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Grief: Where Does it Come From and Where Does it Go?

When I was around twelve years old, I remember having an evening when I couldn’t stop crying. It was June, and my family had finished dinner. The sky was still just light enough to glow. My mother and I loaded dishes in the washer. I’d been fighting angst all evening—some strange source of pain that I couldn’t name—and suddenly it all burst forth from me in tears.

A gift that my mother gave me—in that moment and many others—was a curiosity about emotions and how they revealed themselves. My outburst didn’t seem to make her nervous. She didn’t leave the room or stand there staring. Instead, she put a hand on my shoulder and offered theories. Maybe I was sad because it was the end of the school year and I would miss my friends in the summer. Maybe I was simply on the cusp of change, and frightened.

Two weeks ago, my son’s preschool closed forever. He started there when he was two and has seen many of the same faces every week for the last three years. It’s the place where, at two-years-old, he would cling to me most mornings, hiding between my legs until he summoned the courage to join his friends; the place where he fed worms to chickens and dug in the dirt; the place where, after he fell from a branch and injured himself, a fire truck arrived, and several kind EMTs gave him a stuffed donkey to hold as they bandaged him; the place where he’s created countless projects out of cardboard and googly eyes. Over the last few months he’s come to love his school especially. On weekends he asks me to count the days until he sees his teacher and his friends.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

This is a picture my son drew of his preschool. Note the sunshine and the giant door.

The friends, they still exist, and the teacher is having her own baby, but the place we’ve known is empty now, and I’ve wondered how my son’s grief would come out. At the goodbye party for his teacher, we all ate cake and played hard. On the last day of preschool we said our goodbyes a bit louder than normal, but neither of us shared tears. And even at the yard sale, where all the toys they had played with over the last three years were sorted and labeled with price tags, my son was simply intent on purchasing the blue light saber before someone else got it. We got it, and therefore no tears.

I’ve never liked goodbyes. I prefer to mark endings privately, quietly, and perhaps I’ve passed this to my son.

Yesterday morning, my son woke up with his left eye swollen half closed. We couldn’t tell at first if it was an allergy or pink eye, so I gave him Benadryl, and tended to it with a warm washcloth. I gave him extra attention at breakfast, bringing him juice, kissing his forehead, wiping his nose.

After breakfast, when I insisted on a walk in the sun, he curled in a ball on the couch and screamed. He didn’t want to go anywhere! He had a stomach flu! He was serious! He wanted to stay home all day! I was serious too. The day was getting warm and the birds were singing. I had enrollment forms to drop off at the local kindergarten three blocks away, which was across the street from the bakery. I promised him a cookie, but he wouldn’t budge. I insisted. I chose his clothes and dressed him, uncurling him from his ball limb by limb. Outside, my partner carried him, and he screamed some more because the sun hurt his eyes.

But the sight of the bakery case with its many trays of cookies calmed him and he wiped his tears. “Can I have a breadstick too?” he asked. He sat on the bench outside his future kindergarten and ate his cookie first. My partner asked for a bite of his breadstick and he told her “I’m sorry but no.” He walked home on his own feet, half himself again.

I wonder about my own grief and where it will land—in my left eye or my right ear, or will it just stretch out through my body through the week?

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