At the kitchen table: on family dynamics

photo by  Kate Inglis

photo by Kate Inglis

Throughout the month of January, our regular contributors are writing and talking about family—both the family of origin and the family we select as adults through our friends. The ways in which our family can be there, and the way they can't, after the death of our child(ren).

1. What was your relationship with your immediate family (mother, father, sisters and/or brothers) like before your child died? How have those relationships changed?

Angie: I have always been very close to my family. Before and after.

Josh: I have always been close to my parents. Losing Margot hasn't changed this.

Jess: We are a big rabble of lovely chaotic familialness, that hasn't changed. I think the changes are deeper than that. Probably deeper than I can see or even care to look for.

Julia: We'd had our differences before, and we've had them since. It has never been particularly simple, but for the most part, I have been close to my family. It's been nearly five years now, which is a long time, the kind of time where time itself plays a big role in how relationships evolve.

Catherine: Being just the four of us, with no extended family near at hand, we have always been close. I have always confided in both my sister and my mother and relied on my father's generosity and kindness. But, after Georgina died, something shifted. I felt a distance between us. Perhaps because we could not help one another? Our default response, to try and fix the problem, was simply not a possibility. As a result I think we all flailed about for a time. 

2. Has your family been a refuge or safe haven, or a place where your grief is unaccepted?

Angie: Definitely a refuge. My immediate family, mother and sister, remember Lucia and talk of her often. My father is very ill, and doesn't remember her, or if he does, he doesn't speak of her.

Josh: Yes, a refuge, a safe haven. They speak of Margot often and ask how we're doing. Outside of us, they miss her more than anyone.

Jess: My family just IS. It's a place where I am normal, however I am. It's not somewhere I'd identify as safe or a refuge, but perhaps that's the realest, most privileged kind of security; so safe you'd never doubt or question it. Incidentally, if I could provide one thing for my living children, it would be just that.

Julia: I would never have doubted that my family would be accepting. And they have been. They may not always see it coming, but they do always accept that it is. 

Catherine: Initially I felt that my grief was accepted. As time wore on, less so. I think it is uncomfortable to sit and listen to someone who talks so very much about a situation that cannot be resolved or changed. And I know I found it very difficult to even feign interest in anything other than the twins and what had happened to them for at least a year. Which made for dreary and discomfiting company.  

3. How has your partner's family, if you have one, been there for you? For your partner?

Angie: My husband's family has been a refuge for him, I think. I don't talk about my grief openly with my mother-in-law, but I talk about my work here and there. My sisters-in-law, on the other hand, have been so incredibly supportive and loving. I feel very fortunate.

Josh: The same as my family. Kari's family is very loving and supportive. They fly out to watch my firstborn so Kari and I can get away and grieve together...they speak her name and miss her like my own parents do.

Jess: Ah. This is a difficult one for me. David's family would like to be there, I think. They have always been open and tried so hard. But I have struggled to let them be there for me. They weren't the ones I wanted.

Julia: My mother-in-law has been the stereotypical horror story of bad family reactions. She disapproved of what we did, how we did it. She was convinced we were harming our living daughter by allowing her to grieve rather than distracting her and minimizing the whole thing for her. From time to time I find that I still have very strong feelings about her behavior then and since.

Catherine: My in-laws met Georgina whilst she was alive and were there on the day that she died. I've hardly spoken to them about her since. I don't believe that my husband has either. It is not their way, his or theirs. When I checked with my husband about my response to this question he said (and I hope this doesn't sound flippant) 'don't mention the war.'

4. Have your immediate and extended family accepted your child(ren) as part of the family? Do they talk about your baby(ies)? Do they mourn?

Angie: Yes, absolutely. My mother wears a necklace with all her grandchildren's names on it, and in family collages, she always includes a picture of Lucia's name.

Josh: Yes. For Christmas this year, my whole family went to Margot's River (where we spread her ashes) and talked about her and sang to her. I am so lucky and don't take it for granted.

Jess: They accept, they remember, they mourn, but they don't speak about her that much. 

Julia: My family accepts and remembers. My husband's? Not so very. My family doesn't go out of their way to speak his name, which is really ok with me because that's the way we all are. They don't hide when it comes up naturally, and that's the way I like it to be.

Catherine: My immediate family do. My sister and my mother will mention her from time and time. My extended family too but only because I've prompted them to do so. In the very early days, one of my cousins listed my Ouma's great-grandchildren but omitted Georgina, who was named for my Ouma. I was so hurt that I added her rather pointedly on the wonderfully public forum of facebook. So nobody on that side of the family will ever dare to forget her again! My husband's family don't mention her at all. I don't know if they mourn. 

5. What kind of support did your immediate family offer? Did they lose themselves in action, like cooking and cleaning? Or were they emotionally supportive?

Angie: In the early throes of grief, my mother was distant. I thought she blamed me for Lucia's death yet I was unable to reach out. She grieved very deeply, I realize now, but at the time, I thought it was an indictment of me.

Josh: I feel like I keep repeating myself here, but my parents and sisters were very supportive. They took care of my living child, they asked questions, they cooked and cleaned...more than we could have asked for.

Jess: They were practical and protective. I think they almost froze other people out. My family turn inside, I think. 

Julia: The day of the funeral my dad decided that the thermostat control in our house needed to be changed/updated. He needed something to do, and this he could do. My dad doesn't talk much, and certainly not about grief. But he held onto our shoulders when we held onto the casket, and that is how he said what was there to say. My sister has been the person I can talk to the most, but all of them have been supportive practically (in the early days) and emotionally then and since.

Catherine: My father was immensely practical. My mother has always said about him, don't listen to the words, watch the actions. Sometimes, even when his words were unintentionally hurtful, his attention to the running of my car, his purchasing of the lunches, the driving to the NICU when I was too shaken to do so for myself, spoke of the love that he had for his children and grandchildren. My mother knitted little blankets and covers for the NICU. I think they were as emotionally supportive as I would let them. I was not easy to be with in those early weeks and months. 

6. What was it like to bear witness to your family's grief? In what ways could you be present for them? In what ways could you not be present?

Angie: I couldn't see their grief through my own. Now I can. But I told them very directly that I could not be present for them, that I couldn't hear about their grief. I don't know why. I just didn't want to comfort anyone.

Josh: I think my parents probably grieve together and then set their own grief aside in order to meet me where I'm at. The times when they do cry or talk about their grief, I feel comforted by it. It's so nice to see others who are missing her.

Jess: With my family, they made it all about me. With David's family it was also about them. I resented their grief, and utterly rejected it.

Julia: In the first year there was a several months long rift between me and my mother. She grieved deeply, but, at times, in a way that seemed like she thought she was the worst off. I think mostly it was inartful phrasing (she was talking about how hard it was to both grieve and watch her child grieve), but a the time it was more than I could deal with. 

Catherine: I'm ashamed to say that I didn't even consider them. I was intensely focused on Georgina's death and Jessica's condition in intensive care to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. I wish I had been more present for them, particularly my younger sister who was more shaken than I realised. It is a source of deep regret to me that I did not bear witness to them or try to help them.  

7. When you reflect on deaths in your extended family, how did the treatment of your child's (or children's) death differ from, say, the death of a grandparent?

Angie: My grandmother died two months after Lucia. And my mother said something to me like that funerals were important rituals, and she felt robbed of that with Lucia's death. I didn't have a funeral for her. That is one of my many regrets of that time, because I think it would have given a voice and opening for many of my friends and family to grieve with us and do something. That was our mistake.

Josh: There haven't been any deaths in my extended family. I really don't have anything to compare this to.

Jess: Like Josh, there haven't been many deaths in my family. Iris' funeral was the first I'd ever been to.

Julia: We kept the funeral family only, even though friends had asked to come. But we let them organize a lunch at our house for after, and letting them do that was good for us. In the way where we were surrounded by family and friends and validated in the rightness of our grief, it was like what happened when grandparents had died. But we didn't have stories of A to tell, like we do for the grandparents.

Catherine: We had a funeral for Georgina but my family didn't want to attend, although I asked them to. My family aren't really ones for 'ceremonies' as such and I think they might have felt as though they were intruding. Several members of our extended family overseas have died over the years, some unexpectedly, and my parents did not travel for their funerals. I'd never considered that before I came to answer this question. Perhaps, unlike Angie's mother, they truly don't consider the ritual aspect important? Suddenly I find their refusal to attend Georgina's funeral a little more understandable. It's always slightly puzzled me.