When Your Baby is Hurting
It's one thing to experience the heart wrenching pain of grief yourself, but to stand by and helplessly watch your child's heart ache is unimaginable. My son, Santino, was just one month shy of 8 when his daddy died. He was quiet about it at first. I wasn't quite sure how much he understood or how much he needed to know. I did my best to baby step my way through, planting seeds of information along the way. He didn't ask many questions. He didn't want to talk about it. I was as honest and age appropriate as I could be. But I worried about how he was holding it all in. I was going out of my way to put on a show that everything was fine, probably teaching him that it wasn't okay to let his emotions out. It turns out I didn't do feelings. I did denial. Meanwhile, I was hiding in my bathroom having panic attacks on a regular basis.
Since I knew we would need support, I sought out therapists for us both right away. I had my doubts about how much he would share with a stranger. He has always been a private little creature. But I was hoping her sand table and hand puppets and wall of figurines would somehow help him to open up. We would drive across the island and I would sit in the waiting room, holding my breath, hoping that I was doing the right thing. After a handful of sessions, she brought me in with him to share what they had been discussing. He told her that he had started doing Saturday chores. "It's important that you're helping your mom," she said. "You are the man of the house now." Time stopped. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. He was not a man. He was a baby. And this mental health professional was telling him that on top of losing his dad, he now has to worry about responsibility. I wanted to shake her. "No," I said. "His job is to be a child. I am the adult." And we left.
Just when I thought Santino wasn't going to grieve at all, his emotions starting slipping out one by one. They showed up as rage. They came as frustration. There was an overreaction to every... single... thing. There was slamming and stomping. There was crying. There was negativity, sarcasm and so many tears. There were bad words. He told me he wished he were dead. He told me he didn't care. He was confrontational. He was mouthy. He was tired all the time. He was depressed. He wore a robe around the house. Sometimes he wore a robe outside of the house. He didn't want to go anywhere. He watched the same shows over and over again. He would say he didn't think it was normal to cry that much. That he will never stop crying. That he will never be okay again. That he was thinking about daddy and all the things they used to do. "If daddy were here right now we would be having fun." I felt powerless.
Once in a while a friend or acquaintance would ask how he was doing. I, being my honest self, would tell them he was struggling. They would react with surprise. Or maybe it was shock. Or was as it confusion? I didn't care. I wanted to scratch their eyes out. I wanted to scream and throw stuff and break everything in sight. This kid had two people. TWO. And one of them died. How was he supposed to react? The very thought of my baby hurting made me psychotic. When I was alone, I would grit my teeth and say to myself, I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know how to parent a grieving child. What the fuck am I supposed to do? And the anger I felt toward my husband for leaving us was intense. I felt resentment in my entire body. I wanted someone to blame. Someone to hold accountable for doing this to me. For causing this pain for my son.
I was terrified that because my husband died by suicide, that Santino might do the same. That he would suffer from depression his whole life. That he would never recover. That he would struggle with anxiety. That the grief would swallow him whole and he would never feel happy again. I would wonder if his behavior was normal. Was it grief? Was it hormones? Was it COVID? Yes to all of the above. And I decided that it didn't matter. Regardless of the cause, he would need help getting through this.
I have never been a fan of asking for help, but I would do anything for my boy. I reached out to therapists for support. I was in close contact with teachers and the principal of his school for any extra help they could provide. I arranged with a neighbor for him to walk her dogs to give him a reason to get outside. I signed him up for a weekly virtual mindfulness group so he could feel a little less alone. His best friend's mom and I made a trade to pick up each other's kid each week so they could spend time together. I wasn't raised in an organized religion but sometimes I prayed to God late at night to protect and look after my son. I was desperate and scared and needed all the help I could get.
I never knew how unwilling I was to allow my feelings until I hired a life coach. Once I realized how much I was pushing my own feelings away, I also became aware that I wasn't exactly allowing my son's emotions either. They made me uncomfortable. I would do whatever I could to calm him down, shut him up or make it all go away. I would react by raising my voice or arguing back or telling him to quiet down. Or I would just shut down, scrolling mindlessly through all the apps on my phone to escape reality. Then I learned how to allow my (and his) feelings. To stop fighting them. That they couldn't hurt me. And once I stopped trying to make them go away, I could breathe. When I could replace my anger/worry/fear with empathy, I could parent from a much more loving place.
The only way I could remotely help my son was that I could relate to what he was feeling. When I could stop trying to make it all better and stop worrying about what was normal and what wasn't, then I could just let him grieve. I would understand when he just didn't feel like leaving the house. I would get it when he needed to zone out on his iPad. I would relate when he would overreact. It didn't make it easy but it made sense. I would try with all my might to remove myself from the equation and just let him express himself. We set a few basic house rules. I would remind him that he could feel however he felt but it was how he expressed himself that mattered. I would remind myself that it was all temporary. That he just needed me to love him and make him feel safe. That we could do hard things.
Santino is 10 now and he has a beautiful soul. He is witty and creative. He's sarcastic and kind. He still refers to himself as a shy kid, even though he has been breaking out of his shell. He's a bit on the anxious side and apologizes constantly. He likes things just so. He is incredibly charming and good looking, exactly like his dad. He's smart but doubts himself a lot. He's self conscious. He has a crush on a girl but practically faints whenever we talk about it. He tells me he is sad all the time, even when he's laughing. I taught him about the concept of duality. It's the idea of holding two seemingly opposing emotions at the same time. I told him that he can miss Daddy and still have fun with his friends. That I can feel unhappy and grateful at the same time. When you allow yourself to feel only sadness, it's almost impossible to feel any hope.
We still have hard days. We have struggles that may not have anything to do with grief. Homework is still cause for epic meltdowns. Chores and baths are still the enemy. We get worn out easily. We need to make time for rest. I focus on consistency. We have schedules and routines that we rely on for structure. We are no longer in survival mode, which feels like major progress to me. I finally see that I am an amazing mom. I don't know yet what the future holds, but I am thankful for the tools we have acquired to prepare us for anything. And as Santino always says, "we always find a way. Besides, the worst thing has already happened."