How my daughter taught me joy can live alongside grief

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto 

My daughter turned cartwheels on her brother's grave. It wasn't something I expected.

After my 15-year-old son died in an accident - he was here one morning, gone the next - I spent a lot of time researching grief. I was afraid the tragedy would scar my 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son.

I met with Zack's and Lizzie's teachers and guidance counsellors. I ordered books on grief and play therapy and how to talk to your teen. For weeks, the UPS driver dropped off baskets of food and flowers along with cardboard boxes filled with books.

The first thing I learned was that the seven stages of grief are a lie. The image makes you think of a staircase moving toward something good.

Each hard-earned step leads you to the next one. Your first trip to the supermarket. Check. The first holiday without him. Check. You hold onto these milestones, these little gold stars of achievement, because you believe they lead you to the next step.

But grief is a slippery slope. It's not a staircase, but more like an endless game of chutes and ladders. We'd leap toward one step, only to slide down three steps below.

I read that my daughter needed to play through her emotions. I dug out the dolls she'd only put away a few months before. I climbed the stairs into the attic and pulled out the rocking chair, the one all three children had used.

I placed it at the end of the hallway. I added a low shelf and filled it with dolls and stuffed animals, and a little rug so she could sit and rock away her sadness. She tucked her doll in a blanket and crooned over her, telling her everything would be all right.

Zack's grief was wrapped in anger, held in tight with clenched fists. He needed to move, so our calendar filled with basketball games and clinics.

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After school, I watched him through the window as he walked through the backyard alone and climbed onto the trampoline. He jumped until he couldn't catch his breath.

I spent hours each night flipping through the books. As a parent, my first instinct was to shield them from sorrow. But the books taught me that they needed to move through their grief, not away from it.

I said nothing when Lizzie came off her bus, her face crumpled. Her brother Brendan used to ride his scooter down every afternoon to meet her. He'd carry her books up the hill and they'd talk about math and the new game she'd learned in gym.

Instead of pushing away her pain, I swung her backpack on my shoulder. I squeezed her hand and let her cry. By the time we reached our house, her tears were gone.

When Zack's face flushed an angry red and he ran up the stairs and slammed his door shut, I didn't slide silly notes under his door. I left him alone and when he came out an hour later, I didn't wipe away the tears staining his cheeks. I grabbed a basketball and we went outside and counted how many free throws he could make in a row.

Each day, I scanned their bodies and faces, searching for sadness, despair, anger. I was ready. I knew exactly what to do.

But I wasn't ready for the joy.

It was after my husband Michael took Lizzie to the cemetery, six weeks or so after Brendan had died. I'd gone the week before, holding my children's hands, hiding my emotions. I was grateful when Zack didn't want to go back.

"I'll stay here with him," I said. He left to play basketball in the park and I sat by the window, waiting to comfort my daughter when she came home.

I ran to the door when the car pulled into the driveway. But when she jumped out of the car, her eyes sparkled from excitement, not tears. She smiled at me. "I showed Brendan my cartwheels."

Shocked, my mouth fell open. I glanced sideways at Michael. "At the cemetery?"

She clapped her hands. "I finally did a good one. I had to show him."

I worried what other people would think seeing a child turning cartwheels at the cemetery. But I couldn't help smiling at the joy on her face.

As adults, we carry one emotion into another. We sink into the heaviness of sadness and then carry that weight into times of joy. I couldn't imagine being happy.

I couldn't look at the framed pictures of all three of my children, their arms wrapped around each other. I even turned our wedding photo around, because I couldn't stand remembering a time when everything seemed perfect.

But Zack and Lizzie taught me not to let the sadness bleed into my joy. They knew how to stay in the moment, whether it was a happy or sad time. I watched them cry until their bodies trembled. A few minutes later, they'd be shaking from laughter. They didn't push away their joy.

And we do have those moments of sheer happiness. We have joy in the memories we share and in the love we can still feel, the love that will never fade. It's the flip side of grief, the reward that makes you want to move through all seven stages, even while knowing there will be times you slide back down to the bottom.

We sit around the firepit Brendan built with Michael. We toast hot dogs over the fire. Lizzie tells us about the bee she's certain is a sign from Brendan. When the sky darkens, we hunt for the first star Zack and Brendan used to wish upon. We laugh until our stomachs ache.

I don't carry my sadness into these moments. I let myself feel the joy. It fills me. It makes me want to fling my arms open and turn cartwheels until I'm dizzy with joy.

The Washington Post