Grief, Trains and Transitions

It’s been quite awhile since I’ve posted here. A lot has been going on and for once in my life, I just haven’t had the words to express exactly how deep the changes in my life have been.

In September of last year, my Father passed away. Just typing this sentence feels so surreal, almost a year later. I still cannot grasp that he is no longer here. At some point, I will create a post just about him but my heart isn’t quite there just yet. He was a very special man and he is simply irreplaceable, not only to me but to many, many others. He was an educator of over 40 years and an important touchstone in my life. Losing him has been like a free fall, even though he was sick for years. He just kept pulling through and when he didn’t, it was still somehow shocking.

Every person in my family has been touched by this loss in different ways but it immediately made me think of a conversation I had with my Dad the last time I saw him on a visit to Kentucky. When my Dad was a little older than I am, he lost his Mother to cancer. I was 16 at the time but remember seeing him cry for the first time in my life. I knew he would never be the same and in some ways, he never was. When we were talking about this, my Dad told me just how much it impacted him, even years after she passed. And then one year he had a student who came up to the High School and was really floundering in his class. He asked the student to stay after class to discuss his grade. The boy was angry at first but suddenly burst into tears and explained that his Mother died a few years before and he just couldn’t move past it. Dad listened with empathy and then told the student about losing his own Mother and they connected. The student would often visit Dad after that, even contacting him after he graduated and moved on with his life.

I remember reacting to that story in a lot of ways but the thing that struck me the most was Dad describing his own broken heart after his Mother passed away. This strong, intelligent, larger than life Man was brought to his knees when his Mommy passed away. I think back on that time in my life a lot. I was 16 and a grandparent on each side of my family was dying. My parents were pulled in different directions as life changed in unimaginable ways for each of them. I didn’t see that back then. I just felt alone and I felt angry at the world because life as I knew it was changing. I was angry for a long time after that but something changed about my parents, too. You think you know what it feels like to lose a parent until you actually do. I see the students I work with and people around me in a different way. You don’t “move on” from such a loss and the tide of grief will always ebb and flow.

I remember walking into my parents’ house for the first time after Dad died. I had been in line to board a plane to get to him when my sister called to tell me that he died. I thought I had a few weeks at the least but something inside me already knew he was gone. I spent hours in an airport, all alone, after that, waiting for planes to get me from South Carolina to Kentucky. I remember looking at the clouds, listening to Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist” in my headphones. I still can’t listen to that song, one of my all time favorites. There was an unimaginable feeling of separation I felt that day. It was as if a layer of my soul had been peeled away. My Dad was my safe place. He was the righter of wrongs and the strong arms to catch me. I was the troubled, middle child but I don’t think he saw me that way. He saw me in a way I’ve always longed to see myself. He saw the beauty and the strength, always encouraging my artistic talents. On that plane as I traveled not to a hospital but instead to a funeral, I looked out toward the world below and I felt myself in a free fall. This is they way I’ve been feeling for months and months ever since. In one day, my entire life changed. This is an inevitable change he always tried to prepare me for and in his memory and through my love for him, I will try to echo his incredible empathy and care for others in this world as much as I can.

My husband, Ryan, works for the railroad and was given an opportunity to move to Northern Kentucky back in January and in a matter of months, we were living here. Moving with two kids in the middle of a pandemic and this insane housing market has been challenging to say the least. We are all learning new and sometimes difficult lessons about life. I am mostly learning that moving back to Kentucky didn’t bring my Dad back to me and that places and people have changed….. and so have I. As we move through these transitions in our family, I will add posts here to help others who may be experiencing the same things or who are looking for advice. I am definitely not the only person in my family affected by these transitions. I have seen incredible growth, strength and heartbreaking sadness in the eyes of my precious children this past year.

As we go through the changing seasons of this life, I’ve always found the people who can gain some kind of lesson and understanding from the most painful times are the ones who live a life most fulfilled. Dad and I used to sit on the front porch or the living room couch and have these deep, long conversations about just that. He was a front porch philosopher, always looking for the meaning and the lesson. This is the place where our hearts connected most. Connection is everything and THIS is why I’m an educator and this is why I write. ❤

Hi, My Name is Ethel

Every time I saw the other kids high fiving in the morning hallways, I just didn’t share in their excitement about having a substitute teacher that day. They thought about having an easy day with no homework and probably a movie. All I could think about was the attendance roll call. “Ethel Baldridge?” All the eyes would turn to me and I would sink down into my desk. Sometimes the adult would say something kind like, “Oh, what a sweet, old name” But most of the time, I just got called Ethel all day and during the years when you want anything other than to stand out, my name always created some unwanted attention.

I was named after my grandmother, Ethel Samantha (Davis) Baldridge and when I was young, she was one of my most favorite people. She was probably less than five feet tall and nothing more than a little wisp of a thing, floating around in a cotton house dress and soft, white curls adorned the top of her head. Her skin smelled like lavender lotion and she looked always turned into a refined lady on Sundays when she put on her thick pantyhose and serious Sunday best. She loved to rock in her recliner and read the Bible. I think she read it every day. And if she knew we were coming for a visit, she would make everything we all loved to eat, no matter how late it was when we got there, it was all waiting for us. We would fight over who got to sleep next to her on the pull out couch bed. She was at least 70 when I was born but she would insist that my parents slept in her bed and she’d sleep on the pull out with one of us. I know it hurt her back but I think it made her so happy to see us that she didn’t care. I thought she was marvelous. Gentle but strong, fragile but fierce. We just don’t understand how important our elders are when we are young. She was born in 1913. Can you imagine the things she saw in her lifetime?

She was born in Tomahawk, KY (Tommyhawk, she would call it) and was one of several children. I believe she was the oldest girl. They were poor Appalachian folk and lived on a little farm, like most people in those times. She loved to talk about her Mommy and she loved her so much. Her Mother was beautiful, just like Grandma. Her Mother got sick with something awful when she was young, probably some type of flu, and it caused her hair to turn completely white at a young age.

Grandma married an older man, my Grandfather, who just so happened to be a teacher in her one room schoolhouse when she was in her mid-teens. I imagine this could have also contributed to her Mama’s early gray hair. He already had 4 girls and Grandma took them in, even one that was just a baby when Grandma got married to my Grandfather. They lived in Kentucky for many years, born and raised Appalachians, until Grandpa eventually got a job working in the steel mills in Ohio, like so many Kentuckians of that time period. Dad always said his parents’ hearts remained in Kentucky and they traveled back as often as they could. I know it is why Dad decided to settle there, himself. He heard his ancestors calling.

Grandma went on to have 6 children of her own, losing one as an infant. She tended all her children with love even while constantly moving from one place to the next. She was a constant in their lives and the embodiment of home. She could cook anything perfectly, sew anything and made beautiful quilts. She loved her grandchildren and although she may have been a strict Mother, she let us grandkids get away with murder. We were the apple of her eye. And just being around her made us all feel safe. We felt special when she held us. We felt so completely loved.

Ethel Samantha, my beloved Grandmother

She died when I was 16 after a difficult battle with cancer and I think that was the start of many years of confusion in my life. I didn’t process or understand the grief I was feeling. I just knew something inside of me was hurting so much and nothing could make it go away. I did a lot of destructive things to try and make it stop but nothing worked. I lost my maternal Grandfather (Papaw) within that same week and goodness, I think my heart actually shattered. Instead of trying to figure it out or reach out to someone, I pushed it all down and lashed out and away from friends, from my family and even from God.

Now when I work with children facing grief, I remember that hopeless feeling, the hole that loss creates and how the words, “I’m fine” usually mean “Adult, leave me alone. I don’t want to deal with this. You don’t understand.” And so I try to meet them where they are but remember that something is likely still dwelling underneath that needs to find its way out somehow.

The first time I remember actually dealing with my own grief was in a college art studio course. I created a life-size plaster sculpture of myself. I dressed myself in a shawl and hair wrap that belonged to or reminded me of Grandma. I stood holding a toothbrush. It was a nod to the moment after her funeral when a 16 year old me went into Grandma’s bathroom and saw all her things still there, taking up space, waiting for her to return but now useless in the end. Somehow creating this piece of art lifted a weight I was carrying. It helped me in ways I didn’t understand. It taught me the importance of processing my pain because life will ultimately always present us with more.

I also decided to own my name and stop hiding it. Now, when people call me Ethel, instead of giggles and insults, I see light blue eyes, curly white hair and the sweetest grin you’ve ever seen. I am so proud to be her namesake. She will never really be gone as long as I remember her and every time someone says my name, she glides through my mind again, always with me. My name is Ethel, a strong but delicate name and I try harder each day to be more patient, more kind, more devoted and ultimately just try my best to live up to it.

Grandma and my Dad.

Are My Kids Actually Regressing Right Now?

Have you found your kids following you around a little more lately? And not just because you actually have no place to go, they just need to be with you every. single. second? Have the nightly tuck-ins become longer and longer? Did someone cry over the last pack of ramen? (Ok, maybe that was me…) Are you staying up later every single night binging Netflix shows just to get some precious time to yourself??? That’s also me…but anyway.

Things are uncertain right now and scary, even for 37 year olds. And it’s likely that our younger family members are feeling that too, even if they don’t realize it. They are still feeling it even if we ARE wearing ourselves out to make them feel like the world is just sooooo great, even though you’ve worn the same jogging pants three days in a row and the news sounds different on every single channel. You see, it’s not so easy to hide the stress we’re all feeling right now.

There’s actually some psychology behind what’s going on here. It’s called regression, it manifests in many different ways and it often occurs during times of stress. Children and even adults experience regression as they find themselves retreating back to behaviors that bring them additional levels of safety and comfort. This could mean stepping backward with potty training, needing a cherished comfort item more often or even experiencing more tantrums from your child.

My Shadow Lately

In our house, I see my children following me almost everywhere I go and they seem to need to be right next to me at all times. We’ve also had some acting out and frustration that isn’t typical around here, at least it wasn’t Pre-Covid. It can be absolutely overwhelming for us all. I know about regression and I know what’s happening but it still surprised me because I thought they were doing just fine. I was wrong.

So, I decided to sit them down and try to talk about how they were feeling. They rolled their eyes because this is pretty much what I always do to them and I’m their Mom so you know, not likely to get the most honest of answers. So, I decided to pull one of my Art therapy tricks out of my counselor hat. They both love to draw so I pulled out the markers that smell like random fruits and between the marker sniffing, we did an exercise to help them express what might be happening in their minds that they aren’t actually aware of. This one is helpful in a lot of settings. I use it in my office and even used it once with a group of adult cancer survivors. It’s always a hit and gets people talking. I have a template available here, if you need one.

Page One of a Two Page Worksheet to Help Work Through Feelings

In all the talk about schools reopening, political posturing, etc. and focus on protecting our physical health, we adults can forget about the actual emotional needs of our family members. There are many amazing child focused mental health providers in most communities and wonderful tele-health options, as well, if you feel someone in your home can benefit from or is in need of those services. Pay close attention to the cues you may be getting from your children that they need to talk and let them know it’s okay to do that. Sometimes just sitting down with some play-doh can be a great way to get a child to open up to you.

So what do you do about the regressive behaviors? Leading experts say to practice a little patience. Validate your child’s feelings of stress right now, reenforce age-appropriate behaviors with extra attention and praise and don’t shame or judge. Psychology Today has an excellent article written by a mental health professional on this topic here.

This is a tough time for everyone. One thing that we’ve been doing is reading a few pages of a novel together at bedtime. It gives my kids a sense of comfort and reassurance while encouraging them to separate and go to bed without a fuss. They look forward to that little bit of extra connection and to hear what is happening next in our story. My younger child also tends to worry and needs structure to feel secure. I finally started creating more of a daily routine for us and his mood has significantly improved. What kinds of new routines have you adopted to help reassure and comfort your kids during the pandemic? Leave your answers in the comments.

Redirect and Connect

Well, here we are again. I am not quite sure what day of the week it is just yet but it’s another eerily familiar day in July of 2020. We are still in the middle of a pandemic. We are still watching too much television. We are still eating a lot of junk food and I am still trying to figure out how school is going to actually happen in the middle of all this mess. I also still have a headache from devouring the entire internet and ever changing information about the restart of school this Fall. There’s a lot to process right now and we are trying to do it in a world that feels so very unfamiliar to us. The future is not as certain as it used to be and we are often looking at people differently than we did before. It’s isolating and scary. And just when I find myself at the end of my rope, I realize my nine year old son is watching my reaction to “The Facebook” and taking cues about how he should be responding to the world right now. So I close the laptop and we watch an oddly interesting cartoon show about amphibians together. We need a distraction.

I bought tickets for a drive-in movie tonight because I needed to try and find something to look forward to this week and to cheer up my girl. I’ve had to tell my 11 year old, Bella, that she can’t go to many gatherings this Summer. I try to be reasonable and let her see friends if the group is small and they can social distance but that isn’t always possible and not everyone is in our situation. Sometimes I think having a Mom with health issues during a pandemic must be the worst thing in the world for a child entering middle school. Social relationships are often so awkward and complex at this age and Bella is a sweet but often very shy little girl. In the last few months, she had to say goodbye to elementary school from afar and miss out on all the fun end of the year events most 5th graders get to participate in. She made some friends she really cares about this year but hasn’t been able to spend much time with them.

In the beginning, I tried to explain to the kids that we are following guidelines to help stop the spread of the virus and to keep ourselves from getting infected. And we did see most people we know also following those guidelines back in the Spring. But now, I know it seems like a Mom-made prison for them when they see so many people they know carrying on with life as usual. What my children don’t know is that my doctor told me that she is afraid I would have a very difficult time surviving COVID-19. My kids probably suspect this even if they won’t tell me. They’ve seen me struggle since I had cancer with all the side effects from radiation and chemotherapy. That is our normal and has been since they were very small. Some of my favorite things about them are a direct result of this experience. They are so kind, so empathetic and care deeply about people. But I also know that worry of “what if something happens to Mommy…..” lingers under the surface. And I stay up late at night worried about it, too. I always will.

I see my youngest child regressing in some ways right now. He hovers like a shadow, needing to be in the same room with me at all times. I admittedly get cranky with him sometimes tears start flowing. We all truly need space from one another but we don’t know how right now. Emotions are more tender and fragile than they’ve ever been. Lots of time is spent just snuggling and our sofa is the center of life a lot of times. I wish I knew the answer to all of this but even with all my education and experience, I don’t have the magic key. I have been reading more about child regression during pandemics and found some helpful information here.

I also see myself getting very angry lately. And that is the hardest part for me. I can see and read too much about what other people are doing and I feel frustrated, hurt and honestly jealous sometimes. But then I remind myself that I need to take a deep breath and practice a little more empathy. Does that mean I agree with what some other people are choosing right now? No. But it does mean I will actively try to put myself in their shoes and let go of taking things so personally. Most of the time people really are trying their best and we need to remember that. We don’t know what their life looks like from the inside.

When students come to see me who are feeling so frustrated with people and situations beyond their control, I ask them to take a deep breath and explain how they are feeling. I reflect and let them know that I see and acknowledge that frustration. Then we discuss what we can and can’t control in the situation. For some students, it helps to see this on paper. I often use a worksheet to help them work through this. Once we identify what we have control over, we then discuss how to deal with these uncomfortable feelings and create a list or “toolbox” the student can use when feeling overwhelmed. The list is written on that same worksheet. You can find it here.

Many people who work as counselors find it much easier to help other people and not themselves and their own family members. I think this is because counseling is like holding up a mirror to help another person see the answers they already have within themselves. It is much harder to do that for yourself. But I am going to try a little harder. I am going to try to judge a little less and connect a little more with my children right now. The other night, I turned all the electronics off and just played cards with them on the porch. A storm was coming and it was fun to remember how much I used to love watching storms as a kid. It also helped me forget the stress of pretty much everything going on in our world right now. I don’t have all the answers to any of the bigger problems but I’ve discovered this week that redirecting and connecting made me feel better and it made my kids smile a little more, too. And that’s definitely a win.

Cards games are more fun when a storm is rolling in