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.
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.