Friday, November 29, 2013

Four

Dear Bug,

It's been four years since you left.

Actually, it was four years on Wednesday, but as we've discussed before, it's easier for all of us if we simply think of your departure date as "The day after Thanksgiving", rather than a numerical date.  It's easy to remember, and it keeps Thanksgiving from ever coinciding with The Worst Thing Ever.  Which we all want to avoid.

Four years. You have been gone for four years. It's really hard to fathom this, and as I considered it today, it occurred to me that the day will come, in the not too distant future, when I will have been without you in my life longer than I had you here.  But then, we both know that's not really true, because you have stayed by my side these last four years in a way I have trouble explaining to people without them turning their heads slightly to the side and giving me a look that is generally reserved for the senile or the intoxicated."How interesting", they say, "and what does that feel like?" 

How do I tell people what it feels like to have you by my side?  Do I tell them that you hold my hand in the car, that I can still feel your lovely little pudgy hand in mine as I drive?  Do I tell them that we talk at night, under the stars, when I see Orion's belt? That I cannot see the planet Venus without hearing you say "She's beautiful tonight, isn't she, Mama?"  That I ask your advice about everything from work to relationships to what to have for dinner?

Yeah; I leave most of that out of the conversation, because people look at me funny. "Mrs. Sump, it's time for your medication now."

So I've been meaning to ask you about how you like your new digs.  I know that cardboard box, "The FEMA trailer", was comfy and all, but I hope you like the urn you dad and I finally found.  I think it's pretty.  Heather think it looks like it has wings. I like it. It's mad of wood; it was important that you be in something that was once alive, rather than some old rock.

Anyway, Bug, I'm rambling a bit, I think because my world feels normal now, and I'm not really sure how to handle that. You know I miss you every day. I think about you every day. But I think about other things now too. And frankly that makes me feel a little bit guilty. You are still the greatest, most beautiful joy I've ever had in my life. I still love you to the depth of my soul and I know that after this world is done, you will be there, still, to hold my hand and listen to my heart.

I miss you, little Bug, and I love you more than I have words to say. Never stop walking by my side.


Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parenting a Teen In Need, and What It's Taught Me About Myself, Part 2



Part 2:  I know you are, but what am I?


You’re just a big, fat, lying, stinky butt-head!


I know you are, but what am I?

I find that kids are just a lot smarter than we give them credit for. 

One of my favorite self-help books is The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz.  It purports to be a book of Toltec wisdom.  I have no idea if it’s actually Toltec or not, and frankly I don’t care if it was handed down by aliens from Rigel 7.  It’s good stuff and I’m consistently amazed how often I refer to the Agreements.  I won’t give away all the good stuff here (because really, you should just read it for yourself), but the gist of the book is four pretty simple statements:


The first one is “Be Impeccable With Your Word”.

Second, “Don’t Assume

Third, “Don’t Take Anything Personally

Fourth, “Always Do Your Best

In practice, one of the take-away messages from combining these four Agreements is, “Don’t let your internal poisonous feelings about yourself spill over to your interactions with others.  In fact, while you’re at it, stop drinking all that poison.  It’s going to make you sick.”


Pretty simple stuff, right?

Maybe not so much.  At least not for me.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but self-loathing?  It’s an active hobby for me.  I can sing you an album of my greatest hits entitled, Reasons I Hate Me, including Bonehead Things I’ve Done that I’m Still Embarrassed About, 104 Reasons I Hate My Thighs, I’m Not Smart Enough For This Job, Sweet Resentment, I Know You’re All Laughing Behind My Back, and My Parents Are Secretly Ashamed Of Me.


Oh, you have that album, too?  How about that?


OK, so here’s the really ugly thing I learned about me while learning to parent Daisy Mae:  Every time I put her down, every time I told her she was lazy, disrespectful, slobby, bitchy.  Every time I insisted that she should comply, “BECAUSE I SAID SO”.  Every time I imposed a completely ludicrous, arbitrary or unreasonable constraint on her time and energy, it was actually less about her and more about my own feelings of insecurity.  Every time my voice echoed so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t hear her, it was actually the voice of my own self-loathing making all that noise.


Now, let’s be honest.  Teenagers are lazy, disrespectful, slobby and bitchy.  And they smell funny (true story).  But really?  That’s their problem. And Daisy Mae is actually smart enough to know what she’s doing.  In fact, when she’s being bitchy and disrespectful, it’s because her self-loathing Greatest Hits are playing in her own head.  The sad reality is that a lot of kids in foster care have the live, platinum, double album of self-loathing greatest hits.  So what the heck do I gain by listening to her album, much less singing along?

As a parent, I became a lot happier when I recognized my own insecurities and baggage and learned to turn them off when dealing with Daisy Mae. What does that let me do?  It lets me be more objective in qualifying rules and consequences.  It lets me not take it personally when rules get violated.  It lets me not drink poison when she hands it to me.  (Oh yeah, that poison thing?  It goes both ways) and it lets me hear her out on issues of rules and conduct (hers and mine) without feeling threatened.  Oh, and it lets me teach her some new songs, like Wow, You Are So Good At Teaching Others, I Love Your Sense Of Style, That Dinner Was Wonderful, and You're Going To Be RemarkableAm I perfect at it?  Not by a long shot.  But it’s better that it was around our place, and the less I let my insecurities and self-loathing cloud my interactions, the less she does as well.


And here’s the bonus: In not sharing my self-loathing greatest hits with her, I find that my own album plays at a much lower volume than it used to. Who knows?  Maybe I can stomp on that Greatest Hits album one of these days. (Yeah; not holding my breath on that one.)


You’re a beautiful, successful person.


I know you are, but what am I?

Next:  Loving them by loving you and loving me and...wait, what?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Parenting a Teen in Need, and What it's Taught Me About Myself

If you've read this blog for more than about three posts, you know that Mr. B and I adopted a beautiful, feisty teenager a couple years back.  Daisy Mae had been in and out of several homes and had lived through some not so great experiences in the lives before she came to us. Those stories aren't mine to share here; suffice it to say, however, that our life experiences during the first fourteen years she'd walked this Earth were vastly different.

Things didn't get much better after she arrived; five months after she moved in, the day after Thanksgiving, she watched in horror as the new sister she had just started to bond with died on a crowded skating rink, her mother vainly performing CPR. I remember looking over my shoulder at her and seeing her face change from shock to alarm to emotionless vacancy, tears pooling on the ice at her feet.  I remember getting in the car to follow the ambulance to the hospital, and turning to her.  "This isn't going to have a happy ending, Baby."

She stared ahead, "It never does."

That's where we started.

If there is a silver lining in losing the Bug when we did, it is this:  We had to learn to parent all over again, from scratch.  If that sounds like a sort of crappy silver lining, I suppose that's because it totally sucked while we were going through it. Looking back, however, it was a set of life experiences together that helped make us a strong family, and in a weird way, I'm grateful for it.

I'm thinking about this today, because Mr. and I are working with another family who have also taken on a teen.  This child has an equally difficult and heartbreaking past, and this family is utterly unprepared to deal with the challenges posed by the situation.  They don't have the benefit of having suffered a family-shattering tragedy that forces them to completely re-assess their value system and what's truly important.  (yes, I've just called losing Kes a benefit twice on the same page; bear with me).  The outcome of this is that their household has become an active war zone and the child is now occupying an extra bedroom at my house.

In the process of trying to help them through this crisis, and maybe come back together as a family, Mr. and I are having to deconstruct all the important and painful lessons we have learned in the last four years and try to communicate them as teaching moments. So I figure, if I have to untangle all this, I might as well write it down somewhere.

So here goes, over some period of days and weeks to come:

Part I: Stitch was right

"Ohana means family.  Family means nobody gets left behind.  Or Forgotten.

My family is small, and broken.  But it is...good."

Stitch, Lilo and Stitch, 2002. Walt Disney Company


Photo credit here: 

When I stop to think about it, my greatest fear is abandonment. When I was little, there was always that nagging fear that some day I was going to do something really terrible and my parents would stop loving me (they never did, by the way, even when I tried to "tool" my father's leather chair). I bet most of us have the same fear at some level. It never goes away, really. We want to be loved, cherished, needed. We want to belong. It is because we have this fear of abandonment that many of us try to break down relationships.  We are afraid of being cast out and so we try to make our greatest fears happen on our own terms. We pick fights with our spouses. We sabotage our jobs. We disengage from our teens. And when the rejection comes, we can say "I told you so!" and add another layer to our emotional scars.

Teens, especially those who have been left behind before, need to know that you will love them in spite of themselves. Troubled teens are so hurt from their past rejections, and so afraid of the next rejection that they will try to make you reject them.  They will lie, cheat, steal, strike out, scream, break things, just so you will throw them out and they can get it over with. Because in their minds they know it's coming. It's up to us as parents to break that fear cycle. In fact, it's just at the time that you MOST want to throw their ungrateful, lazy, disrespectful, smelly carcasses out the door that you have to re-affirm to them that you will keep them NO MATTER WHAT. Man, it's hard. It's hard to love someone who is trying really hard to be unlovable.

That tension, that knowledge that the next argument is out there, can be unnerving.  So much so that we sometimes set these relationships with our teens up to fail. We become arbitrary about rules.  We escalate arguments. We threaten them with the very thing they fear.  "If you don't like the rules here, you're welcome to get out there in the world and see how you do on your own!"

I became a happier parent the day I learned to say, "Do your worst. I refuse to throw you out. I refuse to reject you. I refuse to hit back. I refuse to fight you. Scream. Yell. Slam doors. Break dishes. Call me a "bitch" under your breath every day. I will love you NO MATTER WHAT."

That message diffuses tension. It disarms fear. And over time (not very much, either), it removes the barrier to their opening up to grow and love you back. In refusing to reject, we help avoid being rejected. And here's the best part. It costs nothing. You risk not a thing by offering unconditional love. And what you gain is a stronger family, more love back, and a lot fewer headaches.

In other words, a lot more Ohana.


Next:  Part 2 -- I know you are, but what am I?

Monday, January 07, 2013

Monday Mourning

Three years ago, almost to the day, a dear friend of mine forwarded me an article and told me to read it.  It was from the New Yorker, entitled "Good Grief", by Meghan O'Rourke.  I just happened to come across it today. 

In a lot of ways, this article became my Grieving Bible.  I've passed it on to several friends who have lost loved ones, and I hope that it's helped them as much as it helped me.

It's not a guide to grieving, but rather, a review of articles written about grief and grieving and how our societal view of grief has changed over the last 100 years or so.  As you might expect, because I am, (as my therapist describes me), "the most intentional person in the Western Hemisphere", the idea of having several potential models for grief to review and use as touchstones was reassuring for me.  Especially in those first few months after Kes died, when I was flailing around like a spider who had lost three legs, being able to read the article over and over and remind myself that "Prigerson and Maciejewski say that grief peaks at six months in most people" and "Bonnano (2007) indicates that it's not unusual for some people to be able to adapt with resilience to even devastating loss", made me feel like I was "normal".  Whateverthehell "normal" is for someone in my situation.

One of the major assertions of the article (albeit a subtle one, which I guess is why I like it) is that we don't do a good enough job of giving a public forum to our grief.  In other words, we don't mourn like we did in years past. She cites study after study that shows that those who don't have a public forum for grief, especially after a sudden loss, have more health problems, are more likely to suffer from protracted episodes of acute grief later, and generally have a tougher time coping with their loss.

OK, so why am I talking about this?  Yeah, there's a point in here, if only I can get to it...

I very deliberately have not talked about the horrific episode in Newtown, CT last month, and the empathy I have felt for each and every one of the families of those angels, big and small, who lost their lives in that senseless act of brutality. This Christmas, while our family celebrated in a more joyful and "normal" way than we have in the last three years, my heart quietly ached for all those families who were facing the utter devastation of that loss this Christmas. I was surprised that more than one of my co-workers, having watched the news coverage of the shootings, came up to me in tears and embraced me, saying, "I have thought of you all weekend; every time I saw that on the news, I thought of you.  For some reason, I didn't understand until now how devastating that was for you."

Surprising also was the reaction of Mr. B, who, upon watching the news coverage, said, "It's not fair.  You know, thousands of people lose their children every year, and they don't get a big thing on the news and parks named after their children and stuff like that.  What about those people?  Who cries with them?  Even we had news coverage and strangers calling and consoling us and scholarships and trees and stuff.  What about the people whose kids die in accidents or from cancer?  They get nothing.  It's not fair.  How do those parents cope?" 

And then today, one of my friends posted a Facebook status about tragedy and how we can choose whether or not to rise above it.  I commented that tragedy comes into our lives to teach us compassion.

But that compassion is only useful if we know about the pain that others feel.  And our society encourages us to hide that pain.  Ms. O'Rourke may be more on target than any of us realize.  It is, perhaps, a genuine loss to our humanity that we do not mourn as a community in a more tangible way when we lose one of our own.

Which brings me back here.  Several people have asked me over the years how I managed to pick up and carry on after we lost the Bug.  My standard answer is, "You do what you have to do; sometimes there's no choice."  But that's not really true. In large part, I was able to pick up and carry on because I had an incredibly wide, diverse and compassionate circle of friends, both local and across the country, who let me talk and cry and rage and think, without my having to lean too hard on any one of them.  But it's also, in no small part, because I had this space to write and to grieve in a more public way.  Because through these pages, I was able to mourn, in public, and have my cries heard and echoed.

So if you're reading this, Thank you.

And please, don't be afraid to feel your own grief, to yearn, to mourn, if that's what you need to do.  Even years later, a good cry is a beautiful thing.

And if you haven't read that article yet, do read it. Print it out. And if it touches you, write her a letter and say thanks. That's what I'm going to do tonight, I think.