I spent the weekend nursing my children’s wounds. Not new wounds – although my daughter Lottie did catch her finger in a door and my son Caden stepped on a tack.
These wounds were old ones caused by my husband’s and my divorce years earlier. Our divorce is amicable. We’ve each remarried, and our households are stable. We coparent effectively. Given our circumstances, we’re coping very well. Still, the loss of our intact family affects our children, and likely always will. Our divorce changed the course of our lives. Even though it has not been aggravated or repeated, the wound of our divorce causes our children grief. As a divorce and stepfamily writer, you’d think I’d be ever-ready to handle the grief that surfaces now and then from the changes that have occurred in our family, but it still surprises me.
“This house is so stressful,” my son Simon snapped. “Everyone is always coming and going. It’s never quiet.” I moved into solution mode asking, “How can we make things better? Let’s talk about it.”
The conversation devolved quickly. He’s unhappy. He’s not sure why. I’m too hard on him about grades and work, and all the other things mothers are too hard on their sons about. He’s always moving between houses, and each house is filled with people and noise. He unloaded, growing taller as we talked, detailing the ways his life doesn’t match his expectations.
Caden watched Simon talk to me, in the sneaky, intrusive way little brothers spy on their older siblings. He watched Simon unload and shifted from snoop to caretaker, worrying about me. Lottie took one look at her brothers and me and began gnaw to on her fingernail.
All four of us were suddenly swirling in a vortex of negative emotion. I’m worried about Simon, Caden’s worried about me, Lottie’s sad and Simon’s mad. I know from experience those emotions can trigger other, deeper ones for us, as they do for anyone touched by grief.
My first line of defense is distractions, but even milkshakes couldn’t fix it.
I called their father Billy and asked him to stop by under the pretense of dropping a forgotten school book. Sometimes we do that – ask the other to stop by so the kids can spend some time in the kitchen with both parents. Sometimes it helps reset them, reminding them that even after the divorce we are still a family. It worked a little. Simon joked with us both about his history homework and Lottie sat in her daddy’s lap for a bit.
After Billy left, a movie together on the couch and our favorite comfort food dinner helped hold everyone’s focus. At bedtime, Lottie worried that I was sad. I answered honestly. I was sad that her brother Simon was feeling unhappy, but that sadness is a normal part of life. I reminded her she doesn’t have to take care of her Mama. We read an extra two pages in her book, and I sat with her until her breathing grew slow and deep.
Simon had moved entirely past his meltdown by bedtime, as teenagers do. I revisited it, telling him that happiness all the time isn’t a realistic goal, but a thread of contentment in one’s life absolutely is. That I would work with him, his dad and his stepparents to get to a solution that provided more happiness if this one didn’t. “I’m fine, Mom. It’s fine.” And just like that, I was dismissed, the topic closed.
I found Caden crying in his bed as I went to tuck him in. He’d been outwardly the happiest of the three all day, his pleases and thank yous and I love you moms at the ready. Exhausted and tucked under the covers, the effort caught up to him. “I’m sorry about Simon,” he whispered. “When Simon is mad or Lottie is yelling you look so sad,” he continued, “I don’t want you to be sad.”
I don’t know what to say, so after a long pause, I tell him the truth. That I am sad. That I feel the hurt his brother and sister and he express keenly. That hurt can sometimes trigger other feelings, especially for people like us, who have survived loss. That a good and happy life can still sometimes be sad or hard, and that’s what today was. I stroke his back and he’s asleep almost before I finish talking.
This morning, all is well. Simon wore a coat to the bus stop, Caden remembered his debate club meeting after school, and Lottie brushed her hair without being told 17 times. They are cheerful and chatty and focused on the week ahead. I send my children off to school and mourn our broken hearts.
I mourn and I remember. I remember healing takes time and requires repeated nursing, even years after the wound. I remember that these days are better in every way than the early days of our grief. I remember our tribe is large and we are not alone. I remember we are strong.