Life / Parenting

Blurring the Lines – 9-year-old as supporter and caregiver

On September 25, I got news that a friend of mine had passed away. Despite not having a Facebook account, for I had deleted (different from deactivating) mine 7 months ago, in an attempt to forge more meaningful relationships, I found out the tragic news quite early in contrast to others when we compared notes. I had been driving my oldest daughter into the city for school. It was about 8:10 am and we were just coming off the highway from our rural area, and into the city, when I heard the vibration of my phone against the cup holder it was in. I waited until we came to a stop at a red light and read the text message.

Hey Brandy, not sure if you know already but Brian passed away this weekend.

That’s it. No details, but a simple text inquiring if I had heard the news. I was in shock. Brian? That was pretty much impossible. Although I had outgrown the invincibility mentality for myself, I still had this idea that Brian was one of the lucky ones. He could continue with his good-time-guy way of life for a good long time (he was always getting into mischief) and he wouldn’t suffer any major repercussions. Boy was I wrong. 32 years didn’t fall into the category of a good long time, at least not in my eyes.

What? No… How? :(

I respond to her, in disbelief that while doing something so mundane as driving my daughter to school, I was communicating about the death of a very good friend. I ask her a couple more questions, not entirely sure how to process the information I’ve learned. I drop my daughter off at school and drive back home, I experience spasms of tears, waves of nausea, and I desperately want to make it to a bathroom so I can throw up. This is only the beginning of the profound loss I feel.

The day I find out is also the day I start a new job. I muddle my way through, thankful that I have something to focus my energy on. However, when I get through the workday and pick up my children and drive on home, I have a few moments to myself and the tears come. They take small breaks, but don’t really stop until I finally sleep.

When my partner, Sean, calls in the evening (he is working out-of-town), I try to talk to him about the death. But he’s not very good at dealing with strong emotions, especially not ones associated with loss, whereas, I’m almost an expert at allowing myself to be consumed by it. I realize that he’s not ready to talk about what I’m going through and that’s precisely what I need; I need to express how much I miss Brian and why. How so much of my teenage years are wrapped up in this wonderful, vivacious, soul. How thankful I am that him and I had a chance to reconnect a few years ago. But this makes Sean wholly uncomfortable. After all, he and I were split up when Brian and I did reconnect. He’s never asked for clarification on what that means exactly. I quickly pass off the phone to my daughter so she can say goodnight to him and when he wants to talk to me again I refuse to take the phone. I don’t want a half-assed attempt at understanding from someone who really can’t right now. And that’s okay that he doesn’t, but it leaves me feeling like I’d rather be alone with my grief for the time being.

I go out to the couch in our sitting room with the intention of reading to my youngest daughter her bedtime story. She looks upset, so I ask her, “is there something wrong?”

She’s on the verge of tears and answers me, “no I’m just tired.” I have my doubts and I gently prod until she tells me that she’s not sure how to say what she wants to and I ask her if she can just try. She isn’t the most communicative and it requires a lot of patience to work up to her being comfortable enough to verbalize her feelings. Finally she gets it out, “you looked upset earlier and that made me feel upset.”

This of course, brings on fresh wave tears and I choose honesty to move this conversation forward. I admit readily through my tears that I was and still am very upset. I ask my daughter if she knows why I am. She knows the answer — because my friend has died. I let her know that it is okay for me to feel very sad and upset right now and that I don’t know how long I’m going to feel this way. I tell her that I don’t exactly know how to deal with the loss I feel, but again it is completely normal and okay to feel the sad emotions.

My daughter, who is 9, reaches her arm across me to give me a hug and then takes my hand in hers and simply holds it. She speaks no words but allows me to be comforted by her seemingly small, yet in actuality grand, gesture and also to just be in that moment, saddened by my loss. I melt into a puddle of tears.

When I gain a slight bit of composure, I admit that I am probably in no shape to read her a bedtime story despite my intentions, and gently ask her if she would mind reading me one. She’s more than willing and asks what I might like to hear. I tell her that I trust her judgment and that I am willing to listen to anything she wants to choose. She disappears into her bedroom for a few minutes, presumably to find just the right book and she returns with her well-loved copy of Mo Willem’s “My Friend is Sad.” I see it and a few tears escape at the thought she put into choosing this book specifically for me. She reads it out loud, with me cuddled into her, complete with inflection. It makes me both laugh and again cry with renewed intensity.

This first day of loss is such a tumultuous one. I don’t know how to feel or what to think or how to deal with my loved ones around me. I shirk my duties as a mom. I drink a bottle of wine. I talk to Brian out loud. I send him a message on my new Facebook account, cursing myself that I didn’t keep my old one. I no longer have access to all the messages we sent to each other and this fact is devastating to me considering the circumstances. I am a soggy mess by the time I pour myself into my bed and try to sleep. It is a very difficult day all around for me.

Ultimately when I look at the situation in a more thoughtful manner, I am able to recognize that my 9-year-old offered me more understanding and compassion than most adults know how to. She had no assumptions that she could make anything better for me, yet she humbly offered what she could. This is the real support of a family. It is not always the parent who must hold the child’s hand through a difficult time. A child, even a 9-year-old such as my daughter, is more than capable of the insight needed (sometimes more capable than adult) to be the one to take on the role of caregiver or supporter. And while it is not healthy for a child to constantly take on that responsibility, we must recognize that it is okay for that change of roles once in a while as different situations warrant it.

The roles within the family unit are for the most part pretty well-defined. The parents or other adults are caregivers. Sometimes older siblings step into that role depending on the circumstances. Yet, sometimes, we are thrown into a situation that we haven’t dealt with before, and the roles of the family members blur into something we’ve never seen before. We have the opportunity to take on less traditional roles and truly experience the complexities of being a member of a family. Family roles need not be so rigid that we don’t have opportunity to experience those blurred lines or the compassion and support of a 9-year-old.

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One thought on “Blurring the Lines – 9-year-old as supporter and caregiver

  1. Pingback: The Passage of Time | oh lovely existence

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