Originally Posted on September 19, 2011
Ever since I started taking Seanie to meet with his grief counsellor, I’d been aware that I needed to find a way for the kids to interact with tactile objects that were reminiscent of their mother. The grief counsellor suggested putting together a memory box. This is a box including things Janie used to wear, such as shoes, clothes, earrings, etc. as well as pictures. I have yet to begin on those, but I had an idea early on that I have seen through to fruition.
The picture above is of the “happy wall,” a wall of pictures of our family, which include many photos of Janie holding and loving on the kids. This is to act as a reminder that they had a mother and that she loved them very much. But the happy wall wasn’t just about putting up a bunch of pictures of us as a family. It’s a project that needed a very definite process. I’ll explain.
One thing I heard early on about memory boxes was to involve the children in selecting items they would want to put into their individual box. This gives them a sense of control, which is so important when they had no say whatsoever in their mother passing away. I wanted to do something similar with the happy wall.
Above you see a picture of the wall with the picture frames left empty. The idea was to select a number of photos and allow the children the time to interact with the pictures and select ones they liked, pick the frames, put the pictures in the frames and then put them back up on the wall. As I sit and write this here tonight, I think I did the best thing by following this process.
Not that both kids jumped in with both feet. Seanie participated enthusiastically, picking photos left and right and running up to the wall to pick his frame. I think he saw it as an opportunity to have some say in this whole thing. I tried to help him putting pictures in the different frames, but he wanted to do it all himself, and put it back up on the wall and everything. He kept saying over and over again “I’ll do it myself.” I think this was an empowering exercise for him, and I am so grateful I did it now.
Sophie struggled with this one. I think seeing so many pictures of her mother after only one or two scattered around the house (notably the one on my bedside table) at one time really jarred her. She just didn’t want to participate. She’d sit for a minute and look at a photo, and I’d try to coaxe her into picking one for herself, but she’d just say “uh-uh” and walk off to sulk for a moment or two before eventually coming back. After a while she became distracted and went out into the garden to play. I decided to not press the issue as she was probably feeling very confused and saddened by the whole thing. I forged on regardless as I know it will be of value to her in the future.
Sean worked alongside me in this task almost right up to the end. Eventually he missed his sister and ran out to look for her and play together. I rummaged through the last photos and put them up myself. It was, for me, an extremely emotionally draining task. I’ve not felt that weary at the end of a day in weeks. It’s carried on over into today, and I eventually broke down in the presence of friends earlier tonight. This is the hard, necessary part of attacking grief: going into the places and situations where it really hurts and opening yourself up to feel the full frontal assault of the loss. It’s difficult stuff, but I know to the core of my soul I have done a good thing for my children.
This morning, the kids were up at their usual jolly 5am hour. I put on the box and made them their tea, and collapsed back in bed for another hour or so. When I got out of bed, I found several pictures of Sophie with Janie scattered around the lounge. While I catnapped, Sophie had been pulling down pictures of herself and her mother and interacting with them. Being that she’s two, she probably noticed Tinkie Winkie or whomever dancing around on the screen and just dropped the picture wherever she was standing at the time, but then would eventually think of her mother again and go pick another picture, sitting with it for a while. That’s a good thing. She has very little vocabulary to express her feelings. I heard her calling “mommy, mommy, mommy” at several points throughout the day. She hasn’t done that since about the week after Janie died. Suddenly, she’s right back in those emotions. It’s hard to witness, but I know it’s necessary for her in her grief journey.
At one point during the morning, Seanie asked me “daddy, can I please have a picture of my mommy?” I asked him which one he wanted, and after some pointing at this or that one, we settled on the one of Janie kissing her Springbok’s jersey. He held it, like he was just sitting with her, hanging out and watching TV. He said “I will give this to mommy when she comes back home.” I had to go back in to telling him his mother was dead, which is always so very painful as I think the pictures have also had the effect of awakening that latent sense of hope that she will return eventually. Children of his age have no sense of time, everything is just one long now. I told him mommy wasn’t coming home because she was dead and that means she isn’t alive like you and me and she can’t come home any longer. He said “that’s not such a good idea,” which is his sort of blanket statement for “that sucks.” It does buddy, it does suck. But he seems legitimately happy to look at the pictures. He pulled a few down during the day and took them with him to go play in the garden. He’d bring them back in and leave them someplace for me to find. I’ll be pinning pictures back up on the wall for months to come. I’m fine with that.
There are still so many more grief tasks for me to get into, but I think this one will help us for years to come. The idea is, over time, to rotate out some of the pictures for new ones of us while never totally removing Janie from the wall. But in time, there will be photos of our family as it is now doing things and making new memories. Always with an eye on the past, because she is always going to be a part of our family.
In a sense, the happy wall is the one place in the house where we can go and commune with the memory of her. I like that it’s positioned right at the front door so that when you cross the threshold, there is our story, right there at the entrance of our home. A constant reminder that we were blessed enough to have had such an outstanding person in our lives for far too short a span of time, but whose impact has changed us for the better, forever.
This has been, without a doubt, the single most difficult day I have had since the first few days following Janie’s death. The weariness I have felt today was of the variety that robs you of the will to live. The kids were very needy today, no doubt because they are processing difficult emotions themselves. They squabbled almost non-stop all day long. Being a Saturday, they’d normally skip naps since they hadn’t expended enough energy, but today they both went down without a peep. The emotional upheaval of the happy wall took it out of them too.
But I cannot help but think that this might have been the best thing I have done for the kids since I landed with the job of their sole remaining parent. It’s painful and difficult to watch them struggling and processing these things in the ways a three and two year old will, which involves a lot of crying, neediness and clinging, and when you’re labouring under your own grief these sorts of demands can push you right to the brink. I didn’t have a great day with the kids today, but in the balance I have had far worse ones while bearing much less emotional strain. In the balance, today was a victory, the day after a major battle where we secured the town and repelled the enemy. We are brawling grief together as a family, and even though we’re exhausted and sad, we are getting somewhere together.
I look forward to the future when we will go back to the happy wall time and again to reminisce about the memories those photos elicit. I look forward to us pulling out old photos and finding new homes for them in big family albums, and putting up new photos of us as we are at the time. The old life was good. The new one will be also. The happy wall will be our place to rejoice in what was and give thanks for what we have now and who we are becoming, which all owes so much to that fantastic, wonderful woman that we knew as mommy and darling. She is very much with us.