Replace the Loss – Navigating Disappointment with Children
In Scotland where I live, Guising, the pre-cursor to Trick or Treat, is still practised. So, every year my daughters learn a song to perform at each house in exchange for sweets. They spend a long time planning their costumes and practicing. Some years they’ve gone for a traditional ballad, others something sillier. This year they had adapted ‘There was an Old Woman of Skin and Bone’ to an Old Clown who found a coffin in the circus ring, to match a spooky clown costume. And, they had a pirate song to go with the ghost pirate outfit. A last minute hook had to be fashioned from a poker because the Captain Hook accessory I’d ordered was delayed by postal strikes and fierce weather.
We’ve moved in the year since last Halloween, so our route from the new house was hotly debated. It was decided that we would start with our new neighbour and then drive back to our old house and follow our usual route, beginning with our former neighbour. You can imagine the high spirits when we set off! So when the children went running up to our former neighbour’s front door only to discover it in darkness with the outer door bolted, their dismay was palpable. They knocked nonetheless – there were people home and the children reasoned that they had been guising there practically since they were born. But they got no answer and my oldest daughter began to cry.
My instinctual response was to say, ‘don’t worry. We’ve got a new neighbour now and we had a great time with her.’
And indeed we had. As a retired actor, she had thoroughly appreciated their performances and had then regaled the children with a mesmerising poem of her own.
And this is where we so often fall down as parents. While it is intellectually true that we have a new neighbour with whom we had had a lot of fun, it’s not emotionally true that a new neighbour replaces the former neighbour.
I was able to catch myself. I noticed the stream of thoughts going through my mind:
I should have fostered this relationship more effectively so this wouldn’t have happened (self-blame/guilt)
They’re bad (blame and attack)
Don’t let this child’s distress ruin it for the others (panic)
I wish we didn’t have to move (regret) … this is a danger zone! It’s from here that the mind can trip on its own misery. We only had to move because …, it’s his fault …, I should never have married him …, my whole life is a mess …, you get the picture. The urge to repress these thoughts and the feelings that accompany them can be overwhelming, and when we’re not able to feel our own feelings, we’re not able to let our children feel their feelings. There might, conversely, be an urge to indulge in the pity party but the outcome for our children is the same – in the face of our victimisation, we’re not able to let our children feel their feelings.
It’s a cultural norm to ‘replace the loss’ – captured in sayings like ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea.’ With the weight of tradition in favour of emotional dissonance, we have to make a conscious effort to respond to anyone in distress with congruence. This is why we must take care of our emotional selves – we’re unlikely to be able to come out with something emotionally mature on the hoof if we’ve got an internal story about how bad/stupid/unlucky/victimised we are.
Simple mindfulness is a good place to start.
On Halloween, noticing that I too felt disappointed, sad and angry that the children didn’t get to sing their songs to our former neighbour, meant I was able to hear what my daughter was saying without the urge to shut her up. As the recrimination arose, I was able to ask the question, ‘can I forgive – both myself and them?’ The answer doesn’t have to be yes in the first instance, just entertaining the possibility soothes an agitated spirit.
I was able to say to my daughter, ‘I’m sad too.’ I’m not perfect, it didn’t come out completely without the annoyance I also felt. But it was enough to allow her the opportunity to reflect on what her relationship with our neighbour meant to her. How she appreciated being taught to knit, being given a coin minted in the year of her birth and a birthday always remembered. It reminded me that my relationship with our neighbour is different to the relationship my daughter had with her. This means that my grief (that confusing mixture of feelings that follow a loss) is different to hers. It sounds obvious when it’s spelled out like this but, in the moment, we can be so preoccupied with our own feelings that we forget that every relationship is unique.
Allowing my daughter to express her sadness and reflect on her relationship with our neighbour took about five minutes. After that we were all able to re-enter the spirit of spooky clown and ghost pirate and regale ten more households with the Old Clown of Skin and Bones. The next morning when the children were sorting through their ridiculously enormous haul of goodies, they talked together about how the evening had unfolded. They were able to articulate both feelings of disappointment and appreciation. We reminisced about some of the best moments in their history of guising – like when one of the crofters dressed as a wolf and hid behind the door and booed them when they knocked.
Life has its seasons of loss and return, and I felt comforted listening to my daughters hold space for both fun, gain and pleasure as well as disappointment and confusion. Neither cancelled the other out.
I’d love to hear your stories of how you handle situations like this with your children and the people in your life.
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