Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Riding a Wave of Grief: A Life Lesson

(The following story was told to me by a friend; details have been changed to protect privacy.)

An early winter snowstorm left Janet with an unexpected whole day alone with her 17-year-old daughter Ally. As was typical for the pair, they spent the morning in comfortable separateness. Janet took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on paperwork, while Ally stayed in her room working on college applications. In Janet's view her relationship with her daughter had been close, but now that Ally was immersed in a zillion activities and life with her friends, the intimate talks had, in a way that Janet felt was appropriate, fallen off. She missed the closeness, but respected her daughter's need to have some space, especially given her imminent departure for college.

They met in the kitchen mid-day and chatted over lunch, deciding that when they had each done a bit more work, they would take some time to go through clothes in Ally's closet to weed out things she no longer wore.

An hour or so later Janet knocked on her daughter's door. Not hearing a response, she opened the door to find Ally's back to her, with her head in her closet. "Is this an OK time?" she asked. Ally nodded her head, but did not answer. When Janet approached, Ally turned her head towards a small pile of clothes in the middle of the room.  Janet saw that she was silently crying. Alarmed, she asked, "What's wrong?" but Ally simply shook her head, seemingly unable to speak. Janet was mystified, as just a short while before everything had been fine. She began to guess. "Did someone say something to you?" Ally shook her head. "Did something happen?" Again no. Janet saw her daughter's lower lip quivering, just as it had when as a little girl. Reaching out her arms to hold her, she saw Ally gesture towards her computer where she had been working on her applications. "Is it college?" "Are you feeling sad about leaving?" Finally, sensing that her mother would not give up, Ally managed to eek out, "It's a song." But more questions led nowhere as Ally seemed unable to talk any more. Finally she told her mother she wanted to be alone. "OK, " Janet said. "I'll check on you in a bit."

Still facing a pile of work, as well as dinner to be made, Janet put it all aside. After a half hour she returned to Ally's room, where Ally somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept her mother's help with the closet. She seemed to have calmed down, and while she was still subdued, the tears had stopped. As they became involved in the task of sorting through clothes, sharing memories associated with various items, Ally seemed to return to herself.

After making dinner Janet returned to check in with Ally, letting her know that as the snow had stopped she was going out to a meeting. As she went to get ready, Ally followed her to her room, saying, "OK, I'm calm enough now that I can tell you."

At this point on the verge of being late for her meeting, Janet followed Ally into her room and sat on the bed. Again the lower lip quivered. After they sat together in a period of silence, softly Ally said, "Everyone dies in the summer," followed by a pause and then, "That's the song lyrics." Now Ally was freely crying as Janet too felt tears well in her eyes. Sobs shook Ally's body as she relaxed in to her mother's arms.

"Everyone dies in the summer." That previous summer, a boy Ally had briefly dated was killed in a car accident. He was in college so they hadn't seen each other for some time. There was a lot of communal mourning, with parties and bonfires to celebrate his life. Despite encouragement, Ally had shared little of her feelings around the event with her parents. Janet had been worried at the time about how Ally was dealing with the death, but then as the school year began and things got busy, her concern had faded to the background.

But here it was, close to half a year later. Janet sat with Ally while her sobs slowed to a soft cry and eventually subsided. Janet decided to skip her meeting. The rest of the family came home and they all had dinner together. Now able to talk about what had happened, Ally expressed surprise that the song lyrics could have had such an effect on her.

Later in the evening Janet noticed that Ally was again in her room. Still worried about her daughter's emotional state, she went to check on her. "What are you doing? " she asked after finding Ally again at her computer. "I'm writing a poem." Once this wave of grief had a chance to move through and then pass, Janet observed in her daughter a kind of ease and freedom, accompanied by a burst of creativity.

As she relived this whole encounter in her mind, Janet found herself flooded with gratitude. Grateful to be present with her daughter in that moment. Grateful that Ally could let herself feel the sadness while still in the safety of her home. Ally now knew in her mind and in her body the value of moving through grief to healing and growth.  For Janet, hope now mixed with the sadness as she contemplated her own impending loss, as her daughter prepared to take her first steps out in the world on her own.