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Use your words

September 30, 2011

This morning was what I’ve come to see as a typical morning. It had all the usual hustling and scurrying and how-fast-can-I-down-this-caffeine craziness that’s been part of our lives since Dot was born.

N was helping Dot into a fresh diaper and reading her a story as I popped my contact lenses in, and, from the bathroom, I heard her say, “Shoes!” This made sense. I’d left her little white tennis shoes on top of the pile of books next to the rocking chair, aka, the “read it” chair in her room. It was earlier than usual to get her into her clothes, but after some negotiating, I managed to get her socks on, and then a pair of pants. The pants, however, were upsetting for some reason.

This is one piece of knowledge that came with parenthood that still sometimes surprises me, that pants, or socks, or a certain color of shirt, can be deeply emotional. Anyway, these were clearly upsetting pants, and Dot didn’t want the shoes on after the trauma of being forced to wear pants. Not unusual, any of this.

What was new, is this. After we’d pointed to the shoes and she’d said, “No!” several times, Dot looked at us and in her most seriously husky tone of voice said, “Sad. Be-bop. Be-bop sad.” (Be-bop is the nickname she uses to refer to herself most often these days.)

This is the first time she’s clearly connected an expression of emotion to herself, through words. It didn’t break my heart, but I felt it crack just a little.

I know that it’s good to express your feelings, and I know that learning to describe and express feelings is a big deal, and I’m happy that Dot is learning to do it. I also know that sadness is part of life and that one of the worst things I can do as a parent is shelter Dot so much that she doesn’t end up with tools to deal with sadness.

But I don’t want her to be sad. Not ever. Not even over something like having to wear pants. Not even when I think that it’s kind of funny that she feels so sad about having to wear pants.

Why oh why couldn’t I have picked out happy pants?

My heart trembles for our future, for her future. As we start thinking of how to talk to her about her brother (and by we, I mean mostly me, since N would, I think, prefer that we wait until Dot is much older before we talk to her about Teddy), I hurt for the fact that she was born into this particular sadness, into the loss of a brother, and that I can’t protect her from it. I can try to help her come to an understanding that works for her, and I can be honest, and I can try to create a sense of safety so that she can tell me how she feels and can ask questions as she has them. I can show her that life is an amazing gift, and that she’s surrounded by love, and that we love her and her brother forever.

But I can’t bring him back for her, can’t erase what his loss has done to us or the fact that it’s helped shape who we are as a family. The ways that Teddy’s death have shaped us haven’t been all bad – it’s definitely a mixed bag – but we are different than we were, different than we would have been, and that is one of the things that is hard to talk about.

I worry that I won’t have the right words, won’t know how to tell this story, which is her story, too.

We spend so much time encouraging the development of language skills with very young persons; we encourage talking about anger, sadness, and fear instead of acting them out. “Use your words,” say the teachers and care givers, “Use your words.” In spite of all this, as we turn into adults, something happens to most of us. Talking about feelings becomes harder. The need to appear positive becomes stronger. We start using our words to gloss over such unimportant things as how we are feeling and to move onto more palatable topics, like the weather, or the next work project. And all of a sudden, I realize I’m an adult woman who has trouble saying, “Sad. Erica. Erica is sad.”

And it’s not just me. I see so many students every year who are clearly confused and yet who are so obviously terrified that something terrible will happen if they can’t make it look like they know what they’re doing. I see so many people apologize for asking a question at the library’s public reference desk that exists precisely so that there is a place to come with questions. We treat emotions, even common everyday ones like uncertainty, as things that need to be ignored or set aside in order to get on with what is important, and sometimes this makes a lot of sense, but sometimes the emotions are a big part of what’s important.

I worry about those words. I worry that if I say them when I am sad, people will think that all I am is sad, or that I’m sad forever, or that I’m selfishly calling attention to myself. I worry that I need to couch them in other words so that they aren’t so stark and plain, that I need to qualify them, draw attention away from them, deny them.

I spend so much time thinking of the best way to put things, of the prettiest words, or the words calculated to get the most support for a project, or the most professional words. My life is full of working with words and awareness of the power of words. Maybe this is a small part of why it is hard to say, baldly, “I am sad.”

But if I can re-learn to say this, as my daughter has only now learned to do, with honesty and the belief that these words are important, without the fear that they’ll be used to describe me forever, I’ll be better able to tell Dot about her brother, better able to help her feel safe and understood, better at letting her know that it’s okay to be sad, better at a lot of things, really.

I believe that. I’ll work on it. You know, while I look for some happier pants.

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10 comments

  1. When you find Dot’s happy pants, I’d love to know because I could use a couple pair of my own!

    I’m still coming to terms with the idea that I can be sad and not be broken or ruined or worse. I know it’s true, but sometimes I still struggle to believe it.


  2. Holy shit, Erica, this post is just so beautiful. Wow.

    I have found that through my children, I am able to articulate my emotions more easily. And also through Lucy’s death, I am able to articular them better. I am able to whittle it down to a few key emotions, rather than the dissertation I write in my head trying to figure out if I am sad-afraid, or afraid-sad, and why, and how deep it goes and what childhood trauma led to it. I love this line: “Why oh why couldn’t I have picked out happy pants?” It made me smile, but then it just seemed so profound–why, indeed. Why can’t we all pick the happy pants?

    Thank you for this one. It is just gorgeous.


  3. Wow.. I mean wow. This paragraph:

    We spend so much time encouraging the development of language skills with very young persons; we encourage talking about anger, sadness, and fear instead of acting them out. “Use your words,” say the teachers and care givers, “Use your words.” In spite of all this, as we turn into adults, something happens to most of us. Talking about feelings becomes harder. The need to appear positive becomes stronger. We start using our words to gloss over such unimportant things as how we are feeling and to move onto more palatable topics, like the weather, or the next work project. And all of a sudden, I realize I’m an adult woman who has trouble saying, “Sad. Erica. Erica is sad.”

    You said this SO well. I wrote about the movie 50/50 and how the writer talks about the need to share reality vs. platitudes. This is kind of how I see you point.. we need to acknowledge the ‘sad’ in order to accept it and possibly cope with it. You are doing an amzing job mamma….


  4. I am by no means an expert but I feel like children are such amazingly resilient entities. Teaching them about death early on, well, maybe it only helps to normalize it so in the future when they are faced with death it isn’t such a traumatic experience.

    Good luck in finding the right words. If you find them, let me know so I can store them away for use in the future.


  5. Such a beautiful piece of writing.

    I often feel that J was born into terrible sadness, a loss so grave that I can’t really understand it never having lost a sibling or a twin. I remember standing next to her bay in the NICU feeling so impotent, I couldn’t help her fight for her life and I could not restore her sister to her. It seems like such a harsh blow to receive so early in life, whether it be at a few days old like J or before they were even dreamt of like Dot and R.

    But I agree with Brianna. They are more resilient than I give them credit for and I am also in agreement with you, that it is a mixed bag.

    I don’t think I’ll ever be able to approach a library public reference desk without apologising for asking for help! Strange how it is so ingrained. And words like sad or dead don’t come easily despite their somewhat annoyingly persistent existence.


  6. What amazing writing. It’s late and my brain is fried and I’m struggling to come up with profound things to say but I completely understood the fear of naming an emotion and, ever after, being defined by it.


  7. Oh wow I’m with everyone else. This was extraordinary. I’m right in this with you. I also smiled at the line why couldn’t I pick out the happy pants. Amazing how a piece of writing can have you smiling one minute then wanting to weep the next.
    I wish it didn’t have to be this way for us.


  8. Stunning post. I got all choked up reading your words. My DD has just started communicating with reason and meaning and the first time she tells me she’s sad I will try and remember these words “why oh why couldn’t I have picked the happy pants.”

    Here from the Roundup.


  9. My sister and her husband were killed in a car accident two years ago. In addition to our three boys (11, 9 and 4) we now have adopted my two nieces (15 and 11). What is so hard for me is accepting that our kids have this loss of innocence. My four year old knows about death in such a real way. He talks about it all the time. They know moms and dads can die. I wish I could take that knowledge from them. I’m new to your blog and loved your words. Thank you and good luck.


  10. Oh my…this post could’ve been written by me (but not so wonderfully said of course). I worry about the sadness in my kids as well. We had twins last year (one stillborn and one healthy) when my son was just 3.5 years old. He embraces heaven and death in a way that I never understood at his age (now 5). He wonders why his brother died, and what he will say to him when we meet him. But I fear SO like you, for my daughter (our survivor)…she seems so innocent of loss and pain right now at only 18 months. Of course, we tell her stories of her twin brother, but she does not yet understand, and it pains my heart to know there will be a time when she truly does understand. Even though I know that loss is a part of life, watching my living children hurt makes me ache for my lost son all the more. Many hugs.



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