The mortality thing

OK, so I promised, a couple of days ago, to fill in on the discussions around Death (yes, with a capital D) that have been a constant theme of the past month.  We have heard, time and time again, about how J had a mommy and a daddy who died, and how he didn’t come out of my tummy, but he came out of the tummy of his mommy who died.  (He’s very clear about exactly who did come out of my tummy – his older sister, now 31 years old, living in England, and preparing to wed).

It came to a head during the middle of last week, when Dad returned from a trip to an out-of-town conference. J had been missing his daddy during most of the five days he was gone. He arrived back in the middle of the night, and then, unfortunately for Dad, he had an appointment with his eye doctor at 8am the next morning, so he was effectively gone again after only a brief time with the boys. I think both the relief of knowing dad was back, but the rapid departure again in the morning disoriented J, and he said in a slightly anguished voice “I miss my mommy and daddy who died.”

“Yes, Sweetie, it’s sad that they had to die,” I said, in my most reassuring voice. “But, I’m sure that they love you, and I’m sure that their love will always be with you.”

“I don’t remember what they looked like,” he said sadly.

That nearly broke my heart. He was too little to remember them, as he was likely about 8months old when he was brought to the orphanage.

The moment passed (or so I thought), and I brought him to school. A few hours later, my cellphone rang, as I was walking to my clinic for the afternoon. It was J’s teacher. After the obligatory and formulaic “Everything’s OK” (but, of course, it never really is, right, or they wouldn’t call?) she told me that J had been in the playground, and had suddenly started crying and saying that he missed his mommy and daddy. I told her about Dad arriving home from a trip in the middle of the night, and that might have disconcerted J’s sense of stability.

But after I hung up with her, I recalled the conversation of the morning, and the many times this month that J has thoughtfully said “I had a mommy and daddy, but they died”. And I realized that the mommy and daddy he was sobbing for may not be the ones he has available now and surrounding him with as much love and security as we can, but those imagined parents that he has no image of, and only a vague conception of who they might be like (we’ve talked a little about how they probably had brown skin, like S and J).

And that evening, we read our Bedtime Shema book, which we try to read most nights. In it, there is a page with an illustration of floating faces outside the child’s window and the words “May G-d watch over us as he watched over those who were here long ago”. Although, the meaning isn’t exactly that those ancestors, and others who came before, are watching us directly, the picture seems to imply that, and I’ve always thought of their parents when we come to that page (not sure if the boys have made that connection consciously).

May God who watched over those who were here long ago, watch over you.

May God who watched over those who were here long ago, watch over you. (From The Bedtime Sh’ma; A Good Night Book, by Sarah Gershman, Illustrations by Kristina Swarner)

So, in the morning, I made a copy of that page, and found a couple of photos of us as a family.

Dad and Big Brother

Dad and Big Brother

Mom, J and Dad

Mom, J and Dad

I printed them out, and showed them to J. We put them in an envelope in his backpack, and brought them to school. When we arrived, I explained to his teacher my theory that his sadness of the day before may have had to do more with his struggle to come to grips with the parents who died, rather than missing us, or it might be a little of both, and I showed her the pictures we brought in.

When dad picked him up in the afternoon, he heard from her that she had used the photos with J once during the day, and it seemed to give him some comfort.  And, the questions have abated, for the moment.

I know, from a personal level, how hard it was for me to lose my father.  With 17 years of solid, direct memories to hang onto, it was still easy to lose that sense of connection. How hard it must be to grieve the loss of parents you never really knew? I’m now thinking of ways to help both our boys find a way to recognize, accept and honor their birth parents, with the knowledge that we may never get much real information about who they were to help fill in the questions that they have now, or may have in the future.

Any thoughts?  Words of experience?  I’m open to suggestions…

3 thoughts on “The mortality thing

  1. Roberta Moss says:

    I think this is the sort of thing that one revisits over and over during a lifetime. Each time we go there we bring a new understand of our loved ones and where we are in the world. When children go through this process it always includes new cognative and emotional development and understanding. When Alex's grandfather died it was almost as if he had to grieve every year. Reviewing his relationship with his grandfather became a normal and central theme. I think/hope this understanding and reflection will help him as an adult when loved ones pass away.

    1. Janaki says:

      Thanks for that perspective on the changing and evolving nature of grief and mourning. It rings true for my own experience – and especially a child growing in his understanding of his relationship to the world and where he comes from. Grief and remembrance are an ongoing process, never completed.

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