Posts Tagged ‘ death of a parent ’

Explaining a Death in the Family…to a Child

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Joe DeProspero has two sons, a wife, and is complimentary birth control for anyone who sits near him in a restaurant. His writing has been described as “outrageous,” “painfully real,” and “downright humiliating.” He talks about the highs and unsettling lows of parenthood while always being entertaining and engaging in the process. He has written the fiction book “The Boy in the Wrinkled Shirt” and is working on releasing a parenting humor book. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and two sons and can be emailed at jdeprospero@gmail.com or followed on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.

It’s something I never imagined I’d have to do while my children were so young. In most cases, it’s a role we’re thrust into without so much as a day or two to Google some helpful tips to prepare for it. But on April 14, 2012, my whole world changed, and I was faced with an insurmountable task: dealing with an unthinkable loss while simultaneously teaching my oldest son what death means on a level he might understand.

My 83-year-old Grandma Helen called me that Saturday afternoon at about 1:00, concerned that my mother (who lived alone) wasn’t answering her phone. This was not like my mother, who called my grandmother every single morning religiously. She wasn’t answering my calls either. About an hour later, I stopped by her place which was only 15 minutes away. And I found her on the floor. She was dead at age 59. And just like that, life as I knew it was dramatically changed forever. I was then tasked with breaking the news to my grandmother, who in turn suffered a severe stroke and also died two days later (yes, really). I was crushed. But feeling sorry for myself could only last so long; my son Antonio’s 3rd birthday party was the following weekend, and I now had two gaping holes in the family to explain to him. We would end up holding a double funeral for them the day before the party. But how was I going to explain all of this to a child whose beloved grandmother AND great grandmother suddenly vanished without saying goodbye?

My immediate reaction was to avoid any mention of “Grandma Linda” or “Nana Helen.” I had no idea how to approach their deaths with my one son who was old enough to ask about them (my younger son was 10 months old at the time). But neither my wife nor I wanted him to wonder why they hadn’t bothered to show up to his birthday party.  My wife, Sonia, did her best to convey the losses in a way his young mind could comprehend. So she pulled him aside one night that week.

“Honey, Grandma went to heaven. She’s high up in the sky now and is always watching, but you just won’t be able to see her anymore.”

I’m paraphrasing because I wasn’t present for the conversation, but that’s basically how it went. A bit of a high concept for a toddler, but we were trying. And it was obvious that he didn’t understand a word of it. He simply smiled and continued mashing the buttons on his Buzz Lightyear. But while he didn’t understand, as days went by, he could clearly tell that something had gone awry. If we brought up Grandma, he ignored us. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even say her name, purposely avoiding having to bring her up, much like I did at first. Then, one day, in my car on the way to drop him off at day camp, he asked the question I’d been dreading for weeks.

“Daddy, is Grandma ever coming back?”

I froze for about eight seconds. It was like being on a job interview where you’re asked the one question you weren’t prepared for. And as the seconds ticked by, it became clearer that the truth was my only option.

“No. Honey, I’m sorry. She’s not.  But she loves you and she’ll always be watching. And hey, remember that pillow fight we had with her? Wasn’t that fun?”

I was nervous, so I reached for a distraction. He nodded solemnly. But over the following weeks and months, I realized I had two jobs when it came to the death of my mother: Don’t fall apart and don’t let mentions of her yield anything but a smile.

So far, I think my wife and I have been fairly successful. We started by showing my son video footage of the aforementioned pillow fight I’d captured on my iPhone, then with watching our wedding video and asking him to point Grandma out. Then, after attending a birthday party, my wife accidentally let Antonio’s helium balloon slip out of the car and into the sky.  Naturally, Antonio was not pleased. But he was certainly intrigued when we determined that the balloon wasn’t lost at all, but it was merely “sent up to Grandma.” To this day, he associates balloons (one of his favorite things) with my mother. And he smiles.

In recent months, instead of asking if Grandma is coming back, he instead asks questions about heaven.

How did she get all the way up there?

Where does she sleep?

Does she still have my balloon?

Frankly, the questions break my heart. But if he never asked at all, I think it’d be worse. So I answer him as cheerfully and imaginatively as possible.

She has special flying abilities that take her up, up, up into the sky, and she uses a cloud as a pillow. And of course she still has your balloons. She always will.

In a way, I feel like I’m writing a fairytale on the fly. This magical lady who flies with the birds and sleeps above the raindrops. Sometimes I even get caught up in the fantasy of it all, detaching myself from reality for a moment. I suppose I do it for me as much as I do it for him. I don’t want her to fade into a memory for either of us.

So if you’ve recently found yourself in this unenviable position, know that you’re not alone. And also, don’t be afraid to tell your children the truth. Or as much of the truth that you determine they can handle. Ignoring my mother’s memory around my son was not the solution to my grief or to his understanding of this dreadful situation. Honoring her memory and reminding my son of how wonderful his grandmother was (and magically continues to be) is a step in the right direction. Because while I will always be saddened by any mention of her, my children deserve to know how much she loved them. And she deserves it, too.

Antonio and my mother, two weeks before her death. Strangely, she already looked like an angel.

I truly hope that you either found solace in reading this or will think back on it if you ever need to explain the unimaginable to your children. In closing, here’s a picture of the inside cover of Green Eggs and Ham, as inscribed by my mother to my son. I always point it out when I read it to him.

Feel free to share your stories by adding a comment below.

* If you prefer my humor-based posts, forgive me for the seriousness of this one, as I felt it was a story that needed to be told.

Read more about how to talk to your kids about death and tragedy:

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Taking Antidepressants When Pregnant

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Enjoying the beach with my baby

Enjoying the beach with my baby

Full disclosure:

I take antidepressants.

I will continue to take them through my pregnancy.

I took them while pregnant with Fia.

Internal conversation:

I can’t believe what you just revealed. Hurry. Duck and run for cover!!

No. I’m not going to. It’s time to get this conversation on the table.

You sure? You will be nailed to the cross on this one. Judged and deemed unfit for motherhood.

I don’t believe that. I think women are terrified of talking about this. I think many will feel relief that I’m admitting my own dirty little secret. They may carry the same secret. And it’s okay.

Do what you will but don’t say I didn’t warn you…..

Alright, it’s out there.  And I’m not shying away from it. It is my truth.

In my post about my dying mother, I mentioned her bipolar disorder. I breathe a deep sigh of relief that I don’t have that. But I do struggle with depression. And anxiety. For years I just “dealt” with it. With herbs and holistic medicine; with therapy and exercise; with meditation and yoga. Didn’t matter. Nothing changed how my chemical brain worked. I still do all those things, but now I take a small white pill everyday.

When I began taking it I felt this huge cloud lift. I felt less anxious. And far happier. I didn’t become an emotionless zombie. I became much more present in life–not in my head.

I went off of them a few times to see if perhaps I was “cured.” It can happen. Not me. That familiar dark cloud would start to drift into my periphery and I knew the storm was coming.

When I got pregnant with Fia, I struggled with my decision to stay on my meds. I even tried to wean off again. I felt the pit coming almost immediately. So I made my decision and stuck to it. I had to stop googling all the horrible things people talked about. I know it’s a risk. So is breathing the polluted air of NYC. So is going through the x-ray machine at the airport. So is my secret love of Taco Bell’s #3 with a diet Pepsi.

What I will say is more studies need to be done so women can have the facts. For a variety of reasons, there is just not a lot of conclusive data out there on taking antidepressants while pregnant. As an article in the NYT points out, pregnant women often aren’t part of drug studies. Therefore, a lot of the data is inferred, not proven. And even the most ardent studies have holes in them. I have an excellent OB and psychiatrist, both of whom agree: going through my pregnancy depressed and dark is far more dangerous than sticking to what works. (Also, during my pregnancy with Fia, we moved to LA for a bit. I saw 3 different OB’s/specialists. They all had the same unanimous opinion.)

What is proven is that some people have chemical imbalances. It’s in their genetic makeup.  And sometimes medicine is the only thing that works. Yet when taking those meds, the judgment from others can be severe. I guess that’s why women like me don’t disclose this. But today I’m feeling brave.

So there you have it.  Anyone else out there who wants to talk? I’m here.

Side note: I was recently informed about a study being conducted at Columbia University Medical Center exploring some of the issues around antidepressant use during pregnancy. If you are interested, and live in the NYC area, you can contact the study coordinator, Michelle Gilchrist at (212) 851-5175 OR mag2241@columbia.edu.

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Losing My Mom–With a Second Chance

Monday, July 11th, 2011

As she lay dying, I spoke to her on the phone. I told her that it was okay to go. That she would live on through me and Fi.

I told my mom’s sister how much Fia loves sautéed spinach.“Your mom loved that growing up. We’d call her Popeye,” she said. I cringed. Dear lord, please give Fia the good genes from her. Like love of spinach and not crack.

It’s not that my mom didn’t have some amazing traits. In her early years she was smart and beautiful. Kind and colorful. But that was then. In her darkest days her childhood friends would shake their heads and tell me, “Everyone in high school wanted to be Suzy Newlon. Such a shame.” We’d all look down and mumble awkwardly in agreement.

My Mom

My Mom

Five decades of alcohol and drug abuse—including picking up a crack habit when she was 62-years-old—a few suicide attempts and a clear-cut diagnosis of bipolar—didn’t really give her a fighting chance.

One recent Christmas she went around her Florida condo complex with a 20-foot ladder. She climbed up the trees and spray-painted the coconuts red.  It was an instant hit. On another Christmas she tried to kill herself by jumping off a parking garage.

I truly believe some people are born to conquer addiction while others are just born to stay addicts.

Last year at 64, her life had become desperately depressing and tragic. I rarely spoke to her. Neither did my siblings. But then a miracle occurred.

She had an intestinal rupture and went septic. Almost died. Ended up on life support. And while her health slowly deteriorated, her life got surprisingly better.

For the next 11 months she was mostly confined to a hospital bed. She had psychiatrists who tweaked and tweaked her mental meds. She had hot meals and an entire staff at her beck and call. She was the queen bee and basked in her royal treatment.

“I love it here. I can order a milkshake at 3 in the afternoon,” she’d tell me in her southern drawl.

The next day she would complain that the chicken was dry.

“Mom, this is a hospital, not the Four Seasons,” I’d remind her on the phone.

“I know that, but how hard is it to cook chicken right?”

I’d roll my eyes; secretly glad she was even complaining. In the past, depressive days meant curling up “in the ball” on her couch and refusing to speak to anyone.

At least now we knew where she was and that she was safe. It was also finally safe to bring Fi down to meet her. A hospital—germs and all– is far more sterile than her living conditions had become over the years.  And I knew what I was getting: glimpses of the mom I had in childhood; when she was a superstar. Cool, fun, unconditionally loving.

Over this past year almost every trip down she was alert and attentive. She couldn’t get enough of Fi. This is a woman who had missed so much of my life. My wedding, my pregnancy, the birth of my daughter. We were both getting a second chance.

She would tell me how much Fia reminded her of me when I was little. I’d relish the stories. And feel relief that (so far) it seems Fia has much more of me in her genes than her grandmother.  I can only pray the ones she does have from either of us are the good ones.

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Losing My Mom–Lilacs

Monday, July 11th, 2011

We’d communicate through lilacs. That’s what my mom and I decided on my last visit to see her.

We debated between them and hyacinths. But she was the expert.  She ran a successful plant and flower business for years– until her demons got the best of her. I trusted her instincts on this one. Plus, she reminded me, we had a big one in our yard growing up–and that my favorite color was lavender.

A week later I got the call. Her time was running out.  There were probably only hours left.

I went desperately seeking a lilac bush. It was early June and I knew the season had passed. But surely there must still be one in bloom.

I found one with two blooms hanging on. They were past their perfect purple color, on the brink of death. But I could still close my eyes and inhale. I called my mom. Her caregiver put the phone to her ear.

“Mom, I’m standing here in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I’m smelling a lilac.” I heard a small moan. I went on to describe the setting. I could sense her smile.  In life, nature was where she found peace and perfection. Nature could also survive the storms. She had too–for better or worse—until now.

“Remember to find me. Every year I will wait for them to bloom. And I’ll know you’re here with me,” I said through tears.

I heard a deep breath and sigh.

“I just wanted to make sure we have our plan in place,” I continued. “That you won’t forget.” My voice remained strong.  For many years, I was the mother to my mother. This day was no exception.

“You can go now.”

I hung up the phone. That was the last time I spoke to her. She died two days later on June 7, 2011.

So now I wait until next spring when we talk again.

lilacs2

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