Thursday, July 23, 2009

From a Five Year Old Mind

I remember when Rhys was five and all his perceptions of Flynn and death changed from statements of fact to questions of why? Rhys was three when Flynn died and had lived with his and our grief for two years. His questions became a transcendence that mirrored our journey of grief and how it had evolved.

Ash has recently turned five. He was born two years after Flynn had died and his experience with death is limited to what he has been told about his brother's death, his paternal grandfather's death and more recently the death of his Great Grandmother when he was only two years old. His understanding of death differs greatly from Rhys's understanding at the same age.
We are very honest with our children, we do not use words like "passed away" or "sleeping." We do not tell them that the people who died were sick, if we can name an illness we do. We have explained the permanence of death as the body ceasing to function and we have tried not to complicate their understanding of death with philosophy until they are ready to conceptualize on their own (our ten year old is there now, but that is another blog).
I will interject here to tell you that although this all sounds good, Landy is known for wanting to give his children all the information in very adult terms. Rhys and Ash are very bright and sometimes that can be misconceived as capable of handling adult concepts, it has backfired many times.
As of late, Ash has become very interested with the topic of death. He has graduated from the kiddie cartoons and now some of his movies have themes with death as a central storyline and obviously our family has experienced death as well.
Due to our honesty, Ash is aware that his Grandfather died from a brain tumor when Landy was only thirteen. He knows that his brother died because he was born too early and was too small to survive and he knows that his Great Grandmother was very old and died due to complications from her age. In working out what this means to him, he retells the stories of these deaths, adding his own twists or changing facts, making the sombre into dramatic tales.
Here is an example of how he recalls what he was told of his Grandfather's death:

"So Grandpa had cancer in his head and it made him sick and so the doctors needed to make him better so they took a saw and they cut off his head to take the cancer out but when they put his head back on he still had cancer and so he was mad and then he died."

We have corrected Ash's version of the story many times, but each time the illness and the death are much more dramatic than the reality.

We were at Disney World when his Great Grandmother died, and it has definitely affected his explanation of how she died:

"Great Grandma was at the top of the castle with Cinderella and then the fireworks went off and Great Grandma fell of the top of the castle down to the ground and SMOOSH, she was dead."

I am sure that if my Grandma could have input she would find this story comical and enjoy the energy that Ash puts into the story.

Losing a brother is the most difficult for Ash to understand, maybe because unknowingly we explain it differently. The death of a child is hard to explain or make sense of and Ash's grasp of Flynn's death becomes internalized in how he talks about it:

"Flynn was born and he was a big person and so he died and then I am going to die because I am becoming a big person too."

When we explain that Flynn was not a big person, he was a tiny baby, Ash wants to know when he will die since he did not die as a baby. Landy tells him that he won't die, but I don't want to mislead Ash so I tell him that we do not know when we will die but that we hope that we all live to be very old. I hoped that would make sense to Ash but the other morning Ash came into our room and this is how the conversation went:

"So will I die tomorrow?"

"We do not know when we will die but we hope you will be much older than tomorrow."

"When will you die? Will you die tomorrow?"

"I hope to be old too, and watch you grow up and I hope that it will be a long time from tomorrow."

"So then not tomorrow?"

"No Ash, not tomorrow."

"Okay, can I have a snack?"


And so we wait for the next round of questions and stories to sort out the difficultly of death.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Anatomy of a Griever

For any scientific or literal people I will ask for your forgiveness because the way that I will use the word "anatomy" deviates slightly (or a great deal) from its technical or literal meaning. I could not find another word that would help to illustrate the meaning behind this blog.
I speak with people all day about the way that death and losing a loved one changes you. I talk to them about the expectations we place on ourselves, how we think we should react and behave a certain way. I make them aware that we also put expectations on those around us to have an amount of grief or understanding that they may not have. I talk to them about how grief affects them on every level. In having these discussions it occurred to me that the changes I was discussing always related to philosophical, spiritual, emotional and short term physical changes. I am becoming aware that in being a support to grieving people I am learning and something that I recently learned is that I did not accommodate for the permanent changes that take place in regard to your senses, memory, perception and how they are physically apparent and how it contributes to your grief journey over the long term.
The only way to make sense of what I am trying to say is to explain it using my own experiences and the awareness I have gained working these past seven months.
I am acutely aware that my sense of smell has changed. I know now that is very closely tied with my memories and how I remember certain things. Vaseline Intensive Care will always remind me of my Grandma. I have a very strong sense of smell (not always a good thing) and when I was losing Flynn there were many different smells that surrounded his dying. At times it is those smells that make me remember or bring comfort to a time when I need to remember. There was the smell of the sterile environment like the alcohol, sanitizer, and staleness of closed windows and doors. The medicinal smell of antibiotics, saline solution, iodine and soap. The metal of the tools in the room seemed to give off an earthy, cold smell that has stuck with me and all of this was mixed with the smell of blood and sweat. At times I have come across these smells and it can bring back a sense of loss or the chaos of the experience, sometimes the smell does not come from something that I can see but rather seems like a form of memory recognition and it allows me to reflect on the memory of the day and take things out of it that are more important than the chaos. This is one of the ways that my anatomy has changed.
I have had some very physical changes, not noticeable to the eye or even with an x-ray. The hole in the middle of my guts, what started as the pit, the insatiable hollow gnawing just above my stomach after Flynn died. Now it is replaced with a scarred over space that if I do not take time to appreciate it, I am reminded of its existence. A doctor would most likely read this and scoff but I felt it for years after Flynn died, it was so physical that there were times I wrenched at my middle trying to fill it or pull it out. It flares up when I am exhausted, when I watch someone hurt, it reminds me, it is another way that I have changed.
My hearing has changed, although there is a bit of a joke in this statement, I do struggle with my actual hearing at times, I mean now I listen for different things, I am not sure that I listened before. I take note of what people are wanting or trying to tell me. I hear them and I respond with sincerity. I hear joy and laughter and I hear sadness and fear, I hear more than the words. I am more aware of inflection and that words are only half of what someone is trying to say.
My arms have undergone a change as well. They hold the most significant memory for me, that of holding Flynn after he was born. He only weighed one pound six ounces, but I remember at the time thinking how substantial he felt in my arms. I am blessed that my arms remember him and at times I feel the weight and warmth of him in my arms like I held him only yesterday, I am so appreciative to have this change to my anatomy especially when my mind struggles to remember the details.
The most meaningful change has been to my heart. I am sure that again, to look at and examine it as a medical profession, it would probably appear the same as any other heart. But it was never so apparent to me that it was a part of my body. I am conscious of its existence now, I feel it beat as a reminder of my life within me. I can feel it swell with love, respect and joy and I also feel the muscles in it tense and move with more force when I am faced with other's pain and sadness. I am so grateful that it has adapted to accommodate my changes, the way that life has grown for me from the moment of tremendous loss to one filled with love and purpose.
It may not be an evidenced part of my anatomy that has changed, it would not qualify as anything that needs to be investigated medically but it is definitely a measured change in my metaphysical anatomy that I have encountered as I work on my journey of grief.