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'It’s like I have to block out grief time in my calendar.' How we grieve changes after we have kids.

He’d lived right up the street all my life. His sly grin and strong arms were as much a part of my life as my canvas shoes and skinned knees. But his cancer had come back with a vengeance and spread quickly, ravaging his body from the inside.

My mother took me to see him after school and on weekends, as he lay dying in the house where she grew up. I’d sit at the edge of his bed with tears pooling in my eyes, not daring to blink. 

Instead, I would run my eyes back and forth over the R-rated caps he’d accumulated over the years from friends with the same naughty sense of humour, mounted in neat rows on the wood-panelled walls. I had no idea what to talk about, but I was desperate to drink in as much time with him as I could, and he was content to hold my hand in silence. 

He watched me sit there being young and alive, and out of the corner of my eyes I could almost see the life slowly inch out of him.

Watch: Robin Bailey on losing her dad at a young age. Post continues after video. 


Video via Mamamia.

One October day, he was moved to a facility where he could be cared for until the end came. We packed into the car the next afternoon and drove, solemn and stoic, to the place where he would die.

My mum went into the room first, and I stood in the hall, waiting. Numb.

When it was my turn, I walked through the doorway to see someone I didn’t recognise. Gaunt is too weak of a word to describe his face, which had always been corn-fed and full with life. His dentures, which he’d worn for nearly half a century, were out. His mouth was open and his cheeks were hollow.

My heart ached to go toward him, but my feet refused to cooperate. I wanted to touch him, but I couldn’t. I tried to look at him, but my eyes tore toward the door. I couldn’t bear to see what had become of this big, strong bear of a man. I turned around and left the room without a word, sobbing and unable to speak. 

Within five minutes, he was gone.

Mum and Grandma always said he waited to see me one last time. I latched on to that thought, the only thing that allowed me to forgive myself for not being able to tell him goodbye. He knew I was there. He knew I loved him. That was enough for him to go peacefully.

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In the days and weeks after my grandfather’s death, my mum showed great concern for my emotional state. How was I doing? Was I sure I wanted to go to school? Did I think it would help to talk to someone? Was I going to be okay at the funeral? Sure, I could have his flannel shirts. 

He would have loved that.

*****

Eighteen years later, I got the call about my grandmother. I stood holding the phone to my ear, staring at endless neat rows of bright white cartons, legs threatening to give out. My toddler and nine-month-old swatted at each other in the race car shopping cart, faces turned up with glee, blissfully oblivious as my face crumbled into a million pieces.

"I just wanted to let you know," my mother said through tears and a thousand miles, "I talked to the nurses, and your grandmother isn’t going to make it."

No, was my first thought. Nope. I just saw her. She was fine.

I’d flown back home the month before, a birthday surprise in the form of her only granddaughter and first two grandbabies. She’d just moved into a senior living place. She was in good health and good spirits.

And, by the end of today, she would be gone.

A familiar face, the dairy stocker, came into view. His eyes were kind and concerned. "Miss? Are you okay?"

I sniffed, swiped at my face. "Yep." I croaked. "Just got some bad news." And I turned around and walked away, pushing the shopping cart ahead of me.

Because breaking down in the middle of the grocery store wasn’t a thing I could do. I had to finish the shopping. Had to get the girls home for their naps. Had to wash their laundry and clean up their rooms and feed them, for God’s sake. There was no time to break down.

The night before the funeral, I assembled anecdotes from my relatives into a single eulogy befitting my memory of the woman with whom I’d spent every Wednesday for the first five years of my life. My breath was ragged as the pastor read it over the shrieks of the toddler out in the hallway and the squeals as the baby stood and bounced on my lap.

The children were a welcome distraction, some would say, and maybe I felt that way, too, at the time. But, through the shrieks and wails and chuckles and coos, it was impossible to see the full shape of my grief. 

In tending to my children, I never got to say a proper goodbye.

*****

Six years passed, and yes, we lost some people we loved. But they were old, victims of lives well-lived. It all happened at a distance.

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And then, one crisp March day, another phone call came through. My husband this time, calling from his parents' house. His father had gone to sleep the night before, and he had never woken up. This huge and generous man, who stopped by every so often to drop off flowers for my daughters or chocolate for me. The man who had nicknamed his last grandbaby, still quietly incubating inside me, Wolfgang. The man who welcomed me into his family like his own daughter.

Gone.

My daughters, now almost seven and nine, were sitting at the kitchen table, watching an online art tutorial. They were getting along for once, having fun, even.

They were going to be crushed.

I managed to sneak outside, walk out to the street, and make a panicked call to my parents, but by the time I made it back into the house I had sucked it all back in. I did all the tasks of the day. I coloured with them. I fed them lunch. I watched a movie with them. I let them hold on to normal for a little while longer.

"Where’s Daddy?" they kept asking.

I swallowed and uttered the only truth I could. "He’s at Grandma and Pop’s house."

When I could delay no longer, I sat my girls down on either side of me, and I said it the only way I knew how. "The reason Daddy’s been gone today is because Pop died last night."

They looked like I’d punched them in the gut. The transition from "generic Thursday afternoon" to "the day Pop died" was instant and brutal. We sat there on the couch together for what could have been an hour, crying and holding each other. 

"But we were just at his birthday party," one of them said between sobs. "He’s never going to get to meet the baby," said the other. The thought broke all of us at once.

Listen to This Glorious Mess, where Leigh Campbell and Tegan Natoli discuss talking to our children about death. Post continues after podcast. 


This time, rather than being oblivious, my babies were grieving, too. And my ability to access my own grief was more dampened still.

I needed to guard myself. If I cried, they would cry. And sometimes I could handle that. But sometimes, I couldn’t.

If I wanted to visit the cemetery, they were there, too, and the trip became about them, not me. Yes, I taught them it was okay to grieve. Sure, I showed them how they could talk to Pop even though he’s gone. I even took the toddler there once.

But, with my children surrounding me, there was no space for my grief to expand.

*****

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I cried with my mum when my grandfather died. But after that, I was so wrapped up in myself that I didn’t even process her loss. It wasn’t on my radar that she was going through something arguably more traumatic and that she needed the time and the space to grieve.

That’s not to say a child should be concerned with her parent’s grief. But I’ve come to understand: The way we are able to grieve changes as we grow with our children.

When I was a kid, I could be sad whenever I wanted. I cried when I felt like it, closed my bedroom door and laid back on my bed and let the tears streak down my cheeks and pool in my ears. I flipped through the dozen flannel shirts in my closet, not wanting to wear them for fear the scent of my grandfather would escape them.

Grief is inconvenient for adults  —  especially parents. 

Nowadays, it’s like I have to block out grief time in my calendar, fitting it in between meetings or during the baby’s nap. But I’ve got other things to do during those times, and honestly the last thing I want is to be sobbing uncontrollably right before I hop on my next conference call or collapse into bed for the night.

And when I feel sadness welling up during the general course of the day, I have to assess my environment carefully. Are the kids around? If not, are they likely to come around? If so, am I prepared to deal with the effects of my grief on them? Do I have a few minutes to be sad?

Even just sitting down and writing this story about how my 'motherness' dictates how I grieve took two weeks and a dozen sittings, book ended by school drop-offs and fussy wake-ups and very little time to actually feel the deep pain that still cuts hot through my chest when I remember my grandpa, lying in that bed, looking like he was already halfway to the other side, or when I realise my father-in-law will never know we named the baby after him.

It’s important for my kids to know sadness and grief are natural. They can sit with me as I cry, and they know I’ll hold them and stroke their hair as they get out all their feelings onto my freshly pressed work shirt. But just as important is finding time and space for my own grief that doesn’t involve my children.

And that can be easier said than done.

Nicci is an author, teacher, and mother living in Boston with her husband and children. Some of her hobbies are singing in the car, escaping from rooms, dreaming about a full night’s sleep, and perpetual cleaning. Along with sharing personal stories from all corners of her life, she writes books and short stories. Look for her debut novel, tentatively titled The Other Women, coming in 2022. For more from Nicci, you can follow her on  FacebookInstagram, and Twitter on  @kadilakwrites, or find her at her website: http://niccikadilak.com/

Feature Image: Getty.

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