Within the span of a week, our family has been through quite a bit of events. First, PapaLorp's car were involved in pile-up collision. While he was ok, and truly, it is the most important thing, his car was totaled. Second, the very next day, he also lost his job -- meaning the livelihood of our family. Since then, he has been home a lot, and the Tod knows something is up, even though none of us was ready to share with him what really happened.
First, how do I know that the Tod is impacted by this situation? His routine has turned erratic, he has become defiant in the littlest things that we ask of him, even his appetite is all over the place. My Even-Steven Tod seems confused and "unbalanced." I am unbalanced, myself. I have not had a time to process these events. But somehow, when you become a parent, you look after your child first -- I guess it is the survival instinct.
Between my husband and I, we've shared quite a great deal of life's ups and downs. We've been through lay-offs, job shifts, moves across the country, car wrecks, lost of properties, etc. We can handle them, we know from the past experience that life happens and life moves on. But to young children, even the slightest thing can throw off their sense of security.
I have been thinking a lot about how to share these news to the Tod; after all, he is a member of our family and he deserves to know. Many people would argue that a 3 year old child won't comprehend such life-altering events that even adults have hard time coping, but I beg to differ. I think children has the capacity to absorb and make sense of the life around them, and it is the job of the adults around them to help them makes sense of the situation so they can create a cohesive narration of the event (for more of this theory, I'd recommend books by Dr. Dan Siegel -- which includes "Parenting from the Inside Out").
So, I opened up a conversation with him this afternoon.
"Hi sweetie, do you notice that Papa is staying at home a lot?"
"Yes, are you going to work, Mama?"
"That's true, isn't it? When Papa is home, usually I go to work, right?"
Then silence. He knew something was up.
"What happened to Papa's car?"
"Do you want to take a look?"
I thought, Darn! I shouldn't have said this. What happen if he freaks out? But knowing the Tod, who loves anything mechanical, I knew he'd be curious. So, we took the short walk to where the car was parked on the street. The mangled debris, hanging headlights, squished engine all fascinated him immediately. He touched the dirty car, looked at the cables hanging out from the headlights, looked underneath the hood to see where the fluid was coming out. Then he said to me,
"I will fix it, Mama. I want to fix Papa's car and then Papa will be happy again."
Suddenly, my eyes got really hot. This amazing little soul feels that he can help and he wants to help his dad. I stood there, holding back tears as best as I could, tried to just be present to his comments and assessments.
"What happen to the car, Mama?"
"Do you want to know?"
We went back to the house and I explained to him, with a pretend play using his toy cars, how the car hit each other. I repeated this pretend play over and over and over again for the next few days. I also read that when the child is this young, their still-egocentric world tends to "blame" everything that is wrong onto themselves, even though logically it does not make sense for us adults, so I stressed the fact that he does not have anything to do with the broken car. "Cars are broken sometimes. It just happens. Then we fix them back, just like toys."
Explaining a job loss is a different matter. The fact that adults go to a job, to earn a living, is a very abstract concept. The Tod has visited my husband's office and he always had a great fun there (which breaks my heart even more to tell him that he won't be able to visit the office again). My husband and I agreed that we need to somehow tell the Tod what happen so that his daily routine is preserve, even with the presence of Papa at home.
"So, Papa is at home now?"
"Yes, Papa is going to be at home for a bit now. Do you know why?"
"I think because Papa's car is broken"
"I think so. But what else?"
"Because Mama is going to work"
"Yes, Mama is going to work more now, and you will be at home with Papa for a bit. Are you going to be ok with that?"
"And Papa is at home now because Papa is all done with the X company. Do you remember Papa's X company office?"
"I want to go to X office again!"
"Yes, we had so much fun at X office, didn't we? Oh, I wish we can do so, sweetheart. But Papa is all done with the X company. Now, Papa is going to look for a new office to work at."
"A new office?"
"Yes, a new office."
"With an elevator?"
By this time, I know he's going to be ok. Elevator is his most favorite thing in the world, and we chatted about some elevators that we have rode in the past.
I expect the Tod will want to talk again about why Papa is staying at home and why Mama is going to work more often than usual. I plan to keep communication open and stay present with what he knows, what he wants to know, and where his interest lays.
In the end, talking about loss to my son has brought up a conversation deeper about his understanding of things, not so much about my agenda of what I want him to understand about the situation. I can't help to think of other tragedies going on in the world, and on how someday, he will understand them and want me to help him understand it all. I feel such privilege, honor, and immense responsibility washing over me.. who am I that the universe entrusted me with this precious soul?
But most unexpectedly, there was a strange peace that filled me that afternoon, when my husband came home with the news. We went out to eat as a pick me up, to cheer us up a bit. The Tod was pleasantly surprised that PapaLorp was home early; he skipped in between us as he hold tight to our hands. As we swung him in the air to the count of three, I could feel his palpable joy, I thought, wow, we are so blessed, so blessed that we can feel joy in the midst of loss. Truly, the tragedy makes the joy of life sweeter. I wish it isn't so. I wish I can always be mindful about the joy of life, as sweet as this is, without bad things happening. I wish it isn't so.
There are many helpful guides out there by experts on how to talk to young children about loss. If you have children, I particularly found the ones by Dr. Laura Markham helpful, along with books from Dr. Dan Siegel mentioned above. I hope that by sharing our situation, many will feel that sharing bad news with young children is not as daunting. Did you ever have to break a bad news to your children? How did your children take it? Or did your parents ever share a bad news to you when you were a child and how did they do it? Have you ever been in a personal tragedy that freed, rather than burdened you? How do you turn lemons into lemonade? Please share your recipes (lemonades or else) and your experiences below. I wish you and your loved ones well, where ever you are.