggling at school, but that’s not something I tell just anyone who asks.
When Mike died, Ethan had only been at his new school for three weeks. He was just starting to find his groove and starting to make connections with the other kids. Then, BOOM!, his whole world changed.
When I found out Mike died, the school was one of my first calls. I explained the situation and asked to speak to the priest. The school was phenomenal! I sat with the principal, the priest, Ethan’s teacher, and a counselor, explaining some of the details and expressing my concerns with how to tell Ethan. I wanted Ethan to know that when he returned back to school, he’d have the love and support of his school family. I wanted Ethan to be able to ask any spiritual questions he might have of the priest. I wanted to make sure Ethan would feel like I handled it well, when he is old enough to reflect on the situation when he’s older.
After 20 minutes or so with the adults, Ethan was brought into the office. He sat around the small round table with us. I put my hand on his knee and told him the news. He looked at me, blinked hard, then jumped off his seat and walked to the door. “I want to go to lunch now,” he said, his eyes starting to well up with tears.
“How about we go home?” I asked, motioning for him to come back over to me.
He came over and I put him on my lap. “OK, let’s go,” he said.
The principal packed a care package for him – books, snacks, some small toys. The teacher hugged him. The priest hugged him. And we left.
Someone from the school checked in with us every few days. The first grade parents decided to make dinner for us twice a week for the months of February and March. It really reconfirmed my decision to put Ethan in this school system.
When his teacher called a few weeks ago to discuss issues with Ethan in the classroom, I broke down. I was standing in Walgreens, buying cold medicine (my fourth cold since moving toWisconsin– WTH?), and the news just overwhelmed me. Ethan was acting out (getting out of his seat, talking out of turn), breaking down at least once a day (missing his dad and his grandpa, who died in July 2010), and starting a weird and dangerous habit with his pencils. He was “eating” his pencils – the wood, the lead, the erasers, and the metal – chewing them to bits.
I knew it was time for some additional support. I made an appointment for Ethan to see a therapist.
Ethan regularly visited the school counselor at his old school for issues dealing with the separation from his dad. It helped, and the counselor became Ethan’s greatest ally. She cried on Ethan’s last day, and she and I regularly email about how he’s doing.
I chose a male therapist for Ethan this time. I thought talking to a man might be good for him. As I sat in the room at the first appointment, Ethan played with a tote of dinosaurs and other animals that the therapist handed him while we talked. Ethan sorted out the animals – carnivores, omnivores, herbivores, frogs by color, sea animals, mammals. Of course I couldn’t help thinking what the therapist would make of this OCD behavior. Here’s a kid who doesn’t organize ANYTHING in his life, carefully categorizing plastic toys in a very calculating manner. Ethan even offered very detailed explanations for his decisions. I’m sure there are some notes on Ethan’s behavior in the therapist’s notes…
Our next appointment is this afternoon. I hope Ethan continues to bond with Mr. R and that Mr. R can help Ethan sort through his feelings to find a way to deal with his emotions.
With Lauren, I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing that she’s oblivious to what’s going on. Mike never really bonded with her, and when he died, she was only 20 months old. She won’t have any memories of her dad, which makes me sad, but also a little glad. The stories Ethan has of his dad in the last few years are heartbreaking – not being able to wake him up, thinking he was dead, being neglected when they were alone… Lauren won’t have those memories. She is very well taken care of, staying home with my mom during the day and spoiled by Ethan at night. I’m considering putting her in daycare for a few days a week to give my mom a break and allow her to socialize a bit – she LOVES seeing other kids and will not hesitate to go up and hug other toddlers, which is cute but also a little weird for the hug-receiver.
But overall, I feel like I’m okay. I had mentally prepared for being a single mom well before we separated. Sometimes, like today, I wonder if I’m really doing okay or if everything is just masked by everything else going on right now – taking care of the kids (including making sure Ethan is all right), settling into a new house, exploring a new city/state, onboarding at a new job/company. It’s kind of a lot, and I know my mind is racing most days just keeping up with everything. I don’t have trouble sleeping, and I can say that I’m widowed without breaking down in tears. (Relatedly, I still can’t say my dad died without crying.)
Sometimes, depending on who’s doing the asking, I feel guilty for feeling okay. Like I should feel more, be more devastated, more upset, more weepy. Like the person asking WANTS me to feel a certain way, wants to comfort me when I inevitably (in their minds) break down. Like they think I’m faking being strong.
So, how am I doing? I think I’m okay. And I know the kids will be okay, too.