Monday, May 2, 2016

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Celeste Roberge's "Rising Cairn" sculpture in front of the Nevada Art Museum in Reno. (Photo: Greg Patterson/Flickr)
In the past month this image has crossed my social media feeds multiple times with the caption: "the weight of grief- an illustration of the physical feeling of grief."  At one point, Landy's cousin thoughtfully directed the photo to me suggesting that it might fit on my blog.  I thought I might tackle what this sculpture evokes for me and agree that this blog may be the perfect place to explore that.
The sculpture is actually called "Raising Cairn" and the artist Celeste Roberge derived the name from the cairns of Europe, the piles of stones used to mark spots of significance whether roads, burial sites or borders. Admittedly, Roberge did not intend for the sculpture to depict the "weight of grief."  In fact, that interpretation was made by therapist/counsellor, Janette Murphy, who posted this picture online with the above-mentioned caption and from there the picture went viral. When interviewed this week about the viral photo and the alignment to the experience of grief,  Roberge said that she welcomes the interpretations and believes individual meaning enhances ones connection to the art.

So how do I feel when I see this picture as it relates to my own grief?  Well, it feels more representative of how unavailable I believed others were when I was grieving.  I saw my family (our parents, siblings and extended family) grieving and pained.  Like this sculpture their rocks were wrapped around their heart, protecting it from the outside world and unavailable to me. I watched as they struggled with the weight of our son's death; how could they support us, how would they make sense of our experience and reconcile how it had changed us? If we were not the same then our relationships were also transformed. People seemed immobilized in our presence or unreachable and not from any lack of effort or due to their shortcomings but because while they appeared weighed down by stones, in juxtaposition I felt hollow - we were misaligned.  My stones were not stones at all but rather boulders.  If I were this same wire representation I would have a boulder in my middle and one on my back and the rest of my wire shape would be hollow.  The boulder in my centre ~ my despair, isolation, hopelessness, heartbreak and my grief.  The one on my back ~ my guilt, shame, bitterness, and fear.  If that hollow structure represented my self and my grief following Flynn's death, how could all that empty space, held to it's shape by simple wire, move those two large boulders?  In truth, had I even wanted to move them?

It is the eve of the anniversary of Flynn's birth and death and now I know that eventually I did move the boulders.  Not the same boulders that accompanied that hollow shell that represented me after Flynn died, those boulders changed in shape and size and so did my ability to carry them. That hollowness is merely a hole now and not the entirety of my being.  Writing about carrying boulders evokes a monologue from my favourite movie, The Rabbit Hole, and Dianne Weist's character when she talks about her grief as the brick in her pocket.  That imagery resonates with me and has since I first saw the movie - maybe that is how I have changed, over the past 14 years the boulders have moved from within me to become the rocks in my pocket:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Hyper Helicoptered Kid - Part Two

This blog has been even more of a beast to write then its predecessor, found here.  If I believed talking about my parenting was difficult, recognizing how it has impacted my children is well, it is heartbreaking.  I tried not to be too clinical in this post, but I know at times I am - call it a coping strategy for the anxiety this post provoked (oh the irony).

I don't even know really how to begin, so I will just say it - my children are anxious.  This is not a mental health diagnosis, although one day that might be a reality, it is an observation of how they interact with their world.  Each exhibits anxiety in varying degrees of course and it manifests itself in very different ways dependent on which kid it is, but they are very anxious kids.  While I recognize that generally children are showing more indicators of anxiety and as a society we are more aware of how anxiety manifests - I cannot help but believe that as a hyper helicopter parent I have contributed to their anxiousness.  This is not a self criticism (not really anyway), the reality being that I do not believe I could have been any other way after Flynn died and I have not sat idly by hoping it would correct itself either (more on that later).

Speaking frankly, anxious parenting has a higher probability of leading to anxious kids. In my last post I talked about parenting from a perspective of constantly evaluating the danger of every situation my children approached and regularly saying things like "don't do that", "get off that", "you will hurt yourself" and flat out "NO."  Children are not just led by what is communicated to them, they also use their intuition to understand what is expected of them.  They look to their caregivers for guidance on every new experience they encounter.  So not only were my children verbally hearing that most things they wanted to do was scary they likely sensed my highly anxious state and interpreted that as "I need to be on alert for the danger." Manufacture that cycle enough times and children become engaged in a continuous belief that nothing is safe and anxiety as a feeling becomes the mechanism of assessing their environment for danger.

You may be wondering how my children exhibit their anxiety.

My oldest, who is quickly approaching 17, starts by getting quiet around the "thing" that is provoking an anxious response.  Typically these are issues relating to school and relationships but if anything is off with his health, he will immediately believe it is the worst possibility he can identify.  If we as parents haven't clued in to what we are not talking about he will progress to an angry reactiveness with limited ability to communicate verbally and from there he quickly escalates to rage.  Once we give him time and space he generally comes to us about an upcoming test, an unfortunate report card or a sore throat and he acknowledges that he was experiencing anxiety.

Our older middlest who is almost 12 is very different.  He is almost constantly dealing with anxiety.  For example he is always asking questions relating to safety at home, for his siblings, for our extended family and for himself.  He is my parrot parent, constantly telling his siblings (yes even the older one) what they should or shouldn't do and again it generally relates to safety.  He is so hyper-aroused that he has difficulty sleeping, sitting still and experiences physical pain very intensely, so he is hurt often.  His emotional responses to everyday concerns are large and intense too and he often is moved to tears.  He doesn't have the emotional vocabulary to assist him in getting support from the adults around him but we are working on it.  Additionally we are teaching him coping strategies and validating his feelings so that we can talk them out.

Interestingly our younger middlest doesn't seem to exhibit much anxiety outside of situations/scenarios that would naturally provoke an anxious response, but I have a theory on that.
I said earlier that I have not sat idly by when it comes to my hyper helicopter parenting and the impact to the boys.  I have sought out my own support through counselling so that I can cope with and alleviate my own anxious responses and feel more capable of parenting my children as they explore and navigate new experiences.  I have educated myself on the environmental impacts of anxiety on development and how to foster resilience. Most importantly I am practicing self compassion rather then self criticism.  I really believe that my younger middlest is evidence that it is working.  The two older ones are going to be fine too because they have our love and support, we communicate openly and honestly with them and they have benefited greatly from the changes in my parenting that have come about through my own transformation.

Now that I have gotten to the end of this blog, it wasn't so bad to say it out loud!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Hyper Helicopter Parent - Part One

I have tried to write this post a dozen times and each time I fall short or end up deleting the whole thing.  I am not sure that there is anything more openly vulnerable then examining your own parenting.  Without even asking for others opinions, we are often judged by strangers while we try to parent a screaming child in the grocery store or we compare ourselves to those Pinterest parents who we believe epitomize the "perfect parent" thereby minimizing our own abilities.  That does not even speak to the fears that we are going to get it so wrong that some agency is going to show up at the door and document our poor parenting or worse.  Parenting for me has become a practice of managing anxiety and stress so that my little people can thrive and grow.
I often wonder if my parenting would have been as influenced by anxiety had Flynn not died.  Of course it is almost impossible to know, my memories of parenting my oldest as an infant and toddler seem skewed or intangible, like I raised him in a dream and not anything reflecting real life.  I suppose that is what grief does, it doesn't just mess with the days, weeks and months following the death it takes all the memories that occurred throughout your life and warps them until you are not sure if you can trust them.  In my heart I want to believe that I was a calm, unprovoked parent with my oldest.  I assume that I  trusted in my abilities and allowed him to learn through exploration, testing his abilities through practice and wondering around his environment. There is a big part of me that wonders if that memory is true, is that the grief or it's residue - anxiety?
When Flynn died it not only changed me as a person, it changed me as a mother.  I was coping with a constant underlying anxiety - like a hum below the surface of my skin.  Anything and everything could provoke it to agitation and being a mom became a series of "don't do that", "get off that", "you will hurt yourself" and flat out "NO"(when picturing this you should see me as nearing tears or screaming because that is how anxious I felt).  While my fellow moms tell me that they also parent with fears and concerns for their children's safety (to which I have no doubts), I am unsure if it is indeed similar but I have no real way of knowing.  This is in no way a minimization of what others experience in the parenting relationship or to say that as a bereaved parent I fair worse.  What I know of parenthood comes from a place of bereavement and a perspective painted by failure. Regardless of the circumstances of my child's death, being a mother comes with one major responsibility~ keeping your child alive and my child died. So now here I am responsible for my other little ones and parenting becomes an exercise in trying to figure out whether every situation my children approach is really as dangerous or life threatening as my anxiety believes it is.
A friend, who is also a bereaved parent, described her experience of parenting as the hyper helicopter parent and I really appreciated the term as it encapsulated how out of control this style of parenting FEELS.  Let me break this down - Hyper by definition is an adjective to explain being overstimulated or obsessive and the Helicopter Parent has been described as the parent who is overprotective or excessive in the life of their child or children - so the Hyper Helicopter Parent is obsessively overprotective.  I want to give an example of what this may look like from my own parenting but that feels a bit too vulnerable for the World Wide Web.  What I can say is that once in couples therapy Landy turned to me and said that he felt like I would not let him parent because I believed that he might let our children die and that I did not trust that he would do whatever it took to keep them alive and safe.  Sadly he was not wrong but what I did not say in the therapy session was that I didn't even trust myself with that responsibility and there is the Hyper Helicopter Parent at work.

Watch for my next blog about the impact of the Hyper Helicopter Parent on my children.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Hard Questions

*This post includes "too much information" however it is necessary to understand how the conversation came up in the first place.  You have been warned.

Landy had a vasectomy last week.
The day before the surgery we told the boys that he would be home for a couple of days.  Of course they had questions and so we explained it as openly and honestly as we could. It went something like: "Daddy and I have decided that we are not going to have anymore children and so daddy is having a very minor surgery that will ensure that we cannot get pregnant anymore."  Even typing this I get uncomfortable. I braced myself for questions about how babies are made from our younger Middlest or inquires about anatomy from the older Middlest. I waited for some grossed out remark from the Oldest - but there was nothing. Naturally I breathed a sigh of relief and believed that the discussion was done; maybe not believed as much as hoped.

It was the older Middlest that came to me with something that he had been contemplating since we told him about the surgery.
"Mom, do you think you would have had our Baby if Flynn had not died?" He is such an introspective kid and highly sensitive too.  I wanted to be honest although I wasn't really sure what the honest answer was.  These are hard questions to answer, they involve the "what ifs" and we can get lost in them if we are not mindful.  I wanted to respond to him but it was something that I avoided answering for myself;  I did not want it to be our daughter's story (unless someday that is the story she chooses for herself) - that she existed because Flynn didn't. So I held my breath for a second and then decided not to let my anxiety shape his understanding of our family so I asked him what he thought.
"I think that you would have had her too, we are all your family." Yep and thank goodness for that!

A couple of days following the surgery when I was alone in the car with our younger Middlest he asked me, "so daddy cannot have anymore babies?" to which I replied "no daddy and I will not have anymore babies." It was quiet for a minute and then thoughtfully and quite seriously he said "good because I did not want to have one hundred more babies." Me Neither!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Running For Flynn

As adults we add layers to the death and dying experience. That statement is not meant to be negative or positive, it is just my experience.  When someone we love dies, as adults, we will likely go over the details on a continuous loop in our minds hoping to make sense of the death or find the meaning in the specifics. Young children don't tend to have this inclination - not in my experience.  In fact, children will develop an understanding of death in its simplicity (unless guided to do otherwise) - that death means that the body and mind stop working - the heart stops beating, the lungs stop breathing, there is no hunger or feelings of pain. The body is no longer alive.

When our children have wanted to know or understand about their brother, that is what we have started with - he died and biologically that meant his body stopped working and he is not alive.  We have talked about and showed them pictures of him in our arms and we have taken them to the cemetery where he is buried. When they have asked how he died we have explained as simplistically and age appropriately as possible: he was born before his body was ready, he was too little and so he died.  When I reflect on how we have handled their understanding that they had an infant brother who died, I think we did very well, they are well adjusted children.
But there are nuances to death - the layers. The hows, whats and whys that we add as our children grow and reach developmental ages that have them asking more questions and wanting more details.  With our oldest we were so keenly aware as he transitioned into a new understanding of death and asked more refined questions that we remained vigilant of the messages he received.  Conversely, as his brothers have grown we have made assumptions of their understanding and maybe even believed that they would develop this awareness through the narrative that exists in our family - the hows, whats and whys.  I can admit when I am wrong and this time I was wrong.
For the past two years we have come face to face with the holes in the two middle boy's narrative about their brother.  It started with our older middlest and the day he had the Terry Fox Run at school.  He came home excited and eager to tell us how well the run had gone and then he showed us the badge he had created in remembrance for that day:
To him death was death. His brother had died and so had Terry Fox. He was running because Terry Fox had died and so with that logic, he was running for a brother who died.  We told him how meaningful that was and then we told him how the details were a little different - people do die with cancer but that was not how Flynn died. The Terry Fox Run was to support cancer research and so we typically run for people impacted by the disease.  He shrugged his shoulders and said he still was glad he ran for Flynn.  I felt like we handled it in an age appropriate and considerate manner but I will admit it was an uncomfortable conversation (it is hard to not create meaning around the details) and I was not wanting the school to have the wrong story of our son's death but also did not know how to correct it.
I left it alone hoping that armed with this new information our son would change the narrative at school and perceptions (if there were any) would be corrected. Wrong Again.
This year our younger middlest came home from the Terry Fox Run and guess what his badge said:
I know I have awesome children and although their story is skewed and needs some adjusting (at home and at school) it warms my heart to know how much Flynn means to this family.  Now to make some calls to the school.