Tuesday, October 13, 2015


B and I attended a parent-teacher conference this morning, to review how C.T. is doing in school.  She talked to us about the typical stuff - his academic performance, his test scores, his behavior.  All good.  Then she showed us some of the writing he has done in class, including this one...

My special object is a bear.  My family calls him Bearson or Zachy bear.  Before my brother Zachary died he gave it to me.  Before he died he was 2 weeks old.  I have had Bearson for almost 20 months.  I sleep with bearson almost every night.  In the morning sometimes I bring (him) downstairs and put him next to me at breakfast. 

I am thankful C.T. felt safe enough to bring Bearson to school and to write a few sentences about (at least) the surface significance of this particular special object.  He looks proud in the photo.  I envision him having composed his words without shame, with the honesty and confidence we've tried to nurture in him since his beloved Zachary died. 

Then, with a look of concern on her face, C.T.'s teacher showed us a craft project they worked on, something that will decorate their second grade "pod" outside the classrooms, for the fall season.  Each student was given a construction paper pumpkin which folded at the top to reveal another pumpkin underneath.  The kids were instructed to write a few simple clues on the front of the pumpkin so that other students could guess whose pumpkin it was, before lifting the cover, to see how well they know their classmates.  His teacher gently asked us if it was okay for her to put C.T.'s pumpkin up with the rest of the class.

I don't remember what the other two or three clues were, written on the front of C.T.'s pumpkin, because all I saw were the words:

I have two dead brothers. 

All B and I could do was shake our heads in sorrowful abandon.  It is true.  It is terribly unfair and sad and one of the primary things that defines him (and us as a family).  It will continue to define him as he ages without his brothers, particularly without Zachary, by his side.  And it is certainly a unique characteristic, a distinguishing attribute between C.T. and his classmates.  My boy, he is so smart and thoughtful and honest. 

It was not an elegant or socially acceptable way to speak his truth.  But it is also salt in our deep wounds that C.T.'s reality is not acceptable, that it is perceived as needing some kind of sugarcoating to be palatable, to be out amongst the other, simpler, carefree pumpkin clues.  

We've talked to him about using the word deceased rather than dead, which he does a lot in public, verbally with adults, only because society is uncomfortable with the latter, particularly when you're talking about the death of a child.  That kind of thing was reinforced, as an unfortunate necessity, by the grief camp he attended during the last two summers.  I'm guessing he didn't immediately know how to spell deceased, and because we talk openly about his brothers at home, he decided to lay it out there like he did.  He is seven.  I hate that there is there is this tendency to think we need to coach him to smooth over his endlessly difficult reality for the transitory comfort of others. 

Our instinct was to tell C.T.'s teacher to let it be, to put his pumpkin clues up with the rest.  
What is the alternative?  Tell C.T. he must re-think his clues because it makes the teachers and students in his pod uncomfortable?  Make him re-write his clues, changing that single word - dead to deceased - just so that it's at the threshold of acceptable?  Tell him that he should come up with other distinguishing characteristics, delete the difficult one because it is just too sad for people to read?  Lie to him and say that the intent was to stick with simple, less meaningful, clues...  My hair is red or I like soccer or My dog's name is _____

Dumb it down, C.T.  No one wants to know about the reality of your family. 

I would love for this not to be an issue.  I would love to have had C.T. sail through his childhood, holding hands with his brothers, spewing only rainbows and butterflies into the halls of his grammar school.  I would have preferred he learned about unfairness after being chosen last during kickball or through a lack of recognition after a job well done.  I wish his first experience with suffering had been much less personal and tangible and permanent, that he was able to keep a safe distance from real pain during his childhood.  I would much rather he learned about the reality of death through the loss of a grandparent, followed by the loss of his parents someday - gentler, more orderly rites of passage.  

Honestly, I am glad C.T. is building his confidence in talking openly about his love and his grief and his brothers.  Last year, during first grade, he would come home and tell me he cried about Zachary, all alone, in the bathroom.  He would mostly write about Zachary at home where he felt it was safe to unleash some of his painful emotions.  So, truly, I am proud and pleased about how he's doing.  It's just that this (more public) integration of Zachary's death and the fact that his siblings are both dead leaves all of us exposed and vulnerable for judgment and at least some self doubt.  


  1. Gretchen, first - what a beautiful family filled with love you have. How unfair it is that CT has two dead or deceased (as if changing a word could make the truth of that any less intense) brothers. How sad that these tragedies are a part of his life story. But what a kind boy to always remember them and write about them. Second- this post struck a chord with me. My son (6) had to draw a picture of his family at school and my son did not include his sister. I asked my son if he tells people about his deceased sister Heidi when they ask if he has siblings. He told me he doesn't. This made me sad at first, so I asked him why he doesn't tell others about her. He responded "because Mom, it makes them sad, sometimes even cry, and I don't want people to feel that". Our grief counselor pointed out that he has to make his own decisions about how to handle this question socially - just as I have had to when asked the dreaded how many children do you have. I realized that his choice - was in a way - more empathetic than mine. I care more about acknowledging my daughter than not making others uncomfortable - at least for now since my loss is still so new. I guess the answer is - whatever is right for him and for your family? And if it includes the word dead - so be it. Thank you for exposing yourself and helping others through your honesty. Kim

    1. Thanks so much, Kim. It is so sad to me that our kids pick up so quickly on those social discomforts. I think within a few days after Zachary's death, C.T. had already realized that with most people, he simply will not discuss Zachary in depth (because it makes them uncomfortable and sad, though I don't think he understood initially that they aren't even one millionth as sad as we are). He already knew their reactions were going to be unpleasant and in some cases, not truly compassionate.

      I can understand your initial reaction to your son not including Heidi in his picture. I think the vulnerability that it exposes (if he were to have included her) is a dangerous thing and a sick line for our young children to have to walk.

  2. Gretchen, I am sobbing. Partly because I worry for my daughter as she enters school next year, and partly because I teach children the same age as C.T. I am thinking about how I would respond as a teacher, both before I knew this pain, and now. The world is so different now. I went back to work two weeks ago, and even myself as a teacher has changed so much. What a thoughtful boy C.T. is. There is no wrong way to talk about his brother in my opinion. It is hard for an adult to string those difficult words together. I have dreaded filling out my daughters kindergarten registration forms as I know I will have to share our heartbreaking story. And so it begins...

    1. Yeah... I had learned to live with "I have a brother who came before me who died".

      It is indeed too difficult for me to string these even more difficult words together and make any sense of it. But, I'm proud that he felt he could (even if it was only in the moment he wrote it).

      I'm thinking of you as you return to work... it probably feels like a totally new experience now, without Sawyer.

  3. This pisses me off (and to be fair, I'm angry in general these days). People think they get to pretend with kids - pretend things are easy and simple... And that it's better this way. Stupid, meaningless projects, stupid crafts... Lacking in substance and purpose... They generally get away with it because a lot of kids haven't yet had to suffer, or don't know how to articulate the deep more meaningful parts of themselves. But lots of kids ARE hurting, in a hundred different ways, and so many adults and teachers and parents are missing it!! Because we think it can't be true, that it shouldn't be true... I don't know. The image of him sitting alone in a bathroom rips me open. The image of the teacher's 'concerned' look... Ugh.

    1. People do absolutely prefer to close their eyes and pretend the suffering of children doesn't exist. I've even had family members seek to silence C.T.'s truth,... I suppose it helps them drown out the truth for themselves.

      I agree that most organized adult-led children groups - at school, church, play groups, extra-curriculars - lack substance and purpose. Which is probably totally cool if real suffering does not exist in one's household. For me, the fury rises up in me every time a meaningless piece of paper comes home from school with C.T. Just yesterday, a detailed email about procedures for Halloween costumes and parents visiting for the costume parade. So much thought and energy put into something so meaningless...something we will all do on the 31st at our own homes anyway..., and yet C.T. was never offered anything or embraced with real sympathy in any way, at school, when his brother died. No counseling, no cards from his friends (the teacher refused to collect them, noting that someone might complain), no $5 book dedicated to Zachary in the school library. Nothing. In so many ways, our schools have become robotic, chained to the calendar of forced events, caring only about the rehearsed things that "matter". Where is the human-ness? Sadly, I fear the same is true in many of our churches, in particular in Sunday school, where the real truth is often simplified and dumbed down, way beyond what C.T. can tolerate given his losses.

      Thanks for your honesty, Kristin. I'm right there with you.