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Hiding Grief


My four year old granddaughter often talks about Pahka when she and I have time together.

"Pahka died." she says. "He got really old and died."


I affirm that yes, he did die. And, I tell her that he was not really all that old and that I am older....I don't know why that feels important to me. She's four. Her understanding is taking shape in a world so vast that she is still learning how to define and express her understanding of it. Pahka got really old and died as her concept of reality makes sense.

To someone aged four, anyone over the age of, probably 20, is old.


She is not sad about David, Pahka. She had no context for a connected relationship with him because she was just 7 months old when he died. But, David was her father's father.

He was my mate. So of course we talk about him. Because....I do. His name is frequently on my lips.


I had been to visit. That's how the "Pahka got really old" convo came up.


The next morning she was showing me how to deliver the mail to her post office in the sun room. She fidgeted a 'stamp' into the slot on a plastic letter. "I get sad about Bandit, but I have to hide my sad face. I just have to let it go."


Bandit was an ancient rat terrier/papillion mix who I had known from a puppy but had reached a point of no return and had to be put down (I wish there were a kinder term).


It has been about a year. Maybe even more. Yet for her....there is still sadness.


THIS is the normal. Not the way we tell ourselves and others to 'get over' the death of someone or a pet or even the other multitudinous losses we experience because we are alive, embodied, a part of the cycle of life.


So how did she learn to have the thought: "I have to let it go. I have to hide my sad face."!? OMG!!!!


Might have been something told to her directly. Might have been something she gleaned from overhearing others talking. Might have been the energy of the adults putting their own sadnesses aside to continue to manage their day to day.


It doesn't really matter how...though all of those and probably more are possible. What matters to me is that at her tender age....she has received a message that she is not supposed to express sadness. That she has to hide it. Let it go.


So for those moments....when this sweet and young soul was feeling vulnerable and safe enough with me to say how she was feeling....my heart cracked open.


The space that I have made sacred in my own heart became a vessel for the grief of a child.


"Oh no sweetheart! You do not ever have to hide your sad face! You don't have to get over it. I am still sad about Bandit." She turned her face down and away from me. I gently took her chin and said "Look at me. I want you to hear me. You get to be sad. You are not sad all the time. But when you are feeling that way.....it is ok for you to."


I don't know. Will the message get in? I hope so. I am honored to have had the opportunity to let her know that sadness is not a constant state, but is ok to feel and express all that she feels.


How about you? When do you remember being told, either directly or via the unspoken, how you should react to and feel about death, or the loss of someone or something dear?


I grew up on a farm. As a farm girl, death was a part of every day. But it was the chicken slaughtered for dinner. The kittens that some animal found and ate. It was the pet this or that, that died. It was the muskrats my brother trapped. Life and Death part of the wheel. The feeling was never of attachment or trauma, but rather, woven into the rhythm of Life.


But, when I was thirteen my mother's father....my farmer Grandfather died of bladder cancer....at home. As his illness had progressed, there came a time when we children were no longer allowed to visit him. He wanted us, we were told, to remember him as he had been...not the frail and fading shell he became. He had always been vital. Strong and kind, with huge hands. But the last time I saw him....he lay on the couch, struggling with the cancer eating away at him.


When he died, my mother, who had been very close to her father, spent three days and nights at my grandparent's home. The house was a mere 500 yards from us. We were not allowed to go there. When at last my mother returned home, we were forbidden to mention him and were told clearly that we were not to cry. Not to make my mother cry. Our tears brought hers to the surface. So....the message? Do not grieve. Do not cry. Once they are cremated (my mother's family's choice) we are to forget about them and get on with life.


It took David's death. Even though I had been in the room for each my my parent's final breath. My niece died in a freak accident. Friends had died of cancer or in accidents. It took David's death to break open all the ungrieved losses in my life.


That early lesson kept me from reaching out to those grieving for most of my adult life. I did not know what to say. I did not know how to behave. I could not offer the succor or support to others....because the example I had been shown was avoidance.


Isn't that how it happens? We are given our instructions early....most often by adults who are themselves ill equipped to navigate the territory of grief. And now I see, from my granddaughter, just how young we might be when we are given the examples. Whether by direct words, actions or the energetic field that we are so sensitive to when we are young, we glean how we are expected to behave. We learn to harden off parts of ourselves, of our experiences.


We are meant to be in community as humans. Our contemporary lives do not allow for that often. If we grieved our losses together. If we allowed for the natural rhythms of grief. If we acknowledged our own griefs and shared what is real and moving in us, not so that it can be fixed or 'gotten over', but so that we observe in our thoughts and actions the way that loss and joy can occupy the same space.....would we not begin to have more empathy for our world and the conditions of it? Might we see the angry person as someone grieving?

Might we feel how loss could harden us if we are not permitted to express it? Might our children grow up with more tender hearts....open to all that Life both gives and takes away?

Might we hold the rituals of showing our vulnerable/available selves as sacred and necessary?



Do not tell children to 'get over it.' or insist that they 'let it go.' or tell them that they must hide their sad faces.


Recognize....truly see...that that is your own unmetabolized, unmet, unexpressed grief. Hold out a hand to the small one in you who learned from adults that an externalized grief is unacceptable. Give permission to that four year old you. Or the thirteen year old you....how ever old you might have been when you decided that showing your pain and missing was weakness or unwelcome. Tell that little one in you...."I got you! You never have to hide your sadness with me. I know you are not going to be sad all the time."


Don't hide your grief. Let it breathe in you. Let it color the world with all of it's shades and moods. That world is so much more interesting than one constantly in light or constantly in shadow.


Show me someone who knows deep loss and meets it with a welcoming embrace. I will show you someone who offers the comfort of grace and open attention for all that this Life offers.


Come on out. I see you. I welcome you. I see how brightly you shine in your sadness.


I saw that while watching a four year old teacher....reminding me to allow....allow....allow.




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