A friend of mine – whose own father had taken his life when my friend was not much older than my kids – told me “Grief is like a heavy sandbag at your feet. And if you don’t pick it up, it will trip you, for the rest of your life. But when you do pick it up, you will notice there’s a little tiny hole… That’s where the grains of sand start to fall out.”
I love this description of grief. It is, in fact, so heavy. It is hard to explain the constant weight… Not just Father’s Day and Thanksgiving, but the every days. I remember the first field trip permission slip that came home from the elementary school after Sam’s death. I was mostly composed, until I reached the bottom of the page, where the directions read “Both parents must sign unless single parent has sole legal custody.” Sole legal custody. Those were some heavy words I hadn’t thought about yet. Accurate, but painful. Single parent. More heavy words I couldn’t ignore but wasn’t quite ready to accept.
And yet, sometimes the best way to take the sting out of those words is to own them. One of the boys came home from school one day, upset because a child at school was taunting him by calling him “dead father guy.” Dead father guy? True. Hurtful. But not even remotely clever.
We cried, we talked. I intentionally and with considerable restraint did not ask the child’s name so that my sons wouldn’t have to visit their sole surviving parent in the penitentiary. We crafted our own factually correct but insolent phrase: dead dad dude, as in “That would be dead dad dude to you.” I don’t know that he ever actually used it, but he was prepared just in case.
Like many parents of young children, Sam and I were very careful about the words we used, especially when the boys were around. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of Sam’s death the children heard a lot of words that were previously unfamiliar to them. Some that the boys thought sounded offensive and insulting, like “beloved.” And several expletives, which we now refer to as “Uncle Jose’s Colorful Words.”
As a family we have subsequently been much more lax about the use of certain words. I explained to the boys what the words meant and how such words were used. We have clear parameters for at-home use – no brother-bashing with four letter words, but sometimes we use strong words for strong feelings. That having been said, even God Himself cannot save you from the principal if you drop an F-bomb at school. “Mommy,” my son said one day after using an expletive to describe his father’s shortcomings, “You are right. Sometimes those little words really come in handy.”
So one day, my then 7 year old is in a particularly foul mood, and he goes outside to break big rocks into little rocks. I check on him from time to time, but he keeps telling me to go away. Eventually, he flings open the door. “Mommy, what’s for fucking dinner?” And he stands there defiantly, glaring at me.
So I look him straight in the eye, take a deep breath and let him have it: “fucking mac and cheese.”
In that moment I knew I’d be on the short list for Mother of the Year.
Sometimes those little words are nothing more than effective attention-getters. My boy needed me to see how much pain he was in. My cat does a similar thing when he’s in pain – he pees on the furniture. That gets our attention, especially when he is aiming for the children sitting on the sofa, and gives us another opportunity to employ one of Uncle Jose’s colorful words.
The boys went to a weekend retreat for grieving children about a year after their father died. It is a healing experience in many ways, to be with other children who have lost either a parent or a sibling, and to be able to talk about all of it. Or none of it. They see that they are not alone, as each struggles with the weight of his own sandbag. They play games. They eat lots of snacks.
When the boys came home, one of them had a lot of questions about the details of his father’s death. Where did he jump from? Was there blood there? Is it still there? How do you know? Have you been there? Can I go there?
The next morning we went to daddy’s “jumping spot” in Pasadena. It strikes me that Sam jumped at the intersection of two one-way streets. I have been here myself. It is not an easy thing to do. At first I avoided this intersection entirely, and then I circled it like a shark. Eventually, I drove through the intersection and was grateful that the light was green. The next time the light was red. A time or two after that, I actually parked and got out of the car.
So my little boy arrives in this same place. He looked up to the top of the structure, and looked down at the sidewalk. It is a long way to fall. He walked up to the corner of the building and kicked it.
We talked briefly to a woman at the shop on the ground floor, and it happens that she was there on the day Sam died. She was kind enough to point out exactly where Sam landed. She gave us permission to write on the sidewalk.
We had brought sidewalk chalk so my son could write his father a note. He squats down to write and suddenly I panic. My little darling is crouched down to write with his orange chalk, and I realize that I don’t know what he’s about to write here on the sidewalk for God and everyone to see. He starts writing…
“Dad is a…”
“Sweetie Pie, you know you cannot use any of Uncle Jose’s colorful words, right?”
“I know, Mom.”
This is my son writing his father a note. It says, “DAD is AWESOME.”
A bunch of grains fell out of the sandbag that day.
My friend was right about that sandbag. Two things happened when we picked up the weight of our grief – little by little, the sandbag started to get lighter, and day by day we grew stronger. Wise advice, some heavy lifting, a little hole, a good variety of words.
From his vantage point of experience, my friend predicted, “You will be amazed at what you and your boys can accomplish.” He was right about that too.
Wishing you light and strength. And a few powerful words.