When Mark died he was far away and although Teddy was affected by my grief, I am not sure he experienced any of his own. For Teddy the day-to-day intensity of the familial relationship was gone. Mark was kept alive to Teddy through family stories and so to him not much had changed.
Not so long after Mark died, Jim died. This death was more difficult for Teddy. Teddy understood that Uncle Jim was sick and had Mark’s death to put death in context with. He was upset knowing that Jim would die. His communication skills were poor, and telephone conversations with Jim did little to prepare him for the inevitable. I found it difficult for both of us to be at a distance from Jim at this critical time in his life, but I also felt it was important to Teddy not to have his life overwhelmed with Jim’s very slow dying. I knew too that Jim’s death would be devastating for me, and I needed to allow others to take the main role as Teddy needed me as a full-time mom.
When Jim died we went to a funeral with his family and a celebration of his life with his friends. The funeral was devastating to Teddy. He saw Uncle Jim dead in a coffin and did not want to leave him there. We sat some distance from the coffin for a long time and tried to help Teddy make sense of what was happening, but as my own beliefs around death were muddled, I was not of much help to him. I was also devastated when I saw how much AIDS had changed Jim since I had last seen him and was wracked with grief. In the end, I think allowing Teddy to hug and kiss Uncle Jim goodbye was what he took the greatest comfort in.
I think the celebration of Jim’s life confused Teddy. Although Teddy knew many people there, his grief was more personal and he did not fully comprehend why all these people were talking about Jim the way they did. He was used to being center stage when Jim was around, and I don’t think he imagined Jim had a life separate from his. He could not appreciate the rational behind a celebration and death.
It was very different when “BoBo” died. Teddy for some reason now forgotten always called my grandmother Bo Bo. When we moved to Michigan his relationship with her flowered. They shared something extraordinary. He was devastated by her death but took comfort in something so simple and so unplanned that I can’t believe she did not some how have a hand in it.
We were driving from Ann Arbor where we lived, to Livonia where all my family lived, and I had to tell Teddy that BoBo had died. Telling him this is the car under most circumstances would be a very poor choice as it allowed me no ability to comfort him, but it turned out to be critically important. After I told Teddy Bo Bo had died, he wanted to know where she was. I pointed to the clouds we saw from the car and pointed to a big fluffy cumulous cloud and said she was there in heaven.
Any day we have a bright blue sky with big fluffy clouds, Teddy is reminded of BoBo. He remembers her, expresses his love for her, remarks she “is with the angels”, and that he misses her. He is also reminded of Mark and Jim whom he also understands live there. “They live with all the angels too.” The I am so thankful it was a beautiful day the day my grandmother died for it seems to have given Teddy a positive outlook on death.
For many children the first death they experience is one of a pet. Teddy would lose many pets, but only after these three important people in his life died. Raising rabbits for us is a deadly hobby. We had a number of baby rabbits die with a too aggressive mother, and when we lived in England all our rabbits died from a common English rabbit disease. Each rabbit death would renew Teddy’s grief for everyone – person or rabbit – who had died before. In grief, Teddy found the most comfort in being told the bunnies were with BoBo and she was taking care of them. “ All the bunnies are in heaven, the ones from England, from Syracuse, from Michigan, all of them.” When Teddy’s grandparents’ cat died, she just naturally joined the bunnies in BoBo’s care.
Teddy, like many others, felt he had an intimate relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales. He and his classmates had danced with her in attendance at the Royal Norfolk Show and this had cemented a bond he felt to her. When she died, Princess Diana was the first public figure to die that he had any connection to. I kept him out of school to watch the funeral, and I encouraged him to draw pictures to describe his feelings. Not unlike, I suspect, many British children, but unusual for an American child, Teddy believed Diana to be a part of our family. Teddy drew pictures with all the living people lined along the bottom of the paper and the dead people in the sky. Mark and Jim were always drawn together, and BoBo was always surrounded by innumerable unnamed bunnies and Patty the cat, and now Princess Diana. Sometimes Diana would stand regally in all her finery in the background and other times she would be dressed more casually, be near BoBo, and holding a bunny. “I miss Princess Diana, but I get to see her on TV and I remember when she happy, get married, and have her two sons.”
Sometime during Teddy’s early childhood, he got religion. My best friend from the time Teddy was about four until he was about ten was a devout Christian. I am sure Sue’s beliefs and practices had some effect on Teddy. A prayer before meals was never anything I taught Teddy, but he began to insist we pray before we eat by holding hands when he was about eight. This prayer was unconventional as it might include a desire for a particular video or a trip to Disneyland, but he clearly had some belief in a higher power that wielded some influence over his mother. I was very uncomfortable with these prayers and initially tried to discourage them, but eventually accepted them as just another nuance of our life together.
Teddy now practices his own brand of religion, which I call Touched by an Angel religion. There is a television show called Touched by an Angel that Teddy’s watches religiously. In it someone faces a moral dilemma generally due to a lost faith in God. The character is helped to renew their faith in God through the assistance of angels. I am reasonably sure Teddy understands these actors to be truly angels. I am embarrassed to admit that I do laugh at Teddy’s overwhelming belief that he is watching real angels do real Godly work, but he is nonplussed. I think one of the reasons Teddy finally learned to tell time was to not miss a segment of the nightly nine o’clock showing of Touched by an Angel. Over the years I have become more supportive of Teddy wanting to watch this show, and do watch it occasionally with him. He watches it and believes he is being given divine instruction about how to live his life. According to Teddy, Touched by an Angel is “about a message. The angels come down and speak. They help people know drinking beer games is bad, fighting and punching is bad, alcohol can make you sick, and smoking gets you cancer. They help people know stealing is bad and you should take care of babies. Old people die and its ok. You speak to the angels and its OK. They help people talk to God. After they talk to God they stop being silly or bad and get a good attitude.” The segments I have watched with him have not taught him anything in conflict with how I believe people should interact with each other, so I try to overlook the heavy spiritual message I cannot connect to, but Teddy does.
“God blesses you when you say help me God. God helps you in life and death. God makes me happy because he say I be his angel when I die.”
The tragedy of the World Trade Center has sparked innumerable questions and concerns for Teddy. He like most was stunned by the scenes watched on TV. He experienced grief around death, fear around safety, and confusion about who is the enemy. “ A whole lot of persons died. Black persons and White persons died. Old people, kids, and babies died. The American flag fell down. All fire on the flag. Some people are still alive, but burned up. The people who died are in heaven.”
I found for the first time in Teddy’s life, there was an event that I could not control what he learned about it. Everywhere he turned he was receiving messages and there was no way I could help him filter everything he heard. We have watched wrestling, Jerry Springer, the news, toy commercials, and Ricki Lake together so I could help him to see what I saw, instill my values, and foster an ability for him to make good independent choices about what he watched and what he believed about what he watched. I could not do this with the World Trade Center situation. He received too many messages in conflict with what I wanted him to understand. He sees Osama Bin Laden with his beard, robe, and turban as an evil person in direct conflict with what I have always told him – people do bad or stupid things, but people are not bad/stupid.
I could support Teddy in feeling sorrow for what he was watching on TV. We sat on the couch together intertwined for support as we watched the horror unfold. There was no mistaking this was a tragedy and it was OK to cry, although I am not sure Teddy really understands how many people actually died. He took each death that was examined closely on TV as a personal experience. Six months later when we discussed the tragedy he could still recall specific people, their hairstyles, occupations, and other details.
More difficult was helping Teddy to understand that the tragedy was not an accident. Who and why would anyone intentionally fly an airplane into a building? From the media he came to understand that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the event, but he knew he did not fly the airplane. Suicide is not a concept Teddy has any familiarity with and suicide bombers even less so. Teddy expressed he was never going to go on an airplane again. He was scared it would happen again. “ I don’t want to go to Disneyland now, Mom.” I decided he needed absolute reassurance that it would not happen again. I told him he was safe and it would not happen to an airplane he was in. One of the easier aspects of raising Teddy – although it does have it drawbacks – is that you can tell Teddy that things simply are the way they are and his unabiding trust doesn’t question it.
One day, Teddy was watching the news in another room and I heard him call out as if in physical pain, “Oh no, my heart in pain. Stop.” I ran to him, not knowing what to expect and found him watching a news broadcast where the American flag was being burned and trampled upon. “Mom, they are killing my heart. They can’t do that.” I tried to explain that some people hate America and this is the way they show it. “Then, I hate them too.”
Pictures of the “bad man” were and still are six months later everywhere. Teddy recognizes Bin Laden through his clothing. All Muslims (and Jews) who dress traditionally to Teddy are now bad men. Osama Bin Laden ”has a gun. He going to kill somebody. He needs to stop killing. People say God help me when he tries to kill them. I hate the bad guy. He has mean friends and they get killed. If we catch him and kill him it is a good deal.” I don’t really want Teddy thinking that the death of anyone is a “good deal.” I especially don’t want him thinking that a man he recognizes primarily by his traditional dress is evil. I think this is one situation where I have no control and just have to accept that my son has feelings over which I have no control. His age of innocence is over.