So I thought I’d try the questions WAF suggested for National Adoption Week on my five year old son. I felt a little uneasy with the questions, as some could be seen as loaded. It is like asking children with long antennae what other people think; they are bound to have a view. I was just worried he may be searching for what he thought I might like to hear, rather than what he thinks. What I really want for my son is for him learn to check in with himself and to trust himself and his feelings, what ever they may be. I wondered which route these questions would led us down.
What happened next I didn’t expect.
The first question was lost in conversation.
To the second, ‘What is the colour of my eyes?’, he answered ‘Blue. … Mine are brown.’ We looked into each others eyes as if to check, and smiled. ‘Yep.’
The next two questions about what makes me happy and sad, I thought potentially loaded, for the same reasons as already mentioned. So, I breathed in and asked
‘What makes me happy? Or what do you think makes me happy?’
‘Me.’ (We both laughed.) ‘Yup. You certainly do.’
‘What do you think makes me sad.’ Another loaded question, potentially.
‘… You’re right. … yes….’ He went straight to where it hurt.
At this point my son turned the tables on me and started to ask a host of questions. We never did finish the questions. This was an important pressing subject and we are still discussing it. Days later. It has taken many twists and turns since the other day at the lunch table.
Martin is a childhood, or youthhood friend of mine, who died after a short and aggressive illness. I didn’t make it back to say goodbye in person. He died only a week ago. And I cried. No, I sobbed. In front of my son, after reading a particularly beautiful tribute to him.
‘Why did he make you cry, mummy? Because he died?’
‘Yes, it makes me sad that Martin died.’
‘Why did he die?’
‘Because he got very ill.’
‘But didn’t he go to hospital to get better? Couldn’t the doctors fix him?’
‘He did go to hospital. A lot… But the doctors couldn’t fix him. He died of a very rare illness.’
We talked and talked and talked. He asked and asked and asked. About death, about all of Martin’s family and how they might feel now that he is no longer there. He was particularly sad to learn that his mum and dad were still alive. ‘They must feel very sad that Martin died.’ ‘Yes darling. I am sure they miss him very much.’
He asked what sort of a person Martin was. There a literally hundreds of wonderful stories about him I could pick from, so that part was easy. He was a silly and very very funny person, so it did good remembering. It also did good also to tell my son about some things from my youth.
We talked some more about death. About us parents. Especially daddy. And when he might die. And my son told me we are all going to die. But not for a long long time. That we would go to the sun to get energy and come back to earth to give it to the doctors so they can give it to their old patients. ‘The morning that daddy turns 100 he is going to hospital so they can fix him.’
We sometimes talk about death. I know he knows loss. And so talking about death and other difficult things is a part of our lives. It is more a matter of how than if.
When I cried, I could have answered ‘Oh, sweetheart, it’s nothing. Mummy just got something in her eye…’ But we would both know that wasn’t true. In effect I would have been lying. Straight to his face. Over time I might even teach him to lie to himself, and negate his feelings.
If there is one thing I wish for my son it is for him to be true to his own self. And that he can hear and express his inner voice as freely and respectfully as possible.
He reminds me daily that it is possible, necessary even, to speak of difficult subjects. Such as death and loss. Two very intertwined issues.
In his little body he knows what loss is. There is no shielding him from it. It has happened. More than once. Losing everything he knew overnight. Not talking about loss and death is like pretending it didn’t happen to him. It’s like not discussing the fact that he is not our flesh and blood, even if he is our son. Discussion on the other hand feels like acknowledgning that life is complicated. And for him more than most. It is certainly not all children that you can have these discussions with.
We are often told to shield our children from bad news and feelings. Our society are so quick with the fixes. ‘Have you tried …? It works a treat.’ Anything from insomnia to broken cups or relationships. Sometimes it sits better with me just to let the bad and uncomfortable feeling be. Not to quash it in fixing. Acknowledge it. Squarely. Show that we can contain it. Especially as parents. Modelling what we do with those feelings. Because none of us are shielded, and the kids watch our every step anyway.
My son has recently been voicing a lot of things about his own history. For the first time he has initiated talks about this birth mum, and to me more significantly, used her name. He has long remained silent or refused to speak of his background. Well that has all changed over the past month or so.
Very sweetly when I mentioned to him that a friend of his was adopted too, he asked if she too had lived with his own fostermum? He was very excited about this prospect of sharing history. Clearly, she is the place all adopted kids go to before they land with their adoptive families.
So the discussion around Martin, and death and loss are continuning. Several times every day. Now they have morphed in to musings and pondering about being adopted. I feel for the first time that my son is verbalising something very deep and painful in him. Like a prism he is looking, thinking, wondering, pondering and feeling around it.
Asking so directly what made me, his mum, sad, somehow opened lines of communication about what makes him sad. I feel he knows from the strength of my own feelings that I would understand his strength of feeling, or at the very least contain difficult issues and feelings, such as grief which of course is at the very heart of this.