Don’t talk about death – it scares the children (aka: f-you after-school teachers!)

Ethan started opening up at school to his friends and teachers about his dad and his death. He really hadn’t said anything or even wanted to talk about Mike at school in the past. And it all started with a book the class read a few months ago.

In this story, the main character, a little boy, notices changes in his grandfather with whom he lives. The grandfather becomes very sickly, unable to get out of bed and his personality changes dramatically.

It was while discussing the grandfather’s illness and its manifestations that Ethan spoke up for the first time. “Sounds like what happened to my dad,” he said. He then started talking about how Mike was a great dad – until Ethan was about three years old. Then he started to get mean and yell at Ethan for no reason. And how Ethan, as a four or five year old boy, couldn’t wake his dad up, and how Ethan rarely saw Mike get off the couch in the basement. Ethan talked about his memories of hearing about his dad’s death while at school and the funeral and how he felt about his dad’s passing.

The reading teacher, who was Ethan’s first grade teacher when Mike died, was stunned that he was opening up. The class was quiet as they listened respectfully. One little girl came up to the teacher afterward to tell her she understood Ethan a little bit better after his story.

The teacher called me that night to tell me this story – and to see what she should do if/when he opens up again. “Let him talk!” I said. “It’s good that he’s comfortable with his classmates and you. He needs to get these thoughts and emotions and feelings OUT!”

She completely agreed and was very happy to hear that I was supportive of allowing Ethan to talk.

Fast forward to this week.

Ethan’s school lets out around 2:15. I teach until 3:15, then have a 40 minute commute, so Ethan attends an after-school program run by the local parks and rec department. He’s been in the program, with the same leaders, since he started at the school. They’re familiar with our situation and Mike’s death. And they’ve been very supportive and understanding as we’ve gone through milestones and anniversaries.

Until now.

Apparently, Ethan decided to open up to a group of kids this week. I’m not sure what triggered his desire to talk about his dad’s death, or even what EXACTLY he said. But the leaders of the program freaked out.

I arrived shortly after the “incident.” The leader pulled me into a nearby room to talk privately. “Ethan was talking about his dad’s death today,” she said.

“Yeah…” I said.

“And it freaked out the kindergarteners. So we told him not to,” she said.

“Not to what?” I asked.

“Talk about how his dad is dead.”

“But that’s his reality. His dad IS dead. It’s not right or wrong, here or there. Mike is dead,” I said.

“Yes, but we don’t want the younger kids getting scared that their parents will die,” the leader continued. “So we asked him to talk to us and not the other kids if he wants to talk about his dad’s death.”

“But the kids’ parents ARE going to die. We’re ALL going to die. Ethan just learned the lesson earlier than most kids,” I said. “It’s healthy and natural, and I’m encouraging him opening up about Mike’s death if he wants or needs to.”

“He can talk about it with me or Miss B, but not the other kids,” the leader said. “It scares them.”

“So you told him NOT to talk about death?”

“Well, he can talk to us, just not the other kids.”

“But the other kids can talk about their moms and dads?”

“Of course. And Ethan can talk about you and his sister and his grandma. But not his dad.”

“Do you see a problem with that?” I asked, as politely as I could but starting to get really irritate.

“No. Death scares the kids.”

“Yes, and this is the life Ethan lives. He lost his dad and his grandpa. The kid has experienced more death than some adults I know. This is his reality, and he needs to be able to talk about it.”

“Well, I just don’t think he should talk to the kids about it.”

I grabbed Ethan and walked out of the school. Over last few days, I’ve tried to steer conversations with Ethan toward finding out what happened, without asking directly. He hasn’t mentioned anything nor seemed phased by what happened. The after-school teachers also haven’t mentioned it again – but I grab Ethan and leave as quickly as possible. I’m not really interested in small talk with them right now.

Would you be as pissed off as I am about this request to NOT talk about his dad?

Reality trumps fantasy: she’s really sick

It’s no secret that my sister and I do not have a close relationship. Most of my issues with Julie stem from her tendency to be the victim, “cry wolf” over non-existent situations, and even create her own fairy tale kind of world through her lies and malicious actions. Frankly, I’m tired of her bullshit. Since she was about 10 years old, she doesn’t care who she hurts or seems to realize that her actions have consequences on those around her.

Hell, she stole (and sold) a coin collection from our grandmother, stole painkillers from our dad, made up lies about Mike, lied about being abused by our parents and her husband, and made up stories of sexual harassment in more than one workplace. And that covers just 10 of her nearly 40 years on this planet.

Julie lives her life balls-to-the-wall (but not in a good way) for about three to five years, then she burns so many bridges and has told so many lies that she can’t keep anything straight. So, she reinvents herself and moves on to a new life, new town, new job and a new pseudo-identity.

She been in her current life for about six years, so I figured she was due for a change.

In fact, it’s become a joke with my mom and me: what will Julie “be” next? My money was on her getting knocked up by a random dude. She hadn’t done that yet, but she’s been trolling around (and sharing her sexual exploits with — MY MOM… WTF?).

She’s been complaining of being sick for YEARS. My dad thought she was just lazy, looking for the easy way out of life and responsibilities and adulthood – seemed reasonable and it totally fit her M.O. I wrote off any seriousness when she refused to let my mom go to the doctor with her a few years ago. (Even my mom didn’t believe her tales of illness and wanted confirmation from the doc that Julie was really sick and not faking it for attention, which wouldn’t have been the first time.)

But last night, after talking to my mom and Julie, and researching her condition, I realized that she’s dying. Dying.

She has a chronic virus that will kill her. It has already caused a form of chronic fatigue syndrome, which has her on disability from her job. It will suppress her immune system to the point where fighting a cold will be dangerous. It can increase the chances of getting certain cancers. And if that doesn’t do it, her organs will eventually shut down.

We know she’s tested positive for a certain marker for about six years. (From the limited information I can find, there is a much shortened life expectancy.) Doctors originally balked at a diagnosis because the rare disorder she has is typically only found in Asian cultures. (We are not of Asian descent, and Panda Express is as close as Julie has ever come to visiting Asia.) She has a team of some of the best doctors in the country, and they’re baffled. They’re referring her to a specialist for recommendations for how to keep the virus at bay as long as possible. But there is no cure, no known explanation for how she contracted this virus, and things are going to get much worse for her.

Last night, after accepting that Julie IS sick and not faking it, my mom and I started some difficult conversations: at what point do we make Julie move here by us? (She’s currently about 11 hours and four states away.) Will we have to put her in a care facility at some point? How and when can we take responsibility for Julie’s 19-year-old daughter?


My favorite photo of Julie (pink) and me (blue). My dad instructed us to "hold hands and pretend to like each other."

My favorite photo of Julie (pink) and me (blue). My dad instructed us to “hold hands and pretend to like each other.”

Unexpected direction

Grief is a weird thing. And it’s back, sort of, in a weird way.

I’ve been fine, GREAT actually, for the last year. The kids are doing well – they’re funny and smart and kind and doing well in school and all-around awesome. My mom continues to struggle with some minor health issues, but she’s thriving in her own home now (which the kids LOVE to visit). My job is fantastic – reviews of my teaching have been over-the-top positive and there’s a move to make my position permanent (and possibly become equivalent to a tenure appointment). My relationship with B continues to grow, and we’ve had the most amazing times with each other and our kids.

Yep, things were rolling. Happy. Fun.

B and I decided to go to Chicago for the weekend. It’ll be our second trip there together (but the first time he got really sick and we came home early). We checked our calendars and agreed on a date. It wasn’t until I opened my calendar to write it down (yes, I still use a hard copy calendar) that I noticed the actual DATE.

January 25.

The second anniversary of Mike’s death.

Thoughts flooded my head: Do I cancel? Would it be wrong to be in Chicago (my favorite city in the world) with B? Would it be awful to be having FUN on that day? To laugh, to kiss, to hold hands with someone?

Overwhelmingly, I thought no to all these questions. Mike and I were separated when he died! I had filed for divorce! We should have been divorced, but dammit, he refused to sign the papers! I should be enjoying my life! I’m going, no biggie!

But I felt the need to gut check someone so I called my mom. “Go,” she said. “If anyone deserves to be happy, it’s you. You and B should have a great time. I’ll have the kids. It’ll be okay.”

(Side note: Ethan knows the anniversary date is coming up, but he doesn’t know the exact date. Lauren has no concept of when/where/why/how of her dad’s death. Because they don’t “know,” we can memorialize on a different calendar date.)

And for weeks, I’ve been completely okay with the decision that I will be in Chicago with B on the second anniversary. Until yesterday.

I’ve been hit with feelings of sadness. Sadness that my marriage failed. Sadness that I missed so many signs. Sadness that my kids will grow up without knowing their dad (the good parts, of course).

It isn’t so much that Mike is dead and cremated and buried. It’s more of the loss of what was. The happy times of our marriage and relationship. His physical death has become a symbol for the loss of the life we HAD. It’s all just coinciding with the date on the calendar.

I’m not changing my plans this weekend. B and I will still go to Chicago and enjoy each other’s company and take in the marvelousness of an awesome city. But I owe it to him and our relationship to let him know what’s going on in my head and with my feelings/emotions.

So I’ve scripted out the conversations I need to have with him tonight. Letting him know what I’m going through and what I need from him (random and unexpected calls and texts, hugs and hand holding).

It’s the first “anniversary” that I’ll go through while not “alone.” There are milestones for milestones on this grief roller coaster, aren’t there?