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Thursday, November 05, 2015

Grief and scowling

mother grief child died
Tile at Riley's elementary school
My husband was not home for dinner Tuesday night. He was at a school meeting. I sat at the table with three loud children. Enthusiastic children. They were excited about the cheesy garlic bread I made. They wanted to grate mountains of cheese onto their spaghetti. They did not like the look of their apple and beet salad with walnuts. But they laughed. They hummed. Told jokes. Asked for seconds of bread and pasta and cups of water. Said please and thank you. They were just being themselves.

I scowled at them.

I couldn’t wait for mealtime to be done so that I could excuse myself and retreat to my quiet bedroom. I spend a lot of time in my quiet bedroom these days. But just before people were done eating, my nine year old caught my eye in a lull in the hullabaloo and said: “Mom, I want to apologize. I know we’ve been acting a little crazy. And it seems like it’s really upsetting you.”


Despite their version of craziness, they see what’s going on. How sweet of him to notice. At the same time, how sad that he’s noticing. How sad that mom was scowling in the first place. Scowling so much that my son felt the need to apologize. I said thank you for noticing. I told him it wasn’t about them having fun; it was just about me feeling sad about Riley.

He was right, though. I was really upset. The things I used to enjoy about my kids are upsetting now. I get mad at them. I scowl. I don’t like fun. Or laughter or any kind. Mealtime used to be a joyful event. A few months before Riley went into the hospital last year while my husband was out of town, we spent an entire meal only singing to each other. As in, anything that needed to be said was sung, not spoken. “Would you please pass the cheese?” was a melodic request followed by: “Yes. I will pass the cheese, pass the cheese, PASS the cheese.” Think Bohemian Rhapsody. It was the best. 

Laughter is now grounds for disgust. I just don’t know how to let things roll off of me anymore. Or really be in the moment. I’m lost in despair because of what happened to Riley; I’m lost in anguish because I have to live this life without him. Most of the time, I feel like I’m in sensory overload. It’s like the whir of a stove fan overpowering most of what’s going on around me. It makes it hard to hear things. It makes is hard for me to concentrate. Before Riley died, I struggled when there was a lot of sensory input around. When the kids were talking and there was music playing and the oven fan was running, my brain was stuffed with too much to process. Now I feel that way all of the time, even in a quiet room. That is my baseline. I’m always running at capacity. Add three enthusiastic voices singing and laughing and talking over each other and my brain feels like it’s going to burst. Hence, the scowling.

If my brain were a balloon, and grief was water, my brain would look strained by the amount of liquid forced into the allotted space. Grief has exceeded its capacity. Each person or sound is like turning on the tap even though the latex has no room for another drop. Even kids’ laughter. Or maybe I should say especially kids’ laughter. My brain cannot take the input. Despite the talks we’ve had about them feeling sad on the inside even though they look happy on the outside, it’s hard to accept. All that laughter feels like a betrayal of the truth. All that laughter is stretching my brain beyond capacity to tolerate my reality.

There are times that I can manage, that I enjoy being with the kids. I like reading together before bedtime. It doesn't happen very often, but I like it when it does. It's a sit-and-be-quiet time. We are together in a way where I don't feel overloaded. We read Riley's favorite books or talk about whether Riley would like this or that in the stories. I can almost imagine that he's there listening, too. Although, I'm sure he was also there laughing at the table, making jokes, singing along, sprinkling hot pepper flakes on his dinner, then lifting his shirt over his head, spinning it around like a lasso, trying to get everyone to laugh.

I really don't know why I manage one, but not the other. I could speculate, but I think I'll just be grateful that there are times when the scowling gives way to togetherness.