I May Be Drowning in Grief, But My Kids Will Never Know It
by Jill Simonian
Photograph by Twenty20
"What are you going to tell the kids?" she asked.
I was nearly dumbfounded on the other end of the phone. "What do you mean, 'What am I going to tell them?'" I snapped back. I knew she had good intentions with what she was getting at, but it rubbed me the wrong way because everything was so fresh.
"I've already told them that Grandma has been really, really sick and that she went to heaven. I told them that we will all be very sad but that life will continue, she will always be with us, and we will go on and live happy lives." I was matter of fact on the phone, faking strength, but was breaking inside.
The voice on the other end followed up with, "What are you going to do with them during the funeral? Do you think you're damaging their long-term mental health?"
Mental health. Their mental health, my mental health ... hasn't it all pretty much been tampered with given the circumstance?
This was the moment I wanted to scream and hang up—but I didn't. The questions were coming from a most sincere and caring place. I, however, was in the absolute worst place I've ever been as a daughter, a woman, a wife, a mother.
"They're coming to the funeral and, yes, I am doing the wisest thing for their mental health because I asked my cousin, a local child therapist, about how to handle this family tragedy. And it turns out I'm right on target and correct with the way I've already explained everything to them."
The voice on the other end said, "OK," and turned quiet.
Months later, this conversation still feels so fresh. The wound is fresh. I weep as I type this on my keyboard. But I go on, we all go on. Damn right, I'm faking it. I'm faking the giggles. I'm faking the smiles. I'm faking the joy when I serve dinner at our kitchen table.
For now, at least. And only in front of the kids. (Make no mistake, my private time has involved sitting on my bathroom floor with a Kleenex box.)
I'll be damned if my girls aren't going to see me smile and enjoy life's happy moments inside a dark time—even if I'm faking it from the inside out.
I'm a big believer in showing my daughters the full spectrum of life's emotions: happiness, frustration, anger, sadness. I've lived honestly with my kids, with them seeing and listening to stories about parts of my life that they can understand like, "Mommy's had a tough day..." and I've cried in front of them before this challenging chapter and I continue to cry with them now.
But I'm making it a point to not cry too much in front of them, well, because I don't want to freak them out or mess them up. Remember that mental health thing? Oh yeah.
"How are you so strong?" some of my friends ask. I'm a skilled faker. I've become a semi-master at compartmentalizing certain feelings for the sake of my daughters' ongoing stability. It sounds sketchy, but it's working.
Feel the feelings, show the feelings, show how I can cope and function through the feelings ... and then tuck them away until I have time by myself to let them rip. They don't have to see every nuance of what I'm going through. Don't all mothers do this? You might call it a show, a lie, a ruse, but I call it parenting.
You may be reading this and think I've gone completely off the rails, but holding back when it comes to baring it all with our kids can be smart. I have some professional support on this.
According to my therapist cousin, young kids don't quite understand grief like we do. So, if we uncontrollably lose it all the time, kids can get confused and internalize all sorts of messes that can prove challenging to re-center later on. Basically, they aren't developmentally mature enough to understand my very grown-up grief and it would be reckless and irresponsible for me to put that on them.
Kids also feel more secure with a functioning, strong-spirited parent. So I'll be damned if my girls aren't going to see me smile and enjoy life's happy moments inside a dark time—even if I'm faking it from the inside out.
I take care of real, personal business behind the scenes, but my show must go on day in and day out in the name of raising capable kids. Because now, I realize that every one of us carries scars, pain and wounds ... yet we must go on for our kids. We all fake it, whether we realize it or not.
The funny thing about faking it is that I often start feeling like I'm slowly making it, baby step by baby step, against all odds. Which is proving to be good for my girls. And for me. Who knew being so fake could yield something so real?