Parenting After Loss: Giving Surviving Siblings Permission to Live

I wrote this post about things I’m learning almost two years ago.

A couple of the things I’m learning are:

There is no limit to the pain you may have to endure this side of heaven.

Lightning can strike twice in the same place, and fear of what you know by experience trumps fear of the unknown by miles.

I’ve buried one child, I do not want to bury another.

So one of the biggest struggles I face is how to parent my surviving adult children.  I do not want their lives circumscribed by my fears.

Are we ALL changed by Dominic’s death?  Absolutely!  But they are young, at the beginning of life and making choices about direction and life partners and what they want out of the years stretching before them. 

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I pray every day they will make those choices from a place of freedom and hope instead of a place of confinement and fear. 

Can something happen to any one of them?  Of course!  But it is no more likely today than it was three years ago when I didn’t think it could happen at all.

I will not let my mind and heart borrow trouble from tomorrow.  I will choose to focus on today and encourage them to do the same.

While Dominic was here-he LIVED.  

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I want his brothers and sister to be completely free to live too.

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Holidays and Grief: Surviving Siblings

I have never wanted to make my life journey with blinders on.  I realized young that MY perspective is not the only one.  I understand that more clearly now. 

So I try hard to think about, acknowledge and accommodate the feelings and needs of others.

But it’s especially challenging since Dominic left us.  And doubly so this time of year when every sight, smell and song screams, “It’s the holidays and HE IS NOT HERE!

I may not be as thoughtful to some in my circle as want to be, but I will expend every ounce of energy and effort I can muster to make space for my living children’s needs during this season.  

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I promised them the day Dominic ran ahead to heaven our family would not be defined by what we have lost.  I committed right then and there we would not sanctify Dominic, wouldn’t whitewash his ornery ways and would not put him on a pedestal against which they would be measured  for the rest of their lives.

What I didn’t say, but purposed in my heart, was that I would not allow my own feelings of grief, sorrow, missing and despair to rob them of the mother they deserve.   I would not stop being there for THEM-because, let’s face it-Dominic didn’t need me anymore.  He is safe in his eternal home.

THEY are here with me in this less-than-perfect, messy and painful world we have to navigate together. 

So when I’m working on holiday plans, the first thing I do is ask them what they need from me. I want them to have a safe space to express what’s hard for THEM this year.  I welcome ideas, frustrations, hopes and dreams.

I will not shut them down because my heart is hurting

I know what I think-I have to listen to know what THEY think.

I don’t conduct a sit down interview but over the course of a few days or weeks, I ask probing questions, offer potential scenarios and try to hear the heart behind their words when they answer.

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Here are some of the things I ask my kids.   Maybe they will be helpful for your family as well:

  • What’s your work schedule for Thanksgiving/Christmas?
  • Do you have any other major commitments that we need to work around?
  • How do you feel about what we did last year?  What worked for you, what didn’t work?
  • Is there something special you really want to do this year?
  • Is there something you absolutely do NOT want to do this year?
  • How’s your head going into the holidays?  What are you struggling with?  What’s easier than this time last year?
  • Do you need something from me to make the holidays easier?
  • When would you rather have the main meal?  Do you want/need to invite friends or co-workers?
  • What would the ideal Christmas Eve/Christmas Day look like for you?

There are dozens of corollaries to each of these questions.  As my children share, I try to explore the edges of the conversation and probe a little further to get at what is really going on.  I am open about my own feelings and fears for the season.  I’m honest about where we can compromise and where, because of trying to manage everyone’s needs, we can’t.

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I always assure them we will continue to work together, to adjust and to muddle through the best we can. 

Humans are flawed and fragile and hearts are unpredictable.

Frustration is inevitable at some point.  

Don’t apologize for tears. 

We will not have thought of everything.  

And that’s OK.

we will all struggle and fall brene brown

75 Percent

I have tried blogging at various times through the years and always given up after a few posts.  My life was full and I found that in a few weeks or months I didn’t really have all that much to say.

It’s different this time-I have been writing every day for almost 20 months and seem to always have at least a sentence or two that wants to burst forth from my keyboard.

I think pain births words.

But one thing I never want to forget is that although Dominic is gone from my sight-my other three children are not.  I still have 75 percent of my children with me.

I do not take that for granted.

They are each a successful and highly-functioning adult in their own right.  It would be easy to run from a broken family and run toward a life that didn’t include daily reminders that their mama cries often and is not nearly the woman she once was.

But they don’t.

Instead they check on me, love me and encourage me with text messages and Facebook memes and silly photos.  They listen when I need to download a pile of frustration and disappointment.

They help me remember that life is still happening, even when I wish (in some ways) it wasn’t.

When each one of my children was born I received him or her as a gift from God.  I could not imagine there would be a day when I would treasure them more than I did on that day.

But I do.

I miss Dominic, because he was a gift from God too.

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But I will be forever thankful that, at least for now, I have Fiona, James Michael and Julian.

Forced to give one child back, I will never, ever, take the ones I have left for granted.

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Unafraid

I’ve never been really big on fear.

I jumped from the high dive at three years old-that belly flop hurt but I survived and it fueled my adventurous spirit.

I rode horses other people didn’t like-was bucked off a time or two but no broken bones so that didn’t slow me down.

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My dad had an open cockpit biplane and we flew aerobatics over Colorado Springs-fanny pack parachute strapped to my butt “just in case”-upside down and round and round. We never needed to jump and landed safely every time.

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Never been afraid of speaking in public.

Never been afraid of strangers.

Never been afraid of heights.

UNTIL.

Until I had children and then I was afraid of nearly EVERYTHING for them.

I didn’t want any harm to befall these tiny humans carrying my heart outside my body.  I wanted to protect them, to cushion them, to wrap them in a bubble so that nothing bad ever happened to them.

As they grew, I learned to let go- a little at a time.  I learned you can’t prevent the scrapes and bruises and heartaches and disappointments of life.  And I learned that a little “harm” made them stronger.

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I forgot most of my fears and was again unafraid.

UNTIL Dominic was killed.

And all the old fears came rushing back.  I wanted to lock my surviving children in a room and slip food under the door.  I HAD to keep them safe.

Only I can’t.  It is not possible for me to keep. them. safe.

All I could possibly do is make them afraid.  I could make them afraid of choosing their hearts’ desires in an attempt to prevent more pain for mine.

I won’t do that.

I will not allow part of Dominic’s legacy to be that our family lives afraid.

NO.

I choose to release my children to make the best choices they can and to live boldly and unafraid.

 

A Letter To My Living Children*

I never thought it possible to love you more than I already did.

But I do.

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Your brother’s untimely departure has opened my heart in a whole new way to the glory that is your presence.  It has made me drink you in like water in the desert.

No more do I take even a moment for granted.  Never again will I be “too busy” to listen to you, to hug you, to greet you on the porch when you decide to make your way back home.

I promised you when that deputy came to the door we would survive.

And we have.

 

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I promised you that I would never raise Dominic onto a hallowed pedestal that obliterated his orneriness and only kept track of his laudable qualities.

I pray I have lived up to the promise.

We are changed-every one of us.

I am so very proud of you for continuing to live.  It would have been easy to give up.  It would have been easy to “live for the moment” and give in to hedonism.

You haven’t done that.

You have had to carry more weight than you should.  I am so very anxious to see how you take this awful  pain and weave it into your own stories-how this dark thread helps define who you become and how you choose to impact your world.

You have lent me your strength when mine was waning.

You have checked on me and loved me and borne patiently with me and with one another when it would have been easier to walk away and try to create a life outside this place of brokenness and vulnerability.

I am always cautious when ascribing feelings and words to our departed Dominic-it’s easy to make him say or feel whatever is most convenient since he’s not here to dispute it.  But I am certain of this:  while he would never, ever have wanted us to bear this awful burden, he would be so, so proud of the way we have supported one another in doing so.

Like always, our family has closed ranks and lifted together the weight that would have crushed us individually.

It’s who we are.

It’s who we have always been.

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*I am absolutely convinced that Dominic is very much ALIVE today in the presence of Jesus.  But for now, I’m denied his daily companionship.

 

 

(Almost) All Together

Our family has never been the “go somewhere for the holidays” sort.  We tend to stick close to home, to what’s familiar, to routine and regular bedtimes.

But lately life has thrown us a number of curveballs. And we are learning to swing at them instead of just letting them lob past us.

So just after Christmas, the four of us that were together in Alabama took a drive down to Florida to spend time with our oldest son and his wife in their new home.

We spent New Year’s Eve on a windy dog beach enjoying waves and walks and friendly strangers whose mutts came over to sniff ours.

Seafood  and people watching at a nearby restaurant sitting outside in the breezy cool topped off a lovely day.

I’m learning to live with Dominic’s absence.

I’m (almost) used to photographs of my three surviving children documenting adventures that don’t include his smiling face and raucous antics.  I’m trying to recapture the joy of his life and not dwell as much on the fact and circumstances of his death.

I can look forward a little further on a calendar.  I can plan a bit more.  My heart finds some satisfaction again in hosting friends and family for special occasions or no occasion at all.

In a word, I’m “better”.  

Not healed-never healed (past tense)-until heaven.

But oh, so thankful for the days I have to spend with the family I have left.

I don’t know if Dominic can see us from where he is, but if he can’t, we’ll have lots to tell him when we get there.  

One day closer.  

 

 

Surviving Siblings and Christmas

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How do I honor the child for whom memories are all I have and love well the children with whom I am still making memories?

That’s a question I ask myself often.

And it is especially difficult to answer for celebrations and holidays, special events and birthdays.

I’ve probably had it a bit easier than many bereaved parents.  

My children were all adults when Dominic left us for Heaven.

We have strong relationships and a track record of talking things through.  So I can ask them about what is helpful to them and tell them what is hard for me.  We all acknowledge that we are finding our way in the dark and that changing circumstances make it important to keep the lines of communication open.

We are experiencing our third set of holidays this year and have yet to establish a pattern or routine that works every time.

But here are some things we are learning together-some things my children are teaching me about surviving siblings and Christmas:

  • Parents shouldn’t try to hide their grief.  This one is hard.  As moms and dads we want so badly to create a safe world for our children-even our adult children!  Yet we know by painful experience that it is impossible.  When I try to hide my grief (which I cannot do successfully) I’m adding stress to an already stress-filled situation.  That grief is going to escape somewhere-if not in tears, then in raised voices, impatient looks and short tempers.  Children (even very young children) know that you are sad.  Let them know by your example that it’s OK to be sad.  Share your heart (in age-appropriate ways) and by doing so, give them permission to grieve as well.
  • Don’t force your child to grieve the same way you do.  Some children find it easier to be open about emotions than others.  The outward emotional expression of grief is different in each person.  For some it looks like what we expect: tears, sadness, sorrow. For others it may look like anger or denial or an unwavering commitment to “keep everything the same”.  Some children become very anxious about the safety of other family members. Some may remain stoic-don’t force emotional responses. Do some reading/research on grief in children and be prepared for the different ways a child may express their pain.
  • Ask you child(ren) how they feel about certain events/traditions/remembrance ideas. Even young children may have strong opinions about what feels good and what feels awful.  It’s tough to find a balance among competing needs but at least knowing how different family members are experiencing the holiday gives parents an idea of how it might be accomplished.  Sometimes surviving siblings can help parents find a creative solution to the quandary of how to honor the missing child and how to bless surviving children.
  • Don’t require that your child(ren) participate in every event or gathering. This is especially helpful for older children-but parents should be sensitive to the young ones as well.  Give your child(ren) permission to say, “no” if they don’t want to be part of a particular event. Some parents want to do balloon releases or light candles at a special service for their missing child. What’s healing for the parent may not be healing for a surviving sibling. That’s OK.  Do the same for family gatherings.  Don’t force a sibling to contribute a “favorite memory” or “story” during a family memorial time.
  • Grant space and remain flexible.  Things that sound like a good idea while still far off on the calendar can feel overwhelming as the day approaches.  Sometimes no matter how much I WANT to do something, I. just. can’t.  It’s the same for surviving siblings.  Be gracious and allow for changing feelings/circumstances.  They may truly wish they could commit or participate but realize that when the day is here, they just don’t have the emotional energy to do it.
  • On the other hand, be alert if a child withdraws completely.  Withdrawal may be a silent scream for help.  The pain may have become too great to process but the child doesn’t know how to ask for help.  You are the parent.  You can’t “fix” your child.  But you can take him or her by the hand and lead them to someone who can discern the best way to give them the skills to cope with the loss of their sibling.
  • Affirm your living child(ren).  Let them know that you love them in ways that are most meaningful to them.  Every person has a unique “love language”-a preferred way to be loved.  Learning what speaks to your child(ren)’s heart helps to ensure that they don’t feel forgotten or overlooked even as you grieve the child that is missing from your family circle.
  • Express appreciation for your child(ren)’s continued support for your own grief. My kids are a vital part of my grief support system-just as I am for them.  We all love Dominic and our hearts all hurt and miss him.  I am thankful every minute of every day that they listen to me, let me cry and love me through hard moments.
  • Understand that sometimes your surviving child(ren) might need to leave the missing sibling behind or set him or her aside for an event or celebration.  It’s hard to remain in the shadow of “the one gone before”.  They may not want that special day to be referenced as “so many days/months/years since we lost ______”.  Of course our mama or daddy hearts can’t help but think of it that way!  BUT-this is THEIR day, THEIR moment.  Let them have it.  It takes nothing away from your love for the missing child to affirm and lavish love on the child you can still hold.
  • Remember, that just like for you-each year may be different.  What works one time may not work this time.  Extend, and be willing to receive, grace  

I am trying hard to love and honor and support the children still with me and also make room for Dominic, who lives in our hearts.

It’s a delicate balancing act on a spiderweb of intersecting strings-I’m still learning and it’s hard.  

But love is ALWAYS worth the cost.

ann voskamp love will always cost you grief