Increasingly we are realising that children experience their own challenges in grieving – I’ve written about this myself elsewhere. But a little part of me also thinks, as far as grief goes, that children are way smarter than we are and if we were more like them, we’d be better off.
The proviso for all this is, of course, if we just let children grieve and didn’t judge it or shape it. If you tell a boy that “big boys don’t cry,” he won’t cry. You’ll get your desired result. But he will suppress his grief and it will spill out in all sorts of other ways – temper tantrums, sleep disruption and so on. We’re also quick to urge children to mind their parents, which we shouldn’t do. For example, when a father dies, the son often told he is the man of the house. He should not be told that. But yet it happens and boys take on that role. You can get children being shushed for asking questions, being shushed for crying, being shushed for being jolly when everyone else is sad, being shushed for being sad when everyone else is jolly. It’s a minefield for them.
But if we didn’t do all that, they’d manage much better than we do. They would, first of all, say whatever came into their heads. Whatever! And it would be mad, preposterous stuff, but they would get to ventilate their feelings. And we, if we listened, would know what they were really feeling. Things like:
What do you mean Granny is in the box? I want to see her. Open it up! What do you mean you can’t open it? Well, why don’t you ask the man for the key? What if she gets hungry? What is she going to eat? What’s going to happen to all her stuff? Can I have her silver brooch? I don’t want Emily to have because Granny liked me better. Emily can have her shiny necklace with the flowers. I never liked that. Who’s going to live in Granny’s house?
I’m not sure I’m recommending that adults articulate every thought in their heads, but it would certainly be helpful in times of grief if we were more honest about our fears. If we had confidence that we could speak without being judged, wouldn’t we speak more honestly? And wouldn’t we then get the support we need instead of the support other people think we need? The child who says the above is articulating very deep and profound feelings of loss – bafflement that Granny is gone, a lack of understanding about the rituals of death and, through grabbing for jewellery, a desire to have her place in Granny’s affections recognised. It’s all expressing a desire to understand and to be understood. Who doesn’t feel this? A child who says, “what do you mean Uncle Jimmy’s gone? Who’s going to take me to swimming?” isn’t just being selfish and willful. They are inching their way to understanding what this loss means for them. Just like we do. But sometimes we can’t help but label their behaviour as selfish because there is an expectation we should all be stoic in the face of our loss. The child, in that context, is expressing something distasteful. But what if we were all a little less stoic? Not consumed by our feelings at the expense of everyone else. That would be hellish. But what if we talked about our feelings and asked others about theirs? And listened? And let ourselves and everyone else talk about our vulnerabilities. Wouldn’t it be liberating?
If you have any thoughts on children and bereavement, please leave a comment.
If you would like more info on supporting children in their loss, visit:
Rainbows Ireland is a listening service for children and young people struggling to come to terms with significant loss and change in their lives. The Rainbows programme supports children and young people affected by loss because of bereavement, separation or divorce. The service is available in local communities throughout Ireland.
Anam Cara supports bereaved parents in their loss. The organisation provides safe and comfortable online and face to face forums to facilitate peer support in groups throughout Ireland.
That logo says it all. That’s where you’ll find us all now. On Facebook. Or Twitter, or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever else is next. And you not only find the living on social networking sites, but increasingly you find the dead there as well. The internet has transformed the landscape of grieving in largely positive ways. Resources available to us online can help us navigate our grief. Online communities supporting each other through their sorrow. Bloggers, including myself, writing about their grief. It’s all good. Yet, grief, social networking and the digital legacy of your loved one are very significant challenges for families.
It is an unfortunate facet of technology that is social in nature that the technology comes first and the etiquette follows after. Did you know that when the telephone was invented, there was initially no consensus as to what one would say by way of a salutation when one picked up the receiver to answer a call? There was nothing natural or inevitable about the use of ‘Hello?’ to answer a call. And so it is with social networking. The platform comes first and then the etiquette evolves later. This is particularly true of grief. For example, is it acceptable to announce someone’s death on Facebook? And how soon? When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC on the night of April 14th 1865, news reached the west coast of the USA by early the following afternoon. This was considered a huge coup for the new telegraph system, which was coming on stream at the time. Now, when any famous person dies, we find out within hours if not minutes. There seems to be a stampede to get on to Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere to be the first to announce it. And what about ordinary civilians? Is it right to go on Facebook to announce that someone has died? Is it okay if you are closely related to the person? Within what degrees of kindred is it acceptable? And is it right that other people find out in this way? The answer to that, I suspect, depends on who you ask and maybe even how old they are. For some, putting news of a death on the internet is as natural as phoning people to tell them. But it’s certainly something that causes annoyance within families and friends.
Another question – what should you do about your loved one’s ‘digital footprint?’ What does a parent do with a deceased child’s Facebook page? Or your husband’s page or your mother’s? It might seem like the most logical thing in the world for you to take it down, as part of a general wrapping up process involving, say, bank accounts or utility bills. Many sites will close a page down for you if you request it. In fact, Facebook has a whole array of suggestions for managing the page of a deceased person.
But unfortunately there are a lot of people, many of them young, to whom the idea of such planning would never occur. And who can blame them? What if you are left with a social networking page you can’t close? And what if people are continuing to post? Teenagers and young adults will often continue to post on a Facebook page or similar after a friend or loved one has died and adults can find this baffling. They talk to their dead sibling, cousin or friend like that person is alive and reading the posts. “Passed my exams today, wish I could celebrate with you.”
Some grieving teens and young adults set up their own memorial sites for their friends, which can be a loving and authentic expression of their sadness. But adults can find it mystifying. There is also the further complication of course that you have no jurisdiction there at all. This new digital life has nothing to do with you. Unfortunately, sometimes there can be ‘competitive grieving’ between your child’s peers as to who has be best memorial sites, who gets the most ‘likes,’ who has the best photos and so on. This is not good for anyone involved, least of all the friends themselves, but you may have no choice but to let it go, especially if you do not know them very well.
So what should you do about the social networking presence of your loved one? The first thing to ask is if it is your responsibility at all. This is very clear if it is a partner or a child, but it is less straightforward in the case of your siblings and parents. You are not the only stakeholder in that loss. Before you summarily remove a page, stop and think about the wider community of people who are mourning your loved one and consider also what it is that they are posting. If your child has died, and their Facebook page has become an outlet for siblings, cousins and friends, you may be taking away something valuable that is irreplaceable in its role in their grief. A whole range of family members and friends may find it therapeutic to post or even simply to scroll through old status updates and photos. Do you talk to your loved one like they are present and can hear you? The digital communication we are talking about here is not all that different. Finally, you must bear in mind that if you close a social networking page, the message people take from that – irrespective of whether or not you mean it – is “there is nothing more to talk about, let’s move on now.” That could be more damaging than you realise.
However, I am not suggesting some sort of online free-for-all. Pardon me for sounding like Hyacinth Bucket, but there has to be some decorum. Whatever people are posting should be positive and affirming in some way for everyone involved. Occasionally adult family members have been appalled at what their child’s peers have put on their beloved child’s Facebook page – stuff like “remember the time we all got hammered in the field, and you were so out of it you couldn’t find your bike, that was massive, you’re a legend, man.” Treasured memories to the friends but, to the parents, distasteful rubbish that tarnishes their beloved child’s memory. Fiercely protective as they are of their child’s legacy, they do not want this sort of thing being given a permanent, public airing. Yet all this communication is real and natural to this generation of ‘Digital Natives.’ While not as blatantly distressing, some online postings can bring up questions of taste. I will be the first to admit that my threshold for anything mawkish or saccharine is very low. Some of what I see posted online in memory of people who have passed away would be, well, let’s say not my cup of tea. But to others, that is as natural an expression of their grief as anything I might do. Would I be correct in removing a post that I thought was sickening glurge but that someone else thought was a heartfelt expression of their loss? And that might be comforting to other people? Almost certainly not. As with a lot of areas to do with grieving, a great deal of caution is advisable.
Here’s a question to ponder before you do anything – is it appropriate for you to be the self-appointed guardian of someone’s entire legacy, including their virtual one? You are undoubtedly the guardian of their relationship with you. But when they were alive, did you manage their relationship with everyone else? Were you fully apprised of every interaction your loved one had with everyone else? If not, then maybe it is not appropriate to do so now. It is also likely that activity on your loved one’s site will eventually fizzle out on its own, in which case is it worth alienating friends and family now simply to hasten the end of something that was time-limited anyway? If a loved one’s continued presence on social networking sites is distressing or just plain puzzling to you, but is clearly performing a useful function for others, then maybe the best option is for you to disengage from it yourself. For example, it might be prudent to stop visiting the page in question and to change your settings on your own page so you do not get alerts or updates. At a future date, a decision may seem much clearer, so why torture yourself now? If it is your child’s page and their friends are posting messages that are distasteful to you, could you have a quiet word with them and point out that other family members – aunts, uncles, grandparents – can see these posts too and you would appreciate a little sensitivity? It would be a shame to take away something that is serving a useful purpose to a lot of people all because one or two people are putting up a few ill-advised messages. The most important thing is to keep your loved one’s virtual presence alive for those who need it for as long as they do so. Like so many other areas in grief, this is one where it is not necessary to make a decision straightaway. Your loved one’s online life is as real a part of their legacy as any other and while it belongs exclusively to no-one, it affects so many.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if one facet of grief, just one, was straightforward? There may be one, but I haven’t found it yet!!
Feel free to comment!
My Christmas season every year begins on the first Sunday in December with the A Little Lifetime Christmas Service in St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Francis Street. And it ends every year with Nollaig na mBan on January 6th. Prior to attending the ALLF service, Christmas stays in the outside world. No decorations go up before that date. No cards are sent – An Post, I don’t care what you say is your last date for Rest of the World Christmas mail! No Christmas music is played. No mince pies are consumed. Christmas stays in suspended animation outside my world until, in the dreamlike, candlelit stillness, I hear the Garda Male Voice Choir sing ‘Oh Holy Night.’ You might say to yourself, how as an atheist can you like that? My answer is – how as a person with ears can you not?
After that evening spent with my friends in ALLF, the chaos of Christmas is allowed to kick off. My Christmas thus begins in quiet contemplation, but like everyone else’s it quickly gathers pace. And at the other side of it, after the cards and the shopping and the food and the Santa visit and the gifts and the flowers and the tears, is Nollaig na mBan or Women’s Christmas.
This old Irish festival is marked on January 6th. I think it’s a darling little day. Lots of countries have a celebration on this date – it is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany around the world and in the Eastern Orthodox faith it is the equivalent of Christmas Eve. It was known in the Church of England as Twelfth Night. But in Ireland alone it is a day devoted to women. The day features in a poem by Seán Ó Riordáin
Bhí fuinneamh sa stoirm a éalaigh aréir.
Aréir oíche Nollaig na mBan
It is also featured in the poem ‘Oíche na dTrí Ríthe’ (The Night of the Three Kings) by Bríd Ní Mhóráin
Oíche Nollaig na mBan, Gleann na nGealt taibhseach.
The festival dates back to a time when Christmas was relentless work for women (not that it’s a twelve-day spa break nowadays, of course) and their lives revolved around the home. So January 6th was the day for the women to rest and for the men of the house to take over the cooking and cleaning. In the days of large families and when housework was really manual labour of a particularly gruelling and thankless kind, I’m sure it was a respite to which women looked forward with great excitement. (What the men of Ireland thought has not been recorded!) In those days women did not go to the pub as a matter of routine, but on the night of January 6th women would head out en masse to the local hostelry for their one night of the year. It’s hard to imagine the significance of that now, with the many freedoms we women enjoy, but it must have been a remarkable thing for women in bygone days to cast off the shackles of domesticity and rush headlong to the pub. In Cork, for example, it was not unusual to see women in shawls racing giddily to the pub, where they would have glasses of stout – high in iron and therefore good for the blood, of course! – and corned beef sandwiches. To this day, the bars of Cork and Kerry are crowded with women on the night of Nollaig na mBan. Some pubs report a one hundred percent female attendance. That may say something about women or it may say something about Cork and Kerry, but either way it says something wonderful.
I wasn’t raised with the tradition of Nollaig na mBan in my home but when I first heard of it I took to it straightaway. It doesn’t have to involve a lot of fuss. Make some time today to spend it with women who are important to you. You will be surprised how much it will restore you.
Nollaig na mBan faoi mhaise dhaoibh go leir!
(A version of this blog appeared previously in the A Little Lifetime magazine, Moments)
It’s a sign of my advancing decrepitude that I can remember the birthday of every single girl I went to National School with but I can’t currently locate my phone. One of those girls, a great friend of mine for many years, was born on January 2nd. To protect her privacy, I will be calling her Contessa Anastasia von Strudelstumpf.
For 364 days of the year, the Contessa was a genial, pleasant child but on January 2nd each year, she turned into this.
Her maladjustment? She was not born on January 1st. Every year on her birthday, she lectured her mother, in a semi good natured way, about how if she had been born on January 1st, she would have been on TV and in all the papers. Every year she berated her poor mother about this. She could see it all clearly in her mind – the newspaper coverage, the TV footage, and so on. One year, I tried to be helpful, which is to say I unleashed some of my more masochistic tendencies. I pointed out that it doesn’t follow she would have been the first baby born on New Year’s Day. She might have been the 17th. But no, the Contessa was adamant. She would have been born at four seconds past the magic hour of midnight and that it would have unleashed a media frenzy. She was nothing if not confident.
I have long since lost contact with Contessa Anastasia, but I think of her on January 2nd every year. I wonder if she was the only person born on January 2nd who felt like this. I know that lots of people born on Christmas Day feel a bit cheated and I wrote about this just recently. But I don’t know anybody else with a January 2nd birthday. So I suppose all I can do is pay tribute to a few January 2nd babies, specifically to how marvellously some of them did without the media frenzy that being the first baby of the New Year might have brought.
Drum roll please ….
Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was born on January 2, 1898 in Philadelphia. She was the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in economics in American and the second to do so in any field. She was the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and she went on to become the first African-American woman to practice law in that state. She followed that by becoming the first African-American woman to be appointed Assistant City Solicitor for the city of Philadelphia. Harry Truman appointed her to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights in 1946. From 1943 to 1947 she was the first woman to serve as secretary of the National Bar Association. Later she became President of John F. Kennedy Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She practiced law until her retirement in 1982.
Beatrice Hicks, born January 2nd 1918, was an American engineer and was the first woman engineer to be hired by Western Electric. In school, she was not encouraged to pursue a career in the sciences because her teachers felt it was not an appropriate career for a woman. She was one of only two women to graduate in engineering from Newark College of Engineering in 1939. She later earned a masters in physics. She designed and patented a gas density switch that would be used in the U.S. space program, including the Apollo missions. She went on to both found and serve as the first president of the Society of Women Engineers. In that capacity, she toured the US extensively giving talks on to promote the cause of women in engineering.
David Bailey was born on January 2nd 1938 in London. After a series of dead-end jobs, he was called up for National Service, where his interest in photography began. After being demobbed, he took a series of photography jobs before being contracted by British Vogue magazine. His work captured and celebrated the “Swinging Sixties” scene in London, with famous images of sixties celebrities such as Mick Jagger and Terence Stamp and, controversially, the Kray Twins. His work is still much in demand by magazines, fashion houses and celebrities . He has also exhibited sculptures and paintings.
Cuba Gooding jnr was born on January 2nd 1968 in New York. After finishing High School, he studied Japanese Martial Arts for three years. His first job in entertainment was as a breakdancer during Lionel Ritchie’s performance at the closing ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. After various roles in TV, he was cast as Tre Styles in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood. This was his big breakthrough and it was followed by roles in films such as A Few Good Men and Outbreak. His scene-stealing performance in Jerry Maguire in 1996 earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. In later years, he has turned to more gritty roles and was on our screens mostly recently in the role of OJ Simpson in American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson.
What have I proved? Well, nothing really. Some people born on January 2nd turned out fantastically well and went on to great things despite a whole lack of fanfare when they were born. I don’t know if Contessa Anastasia von Strudelstumpf went on to great things. I hope she did. Wherever you are, Contessa, Happy Birthday.
January gets its name from the Latin word for door – ianua – because of course the arrival of January opened the door to a new year. The month is not named after the god, Janus, but in fact the goddess Juno, who also gave her name to the month of June. And, speaking even as an atheist, the goddess Juno was a bad ass! In Roman mythology, she was the daughter of Saturn and the sister of Jupiter. She was the the protector and special counselor of the state. Her role was to watch over women, especially in childbirth. She is depicted in warlike garb, usually with a spear. She is associated with youth, energy and vitality, something a lot of us woman wish we had in January. She has a number of personae. As the Juno Moneta, she guarded over the finances of the empire and I think most of us would agree that’s a good role for a woman. It is from Juno Moneta that we get the word money, and we all know what a complex issue money is in the long, dark month of January. As Juno Curitis, she was a warlike character and those about to go to war invoked her protection. January is one of the busiest months of the year for divorce lawyers, so maybe that’s something for them to think about.
January stretches out before us full of frosts and disillusion. It will be cold. Our resolutions will probably fail. Our cards may be declined in a shop at some point. But somehow life will go on and we’ll get through it in the end. We could take a bit of inspiration from Juno and try to summon some vitality and energy. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always war.
The festive season is a bittersweet one for people who are bereaved and it doesn’t end when Christmas Day is over. New Year’s Eve brings its own sadness. People who’ve had some stresses talk about wanting a year to be behind then, as if those things happened because it was Year X. But people who are grieving often feel the opposite – that each New Year lengthens the chasm of time between us and our loved ones. The relentless cheer at New Year can be jarring too. I can understand it – the stress of organising Christmas is behind us and now we can have a no-strings-attached party. There’s a bank holiday in the morning, damn it, why would you not party? But being around such jollity seems to drive home our own sadness even more. We seem so discordant in the midst of all the cheering and kissing, especially if we are at a celebration where our loved one should be but isn’t. And as for Auld Lang Syne, well, that song is sadness itself.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne!
For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
Sometimes you are surrounded at that very moment by a group of people who you know with certainty have forgotten your ‘auld acquaintance.’ Do you need your faced rubbed in it? And maybe you remember singing that song with them in the past and feeling liked you’d always be together for every New Year’s Eve to come.
Then the New Year resolutions are difficult to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the impulse towards self-improvement and investing in your well-being. But when you are grieving, other people’s resolutions seem so fanciful and silly. “I’m going to run a marathon.” “I’m going to fit into those size 10 jeans again.” “I’m going to save money and go on a cruise.” Lovely, I wish you all the very best with that. But we can’t resolve our way out of our sadness. We can resolve to do things differently, yes. We can resolve to take better care of ourselves. But this time next year, our loved ones will still be gone.
If this is your first New Year’s Eve without your loved one, my heart goes out to you. I don’t even remember mine but I have a lurking sense-memory that it was awful. I am going to contradict what I just said above and say you should make a resolution – resolve to be kinder to yourself and to acknowledge all you are doing to live your life. Congratulate yourself for having got up and got dressed this morning. Give yourself a woot woot if you went to work. Give yourself a clap on the back if you ate a healthy meal. Scrap that – any meal at all! The big life-changing moments are years away. Today, focus on putting one leg in front of other and getting on with your day. You are doing the best you can do for where you are now.
Have a Healing New Year!