There’s a black-and-white picture of my mother at the age of 16 hanging on my living room wall. She’s resting her chin on her hand, and she’s actually wearing a blue star sapphire that my father gave her. My three daughters see that picture every day. My 3-year-old has begun pointing to it and saying, “That’s not my mommy. That’s my grandma.” “Yes, that’s mommy’s mommy,” we all say. Months ago my 7-year-old sat next to me and said, a little out of nowhere, “Your mom and dad are dead. You have no parents.” “That’s true,” I responded. I looked at her green-grey eyes, her lashes, her eyebrows, and she looked right back at me. Then she laid her head on my chest, and I rested my chin on the top of her head.
[Mom, early 1970s]
I savor these moments, when my daughters talk out loud about my mom and my dad and wrestle a little bit with their absence. They have to work things out in their heads about what my parents may have been to them and what we can do as a family to weave them into our lives and how to navigate death’s disruptiveness. This is really important stuff. I know some people think it’s too much for kids – too heavy, too dark, too complicated. But I adamantly disagree. My own experience has taught me that grief needs to be heard and that this kind of openness can be life-saving.
March 1, 1981. I’d turned 5 years old just 4 days before. I was sleeping in my grandmother’s bed like I sometimes did on the weekends. I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a thin line of light at the base of the bathroom door; I looked over and my grandmother was not in bed. Seconds later, she emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed. She knelt next to the bed, got really close to my face, and said to me, “I have to go; your mommy’s sick.” I didn’t sleep the rest of the night – my great aunt read me my favorite books. The Pokey Little Puppy is the one that I remember the most. For minutes at a time during that night, I imagined my mom, shivering in a sick bed, covered in a thick blanket, a thermometer hanging off her lips like a cigarette.
Early the next morning, the front door of my grandmother’s apartment opened, and the white light of the sun burst through it; the dark silhouettes of my father and my grandmother floated through the door like apparitions. My mom wasn’t with them. My dad sat on the sofa in front of me, my grandmother, his mother, seated next to him, and he said, “Your mommy’s in heaven now. She’s with the angels.” In that moment, I immediately realized the permanence of what I’d just heard. Even at the age of 5, when some children are still too young to understand the finality of death, I knew, at my core, in my center, that I would never, ever see my mother again. My research on grief – and I’ve done a lot of research on grief since 1981 – has taught me that children manifest grief very physically. They literally embody their feelings. I walked in circles in the center of my grandmother’s living room over and over and over, stomping my feet.
Raising her hand and reaching out to me, my grandmother offered, “You can call me mommy now.” In a split second, I shot back, “No, you’re not my mommy.” My dad sat quietly with his eyes turned down. This was a remarkable moment, when I think about it, and it marks the point in time when my family and I took two different paths. I was barely five. I’d just learned that my mom was dead. Struggling with their own shock and disorientation, my family tried to fill up the void that had just been created by giving me someone else to call mommy, by restoring a mother in name to our family unit. And I said no: my mother had existed; she could not vanish one night and be replaced the next morning. I knew what I needed in the immediate wake of my mother’s death. I made a choice to acknowledge my profound loss.
Soon I moved in with my grandmother. Pictures of my mother disappeared. My dad went back to work, moved into his own apartment, and eventually started dating again. Years later, on a random weekday afternoon, it was my 13-year-old cousin who told me that my mom had actually been killed in a car accident. She hadn’t died in the sick bed I’d imagined, a thermometer hanging off her lips like a cigarette. That night, as I rode in the backseat of my grandmother’s car on our way home, I glared at the reflection of my grandmother’s brown eyes in the rearview mirror. Why had this been a secret from me? What else didn’t I know about?
Grief literature acknowledges the importance of telling the truth when someone dies, especially to children. Approximately 4% of children between the ages of 5 and 16 have experienced the death of a parent or sibling – that raw number of children in the United States alone is in the millions. Starting on the morning after my mom’s death and for years after, I was denied the opportunity to confront the real reason she was gone. When I finally learned what had happened, I was confused and angry about the barriers that had been imposed around me. And just like before I said no to them.
Time and time again when I was a teenager and young adult, I made public declarations about my lon ging for connection around my mom’s death. I was on a stage as a 16-year-old playing a character named Claire whose parents had died in a car accident, singing a solo called “What is it like to be dead?.” I wrote a 25-page paper in college called “My Silence Aching” and presented it to my father and grandmother. I was out there with my story – I wanted my classmates, family, friends, and teachers to bear witness to my grief. I was compelled – and clearly still am! – to speak out loud about what happened and how I felt. My dad, in his silence, was on the opposite end of the spectrum: he left before my curtain call when I was 16 and didn’t talk to me about anything I wrote in my paper. He was alone. In his head. Retreating from me.
Grief is complicated, and I know it looks different for different people. But bereavement experts say that individuals who mourn in silence sometimes isolate themselves; deny that anything is wrong; and, in some cases, quietly suffer from feelings of shame and guilt. My father mourned in silence, and I witnessed what repressed grief did to him. He became an alcoholic. Always nursing a beer when I was with him, he fit into the New Orleans scene where alcohol really is a part of daily life for a lot of people. He functioned for years in that place, numbing himself a little every day. Eventually he started taking pills. Grief takes up a lot of space in our bodies and minds, and for those who don’t come to terms with grief, loss is intolerable rather than simply painful, and this often leads to self-destructive behavior.
Over the years my dad descended into more serious substance abuse, standing in methadone lines with a friend who actually overdosed and died after one of their trips to the clinic; drinking orange juice and vodka every morning just to take on his day. He eventually lost his job and exhausted his 401K in order to pay his mortgage and lived briefly in his home with no electricity and a foreclosure notice plastered on his front door. In 2011, he came to my city, New York City, for rehab but within five weeks had checked himself out and started drinking again. I bought him a ticket for a Chinatown bus headed south after we fought one night. I said, “You can’t stay in my house and lie to me.” He said, “Please just let me live my life!”
Only once did I really push my dad about his silence. In a difficult email I wrote to him, I alluded to the 30+ years of silence between us and my failed efforts to get him to talk to me. He responded, “I was in the car and held your mother when she died…..why don’t you get it? This has been with me every day since……..I can’t ever forget it. I can’t keep re living it over and over, sweetheart, it’s too painful. Imagine me pulling her thru the window and watching her die…….”
A number of years ago, before my third daughter was even born, I sat with my girls at the dinner table on a summer night. Our kitchen window was opened, letting in the thick humid air that always reminds me of New Orleans. I was asking my girls about their fun-filled day with my devoted sister-in-law. They had gone to a trampoline park and eaten Italian food at a restaurant and customized candy bags at Dylan’s Candy Shop. They giggled as they talked about their day, and we all smiled widely. As my second daughter, only 4-years-old at the time, slow-chewed her chicken feeling perfect exhaustion and contemplated the adventures that awaited her with her aunt the next day, she threw her head back and sighed, “I wish Lii-Lii was our mommy.” I froze. My wide smile went away. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do or say, but as I felt the lump in my throat get bigger and bigger I got up from the table, left my children alone in the kitchen, walked down the hallway, and locked myself in the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet and the tears exploded from my eyes. I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous – she didn’t mean it.” But I kept crying really hard. Within a minute or so, I heard footsteps coming down the hallway, and I opened the bathroom door a crack. My oldest daughter stood there a few feet away, and she motioned her sister, a few steps behind her, to follow her. “I’m sorry,” I cried. “But you know that my mom died when I was a kid. My worst fear in life is that I’m going to die prematurely and that I’m replaceable.” My sobs kept coming. “I don’t want anyone to take my place.” I couldn’t say any more. My two girls walked up to me, they put their arms around me while I sat on the toilet, and my oldest daughter, who was just 7, said, “Mommy, no one can replace you.”
Within a few minutes, we had moved to the living room sofa, where we talked for a long time about my mother’s death. I told them how much I longed for my mom my whole life, and how I wished my dad and I could talk about her. I wanted them to understand why such an innocent comment could trigger such intense emotion, and I wanted them to know that it’s okay to be in pain. That night I thought a lot about the moment my grandmother had said, “You can call me mommy now.” My mother was not replaceable; she would never disappear from my life. With my girls in my arms, I knew that my mother was a part of my daughters’ lives too, and that I was not replaceable either.
In June 2013, my dad’s neighbors called the police because something didn’t smell right. The hazmat team had to enter my dad’s apartment and clean up after his body was removed. The medical examiner asked me for pictures of my father. His tattoos enabled her to definitively identify him. I found out about my father’s death at work, and when I finally walked through the door at home that night, my girls ran up to me. They climbed on my body and wrapped their arms around my neck. I said, “Your Paw-Paw died.” “What happened?” they asked. I said, “He drank too much alcohol. His body became really sick and stopped working.”
I once read that “the great healer of our grief is validation, not time. All grief needs to be…heard.” My grief was never heard, in the way it needed to be, by my father, and his was not heard by me. Weeks after my father’s memorial, I received an email from Allen Champagne, an old friend of my dad’s with whom I had connected at the service. The subject of the email was “details.” Allen wrote:
“I remember looking out my window toward my right and I saw a car ahead on a side road approaching a stop sign. As I was watching the car, I assume Margie was too because all of sudden the car did not stop for the stop sign but accelerated onto the highway. Just as I saw it, Steve saw it and Margie yelled “watch out”. The next thing was our car started to roll over side to side from the impact – at least 2 times. Then we landed, right side up, in a swampy area, well off of the highway.”
“And then I heard Steve yell Margie. Margie was partially ejected from the car – her waist was on the door sill with her upper body out of the car and the rest inside the car. Steve pulled her into the car and held her tight, calling her name over and over.”
“Her face was un-damaged – she was still beautiful. I told Steve we had to get him and her out of the car. He would not listen to me, he just kept calling out to Margie.”
“Why don’t you get it?” my dad had written to me in 2011, two years before he died, two years before I received this email from Allen Champagne. When I read Allen’s email, I was sitting in my apartment in New York City, with dinner simmering on the stovetop, my daughters nearby, a collage I had created with pictures of my father, mother, and me, before everything changed in 1981, propped up on a coffee table in the living room. With Allen’s help, I got it. I got my dad’s suffering like I never had before because Allen enabled me to bear witness to his story. And I got that my dad’s silent, repressed grief was as punishing as it was probably because he thought he deserved punishment. I wonder, if he and I had been able to talk to each other, if we had shared our grief, would he have survived? My dad’s life ended too soon, but mine will go on because of my choice to confront my grief and tell the truth to myself, my family, and everyone who will listen.