Posts Tagged ‘ tragedy ’

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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My Sorrow For Those in Oklahoma…

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Once again, the news is just too much to bear. A tornado rips through a small Oklahoma town, destroying neighborhoods and plowing down an elementary school. At this point in the search and rescue, 20 children are confirmed dead, many still missing. At least 51 people have perished, with that number expected to rise.

How to cope? How to handle such grief? We saw the Newtown massacre, and our hearts broke and bled. We heard from the Newtown moms this week–on Mother’s Day–as we pondered the question: how do you go on? And while the circumstances in the town of Moore are far different, our grief remains the same: Those poor parents. Those poor babies. That poor community.

As I tucked Fia in tonight, I felt how precarious and precious this life is…how so much of it hangs in the balance, with fate tipping the scales. I thought about how blessed I am today. How cursed I may be tomorrow.

As we lay in the dark, her tiny arms wrapped around me, she said, “Mama, don’t ever leave me, okay?”

“I won’t,” I whispered as I inhaled the soft scent of her hair.

“And I will never leave you,” she said happily, as if we were two girlfriends making a secret–but lighthearted–pact. If only life were that cut and dried. That easy.

I know that nothing in this world is a guarantee. But what I would do for one to protect my babies…

All I can do is hope. Hope that by the Grace of God, Fia and I can both keep our promise.

 

Picture via google image/ABC.go

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A Horrible Tragedy and Our Grief For the Family

Friday, October 26th, 2012

No. No. No.

Stop reading!

It can’t have happened.

Eyes partially shut, trying to skim the story without really digesting it.

Compartmentalize. Don’t think about it.

But then, you look at your kids–in my case–Fia hugging Emmett. Your heart crushes to its core.

Super Why is on television. It’s daddy’s birthday and we’re letting him sleep in. It is, by all accounts, a normal morning. Except it’s not. Something awful—unthinkable–has happened.

Two kids are stabbed to death in their Upper West Side apartment bathtub. A 2-year old and 6-year old. The mom is out with her 3-year old. She comes home to a dark home. Something is amiss. She opens the bathroom door and sees something no one, absolutely no one, should ever witness. Her two children. Dead. Her nanny is also there with a stab wound to her neck. She is alive and suspected of committing this atrocity. The mother goes into a psychotic state. The father gets off an airplane in New York. The police meet him and deliver the awful news. They take him to the hospital where he joins his wife. Their life is forever changed. For the worst.

Terrible things happen all the time. A plane crashes and it’s front-page news. This too, is front-page news. But as awful as all tragedies seem, this one hits a different chord. It is so personal. We are moms and dads. It is we who make the decision to have someone help us with our kids. We entrust these people with the most precious thing in our life. And 99.99 percent of the time they are a gift. A story like this so rarely happens. But when it does, it is a nightmare beyond comprehension.

There are no words to comfort, no justification to make us feel better for this family. And no God who can say this was meant to be.

I have a nanny. She loves my kids like they were her own. I know her whole family. We did a background check on her before we hired her. It was flawless. When I told her about this story, she started to weep. “How do you ever know someone, truly?” she said to me through tears. “You know me, you trust me with your kids, but how do you know you really know me?” I understood exactly what she meant. Sometimes as hard as you try to do the best for your children, your efforts fall short–and tragic.

I don’t want to put myself in the shoes of this mom or dad. It’s too painful. But I can only imagine if the allegations prove true, and the nanny did this, not only will this mother be haunted by the loss of her children, but also by what she maybe had missed. The clues, the signs. And sometimes there simply aren’t any. Sometimes people just aren’t who they seem. My heart just aches for her, the dad, the surviving child–how will they go on?

When Fia was a newborn, I, like many moms, was paranoid to leave her with anyone. A friend of mine said, “At some point, you just have to trust.” She was right. But stories like this leave you reeling. Questioning.

I can’t live my life in fear. But today’s nightmare is a stark reminder that it is only by the Grace of God, Go I. And all of us, for that matter.

 

Darkness picture courtesy of Shutterstock

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September 11th: The 10-Year Anniversary

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

I was in the air when the first plane hit. Three minutes later I landed in Newark, oblivious to the world collapsing.  Twelve hours later I would make my way to our apartment and fall, sobbing into my husband’s arms. Oblivion replaced by sorrow.

We had just moved to New York City 3 weeks prior.  Phil was about to start his Master’s in film at Columbia.

My flight on September 11th was supposed to be at noon. I was traveling home from a Food Network appearance in Cincinnati.  For some reason at the last minute I decided to change to the 6 a.m. flight. Unbeknownst to me, karma was on my side.

As our plane descended I distinctly remember looking out the window and seeing the towers. I remember feeling so lucky—so alive–to be living in this great city and starting this new adventure.

At that point in my life, kids were not part of the plan. I had no interest.

In the days following the attacks, I mourned like the rest of the country. Shell-shocked by the hate, inspired by the love.

Years went by and September 11th became part of me, just like it did for most of us. It was always there, serving as a timeline in life. “That was before 9/11.” or “That was after 9/11….”

On December 2, 2009, Fia came into our world. The cocoon we created during our stay in the hospital was nothing short of magical, even surreal. It was a bubble of warmth, safety and love.  I felt panicked when it was time to go home. I knew nothing about taking care of a baby.

Phil and I gingerly loaded her into our rented car. I got in the back with her and we began the trek from 168th and Broadway to Brooklyn. It was snowing. Phil drove about 40 mph down the West Side highway. We were paranoid new parents.

When we passed Ground Zero I looked out the window and began to feel a heaviness like I’ve never felt before. It was deep and sad. It carried the responsibility and burden of bringing a life into this world.  It said, “This is a dangerous place full of hate. Why did you do this to something you love so much?” It said, “This is an unworthy world. You are selfish.” Had I been standing, this profound pain would have taken me to my knees. I tried to push it away and force happy thoughts. As I looked down at my tiny, sweet baby I thought, She has no idea what her world outside the womb is.  But it’s my job to teach her. And love her no matter what.

I believe it was at that moment that the real burden of parenthood began.  I carry it with honor, understanding and respect. I’m on my 21st month now and will continue to carry it as long as I’m lucky enough to walk this world. This is life and it is fleeting. It is only by the grace of god, go I.

First Moments

First Moments

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