Does Grief Have An Expiration Date?

Anja Tyson shares words on navigating grief with her three year old…

I think when Matilda’s dad passed away last year, I spent entire nights awake on the internet researching how to help very small children cope with the loss of a parent, and then tailoring all of that advice to fit our particular, sort of peculiar, life and spirituality. I came up with a script that I hoped was the best solution to help her understand without scaring her, and to help her grieve in whatever small way a 28-pound person grieves. The hardest part was to explain the concept of Death, something most adults cannot even grapple with, to a tiny child. A child is not equipped to understand the conditions or the concept, generally; and I had to explain it within the context of losing her own father.

For months I lived in fear of unscripted events throughout the day, prompting questions about Death that I did not have the perfect answer for. We found a beautiful dead dragonfly on the ground in the Financial District; Matilda couldn’t stop talking about it. In roughly every Disney movie ever one of the parents dies—a hundred questions followed. Superhero roleplay at school became a minefield; all of her friends were constantly “killing” each other. I kept thinking of the Five Stages of Grief, and due to the way I learned about and processed Grief, my subconscious, a fan of formulas and routine, kept reinforcing to me that Grief possesses finite timeframe. No matter I was living the contrary, something in me was waiting to not have to deal with it anymore.

Then this week I look up, and it’s been a year. A year of talking every single day about Death with a preschooler. And we are nowhere we were a year ago. In fact, sometimes we are actually worse off because Matilda will suddenly become worried that if I get sick, I will disappear and die, and we will go through a phase where she falls asleep in my bed with a claw grip on my arm to keep me from leaving.

I think I knew this all along, but for the case of this kid (and maybe others, that’s why I’m writing this), there IS no Five Stages And Then It’s Over Grief. There’s every day and every year and uncovering and unpacking and looking at things in new ways and realizing your normal is different than other peoples’ normal. It’s coping with those differences, and, as time goes by, discovering more about this person that she still remembers, but has stopped developing new memories with.

I have so little experience with loss in my life, for which I am grateful. Now, from this vantage point, I view Matilda’s reaction as a more accurate means of defining Grief. Someone lives; we live our relationship with them; then they cease to exist on this earth, and yet we go on living with that relationship. We don’t form new memories, but we still discover new things about them. We become older and wiser and can look at this person from different angles and with fresh eyes because we go on living. As long as that is true is as long as we should be able to grieve. We shouldn’t spend our lives in black robes moaning over past losses; but let’s not try to pretend we have any control over death by attempting to regulate grief to some length of time. It’s an ever-changing emotion because as long as you are alive, you are ever-changing; and maybe allowing ourselves to be humans in this one way is control enough over death on its own.

Thank you so much, Anja. More from Anja right here. 
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