30 Aug
On Loss, Grief and Picking Up the Pieces

It’s Guest Post Thursday! Hooray! And today we have one of my very favorite people, the very smart, very wise, very fun Laurie White. Laurie is a truly gifted writer and photographer and can be found at Laurie Writes or on Twitter as @lauriewrites. She also has a counseling background and recently gave amazing advice about life changes on BlogHer. Today she takes on a sad, serious issue for us and we’re truly grateful for her help. Thanks, Laurie! — Wendi

Dear Mouthy Housewives,

I am in a position I never thought I would be in. My sister just died in a tragic accident while paddle boarding with my youngest niece. She left behind two girls (ages 11 and 12) and a husband. It was just the two of us kids and she was my best friend as well as my sister. Due to a failed marriage with control issues, I missed a good portion of the girls’ young lives, but I have been fairly active in their lives for the last 3-4 years. They love me, I adore them, and I know we will make it through this. I have two boys (ages 8 and 10) and know very little about raising girls. I am not their mother and I don’t ever want to replace her, but I do know that they will have needs and questions and it will naturally fall to me and my mother to answer and help. I need advice or resources of how to help them through their grief (we do have a therapist we are working with) and feelings during such a major shift in normalcy as well as how to help them without overstepping my bounds!

Signed,

Missing My Sissy

_________________________

Dear Missing My Sissy,

Oh my God. I am so sorry. First of all, I want to make sure that you feel supported after such a terrible loss. You say “we” are working with a therapist, so I’m trusting that you are in there talking this out for you, too. You know that thing about putting on your own mask first when the air pressure drops? Totally true, and not just in cases of pointless plane crash coping mechanisms (like I’d remember what to pull on to make the floaty thing or the oxygen work? Nah. Also that Hudson River landing? Pretty sure we’ll never see anything like that again, that guy was pretty much a pilot from heaven so I immediately joined his Facebook fan page, but I digress.) You’ve basically been through the earthly equivalent of a crash, plus parenting your own kids, plus helping who knows who else. I know how you are, nice people like you. And if you’re not helping you…well, we want you standing upright when those girls need someone obnoxiously, awesomely taking pictures at high school graduation, so, yeah, do that. Please. I will sit here and wait.

Second of all, the fact that you want to be there for those girls in a positive way while minding their boundaries means that you are going to do that. Simple as that. Losing a parent is the worst at any age, but in adolescence, when the brains are already popping off in all kinds of crazy directions anyway, it’s hard to say how the processing goes. And grief? Five stages or whatever framework you use, it’s unpredictable at best, a hardened criminal with an axe to grind at worst, and it pretty much moves as it wants to. Grief is a jerk.The only way I can even begin to imagine to help with this one is to share what I think I may have wanted as a teenager in such a circumstance, combined in some strange way with what I may expect to hear if I were in your situation. My brain is a pretzel now, basically, but you are worth it, girl.

So this is what I humbly offer (with the caveat that I am not a licensed therapist,  and I am devastated just reading about two girls and a woman losing their mom and sister, so. Just know that I would like to be there to provide your preferred candy or wine, and drive you to school and/or work. I am SO SORRY.)

* First of all: Have a friend on speed dial. Call her. I see you, not calling her, and you need to. I don’t care if this is the one you think you burned out on the divorce. This is different, and she knows that, if she’s a cool person. You cannot do this alone. You could not do this without two teenaged nieces who just lost their mom, because this is your sister. You especially cannot now. Know her. Love her. Buy her wine or…oh my God, I can’t think of anything you’d have to give me, except nothing, but, whatever, have her.

* Don’t be afraid to talk to these girls about their Mom, but be willing to shut up if they don’t want to talk about Mom. Sometimes they will not want to, but sometimes they’ll need to. This will be weird and unpredictable. This may drive you crazy. It is driving them crazier, because they are pre-teenagers. Roll with it.

* Don’t shut them down in/revise their own memories of their mom, the way she was with them, or the way she died (especially the niece who was in the accident with her. Oof. This is so hard. I want to hug you all. This is why I make a lousy real therapist. I’m no good with boundaries.)* Show up at their activities as you can, within your own time constraints. They’ll remember at 18, and 25, and 40, that you were there, even if they’re not (outwardly) down with it now. They are 11 and 12. They’re supposed to be crazy at baseline. We’re supposed to be a little in control (Right? Yeah. I know.)

* Handle any arrangements or disputes that could crop up with their dad out of their view. The adults involved here will all go through a ton of transition and issues, and grieving kids don’t need to be exposed to any adult goings-on about holidays or milestones. (They wouldn’t have needed it if she were alive. They especially don’t need it now.)* Offer any keepsakes or stories, however small, that might help them know their mom. Memories can be short, and that can be scary. They may need reinforcements, and you are a crucial link. You had way more years with her than they did, when it comes down to it. (But again? Watch for when they’re ready.)*TELL THEM  you are there for them. They may brush it off, but people, especially young people, need to hear it. They will never be sorry you said it. Everyone will be sorrier if it’s not said or heard.

* Do not feel like you have to be there for them every second of every day. At times, they may need or want you and/or their grandmother around a lot, at other times, no. You say you don’t want to replace their mom, and the fact is that you can’t, really. Their void has to be acknowledged so they can learn to cope with it for the rest of their lives. It is horrible, but it is real. Helping them work through that with appropriate attention and space, with resources when they need them and backing off when they need to find solace in fresh air or each other or their own company, is the greatest gift any responsible adult in their lives can give them.

*Take them to see Justin Bieber. They will love it. Your brother-in-law will love you.Mama loss, as I know you’re seeing so I don’t have to tell you, is more than an army could contain. It’s only business for an auntie, and your love will do its best to carry them through, bound as you are to them forever by the loss of your sister. Do not forget, at any time, to take care of you. That is the best, first thing you can do for you, and therefore, for them as the years go by.

I wish you all well. I am so sorry.

Auntie Laurie

11 Responses to “On Loss, Grief and Picking Up the Pieces”

08.30.12#1

Comment by Betty Herbert.

This is lovely. That is all. Good luck to you all.

08.30.12#2

Comment by Bitsy.

Dear Missing My Sissy,
You are a good, good person and you will be the good for them that comes out of all of this. Laurie is right. I will keep you in my prayers.
Love,
Bitsy

08.30.12#3

Comment by Lisa Rae @ smacksy.

Wonderful, thoughtful advice, Laurie.

08.30.12#4

Comment by boliath.

Dear Missing My Sissy,

I am so sorry to hear of your loss. My brother died suddenly earlier this year so I understand a little of your pain.

Sadly, my brother died just a few months after my Mum who died just a few months after my nephew. My family has become too familiar with the weighty burden of grief and I hope my experience can offer you some hope.

Hope is in short supply in my life but there is a small dim light to focus on, having let grief wash over me after my nephew as my focus was on my sister and her husband and again after my Mum as we knew she would die and had some time to prepare. It is a different situation with my brother, first siblings aren’t supposed to die young, we’re supposed to grow old and cranky together. Second, he was, like your sister, a very close friend as well as a brother, we relied on each other and shared many life experiences together. His loss is immense in my life and I struggle with it daily. At times it overwhelms me and I have no choice but to surrender and cry out my pain which can be a relief. But, her is the small dim light, it does get easier, it really does, no you will never be okay with her death, you will never not grieve and mourn her absence in your life but you will learn to manage and cope with it. You will be able to smile and laugh again and be happy and forget for a short time the unbearable pain that lies just beneath the surface.

In your favour, as in mine, there are children to consider, my children ground me with requests for drinks and hugs and refereeing. My brother’s daughter needs me to help her through this, I am the closest aunt on our side to her, I reach out to her all of the time, often without response, but just as Laurie says, to let her know that I am thinking about her, that I haven’t forgotten, that in some small way I am stepping in to his shoes and reminding her that she is loved and not forgotten. I know, when she emerges from her grief, she will know that I am here, that I am always here for her, unconditionally.

Having recently lost my Mum as well, I share some of your nieces’ loss, I am an adult so it is different, I can understand and accept her death on some level, especially because it was expected and I had time to tell her everything I wanted her to know and hear and listen what she wanted to tell me, but like a child I cannot come to terms with it, I miss her. I am angry that she is gone, furious that my children won’t have a relationship with her and sad, so very sad that I can’t call her and chat about simple things. I miss her advice, her guidance, although it was often wrong, I miss her unconditional love and support. I miss her.

Your nieces may be experiencing all of these and will probably only experience some as they grow. They too will find a way to live again, you can have a crucial role in guiding them towards productive ways and times to express their emotions, towards healthy behaviours but also giving them the space and time they need to rage and scream and wail and act like jerks when they have no other way to express.

I wish you courage and strength and peace and love and comfort as you move through this journey of loss with your nieces, your parents, your own children and your brother-in-law.

Please accept my sincere condolences and deepest sympathy.
xx

K-Line Reply:

What a beautiful comment. I wish you (and our letter writer) peace after terrible loss. xo

boliath Reply:

Thank you

08.30.12#5

Comment by dusty earth mother.

This is heartbreaking, and like Laurie, I would be a terrible therapist because I’m just sitting here crying. I just want you to know that I’m praying for your situation. Much love and just. take. it. day. by. day.
xxoo

08.30.12#6

Comment by Ann.

One of the most crucial pieces of helping grieving kids is having trusted adults to companion them through the process. In taking on this role, you are making that difference already.

Great advice, Laurie!

08.30.12#7

Comment by Kelly.

I’m so, so sorry for your loss.

I would only add that I’m sure there are many people in your and your sister and her kids’ lives who are ready to “be the village” for you and your family. They may not know what to do to be helpful, so don’t be afraid to ask. Maybe there’s another family member or close friend who could become a point-person to help coordinate meals and errands and yard work and alleviate some of those burdens for all of your households while you focus on grieving.

Prayers to you all.

Laurie Reply:

Good point, Kelly. I hope there are others to help. It’s so hard, especially after the initial period of loss…community is so important.

08.30.12#8

Comment by Muffintopmommy.

I am so, so sorry for your loss. I am sure from reading your question you will figure out exactly how to help your nieces–I am so glad they have you.

Best wishes and hugs.

Consider Checking Out...