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?

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?

Birthday card

I don’t know why I opened it. I’ve never opened one before. But something just… MADE me open it. Thank goodness I did.

It’s been a month since I picked up mail at my PO box. Everything “real” and important (i.e., bills) has been rerouted to my house, and the only things that still go to the mailing location are addressed to Mike – or from his parents.

It was a birthday card for Ethan. Just a card, nothing else. But it was what was written inside that really pissed me off.

In its entirety (spelling, grammar, punctuation errors belong to them):

Ethan,

Just remembering all the great times we spent together makes us smile. Thank you for being such an amazing grandson. Warm wishes for a Happy Birthday to you.

We look at your pictures and see how much you look like your father. We wish we could see you and share pictures and stories of your dad while he was growing up.

We pray your safe and happy each night.

“All Our Love”

Grandma and Grandpa

Allow me to break this down:

The time “we spent together” amounted to MAYBE twice a year for a day or two each time. And during those times, Mike’s parents spent almost no time interacting with the kids. They would sit on the couch and watch, but not talk to or play or engage with Ethan or Lauren in any way. And they took every opportunity to NOT be in the same room as the kids…

“We wish we could see you” – this is probably the most offensive and inappropriate line in the entire note. If Mike’s parents were interested in seeing my kids, all they’d have to do would be call. I’ve told numerous people IRL that I’d allow them to see the kids (supervised, of course) if they reached out. It is NOT my obligation to reach out to them. However, in the interest of Ethan and Lauren, I would allow them to see their grandparents – IF their grandparents wanted a relationship with them.

My offense comes from including this in a note to a child – I’ve sheltered the kids from all the asshole things their grandparents have done before, during and since Mike’s death. And for them to include this line without context (like they haven’t even TRIED to see the kids), is amazingly inappropriate. I AM NOT THE ONE KEEPING THEM OUT OF MY KIDS’ LIVES, but I will not pawn my kids off on people who don’t want to see them (again, it would just take a phone call if the grandparents truly want to see E and L).

“Share pictures and stories of your dad while he was growing up” – this is another head scratcher for me. I have the handful of photos that exist of Mike as a kid. His parents’ basement flooded years ago and almost all their family photos were destroyed. And of the few photos that were saved, his parents couldn’t distinguish between Mike and his brother as kids. (Really? What kind of parents can’t tell their kids apart – the two don’t look ANYTHING alike and are four years apart in age!) Same thing with stories about the boys’ childhoods – his parents ALWAYS got the stories wrong (Mike’s stories were attributed to his brother and vice versa.)

I won’t even bother nitpicking the grammar and punctuation errors.

I decided not to share this card with Ethan. In fact, this makes me want to close the mailing address so I (the kids) won’t receive this kind of correspondence from them anymore.

Assholes.

“Is he a hobo?” or revealing the truth to Ethan

First, I realize that my writing has been quite sporadic this summer. Truth is, I love having the summer “off” this year. This teaching gig is seriously awesome, and even though I’m spending time preparing for next semester, I have no official research or teaching obligations until mid-August. So, I’ve finally organized the house (I closed on the house days after Mike’s funeral, immediately got strep throat, and had to leave for a business trip two days after the movers left – so nothing was where I wanted it and I never painted or hung all the photos or really decorated or anything else), planted a garden, re-landscaped the yard, spent time playing with the kids. I’m not just on the computer as often as I am during the school year.

I came clean to Ethan. And it was overwhelmingly positive, and touching, and funny, and kind of weird.

Until now, whenever I had a date, I told E that I had a “meeting.” It’s terminology with which he’s quite familiar. In my professional life, I’ve had a lot of meetings, some on weekends, some later at night. So my going out to a “meeting” hasn’t been a big deal.

On my last date with B, I was asked how long I thought Ethan would believe the “meetings” thing. After all, he’s a smart kid, and as things are going quite well, there could be many, many more “meetings” in the future. That question struck me and made me rethink “meetings.”

E and I were spending the morning running errands, just the two of us. We stopped for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants, and it felt like the right time to broach the subject.

“Ethan, what would you think if I started to date?”

His eyes lit up. He smiled widely and started nodding his head. “Yes, mommy,” he said. “Yes, you need to meet people and make new friends.”

“Um,” I said a little stunned by his overly positive reaction, “I have friends…”

“Yeah, but they’re married friends. You need bachelor MAN friends,” he replied, still smiling.

“You’d really be okay with it?” I asked.

“Mommy, YES, you NEED to date. You should look into M@tch.com – they have more marriages than any other site. Well, at least that’s what their commercial says. Yay, dating! I’m so happy!”

“OK…One more thing,” I started. “You know the ‘meeting’ I have tomorrow night? It’s really a date,” I said.

“What?! You’ve met someone already! That’s GREAT, mommy! You know, on a date, the man pays for everything. Just so you know,” he said.

“Well, that’s not always true,” I began.

“Yes, he should pay. I have some questions.”

Then he started with the questions (in order, to the best of my memory):

–          “Is he a hobo?”

–          “Does he have a job?”

–          “Does he own a home? What color is his house?”

–          “Does he have kids? Are they boys? A boy and a girl? Oh, two girls…”

–          “Was he married before? Nevermind. Obviously, if he has kids, he was married before. So, he’s divorced then?”

–          “Is he handsome?”

–          “Is he famous? Because it would be cool if you dated Aaron Rodgers. Wait, he probably has a girlfriend or a wife already, huh?”

–          “Can I ask him questions? I have A LOT of questions for him…”

Then Ethan got up from his chair, walked over to me, and hugged me close and tight. “I love you, mommy. This is really good news! You have a DATE!” he said.

Sidenote: Ethan is not a touchy kid. I mean, he’ll kiss us and hug us after we prod him, but even when he asks to cuddle, he just wants to be close, not touching and certainly not embraced/embracing. He’s always been this way, so to have him initiate a hug is completely unexpected. And it didn’t stop in the restaurant. He’s been REALLY affectionate – coming up to me eight, nine, ten times a day to hug me or put his arm around me and smile at me and tell me how happy he is for me.

The next day (the day of the date with B), Ethan started his morning by wishing me a “happy date day” and more hugs. By afternoon, Ethan had some fashion advice for me. “What are you planning to wear tonight?” he asked me.

“Um, I’m not sure. Probably jeans – it’s going to be chilly tonight,” I replied.

“No. You need to show some leg,” he said. “Maybe a skirt that’s like this short (gesturing to mid-thigh) with a slit up the side to about here (another gesture a bit higher). THAT’S what you wear on a date.”

“No, I think I’ll stick with jeans,” I said. (FYI: I wore jeans.)

___________________________

Ethan’s reaction was unexpected, and so positive.

But it isn’t just E.

I’m wondering if nearly everyone in my life thought I was a lonely, miserable wreck of a woman. I didn’t think I was appearing miserable IRL, but the overwhelming response to hearing that I’m dating someone has been ridiculously over-the-top (in a positive way).

Of course, my mom has been talking it up – to her dad, her aunt, a family friend, cousins, neighbors, just about everyone she meets. Everyone is happy for me. Many have commented that I “deserve” to be happy and have a relationship with someone “nice.” It’s great. I’m very aware that not all widows/widowers have such support when they decide to move on.

Maybe I’m just being overly sensitive in thinking it’s been TOO positive. I honestly don’t care what anyone thinks about my dating. I DO deserve it. And I’m REALLY enjoying myself (and REALLY enjoying spending time with B)…

Coincidences or signs?

It’s been a weird 12 hours.

First, there was the amazing sunset after the balloon launch at Ethan’s grief group. What I didn’t say in my post last night was that on my balloon’s message to my dad, I asked for a sign that I was doing things okay, and that we’d be all right. Enter the most magnificent sky ever. I’m taking that as a sign from my dad.

Then I realized that I “knew” the new guy in grief group. First, his son looked familiar, like I had seen him before. Then the daughter’s name tripped alarm bells (it is not a common name). And the timeline of his ex-wife’s life from cancer diagnosis to their divorce to her untimely death was strangely familiar. I checked an obit this morning, and sure enough, the kids’ names and his name match. He’s the ex-husband of a former co-worker who died earlier this year. (I wrote about her in a previous entry, but I made the post private because “people” were searching for terms associated with her and stumbling across my site.)

This would be odd enough, but in one of the last emails that Donna sent to me, just weeks before she died, she talked about her kids and my kids and wanting to get them all together for a play date. I guess now they’ll get to know each other, having the chance to hang out every two weeks at grief group…