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Teaching My Children to Mourn

Last month I set a recording for CNN's Sesame Street Coronavirus town hall to watch with my seven year old daughter who is thoroughly misinformed. I realized this after her detailed explanation to me about bats that had gotten viruses from penguins that were being made into soup and now everyone had corona. We are a family that talks a lot and watches the news all the time; sometimes we forget that our youngest member is all eyes and ears and adept at creating theories.

I was hoping some of her theories would be corrected by those she sees as trustworthy, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and above all Grover. What happened was unexpected but needed. You see, my little girl lost her grandfather in December. He wasn't just regular grandfather, to her here was a funny genius with a sweet tooth, a giant heart and the strength of John Henry and all his uncles. Her grandfather was the Director and co-founder of the school our children attend so she saw him almost everyday from the time she was three months old.

My parents never shielded me from grief, when we lost friends or family members in Zimbabwe, we were encouraged to cry together, as a family, an extended family and a community. I was determined that my children would know how to grieve well, like proper Mazezuru. Whenever there is a death in my family, even if though they are far away and I am often unable to go home and attend mariro; I make sure to publicly acknowledge my grief. I cover my hair and wear chimonera until my loved one is buried. I have taught my children that we have a special greeting for someone who is bereaved; and I remind them that the first time you see someone after they have had a loss you need to verbally acknowledge their loss. Never act like nothing happened just because you are uncomfortable.

With the passing of my father-in-law we made sure my youngest didn't miss any of his home going services. She slept a lot and played hard with her cousins and seemed to be unaware of why we were gathered even though I kept trying to drawn her into conversations about what was going on. During his wake and funeral, she only cried once, and even then I wasn't sure if she was grieving for her loss or for those that were sad around her. I thought maybe she was too young to fully understand the depth of her loss, that maybe it would dawn on her once she actually started feel his physical absence.

My three older children (28, 17 and 12) wept openly and talked through all of their stages of grief with me, their father, cousins, aunts and uncles. The first day back at school after his passing my kids had opted to stay home with their grandmother. Their school mates came in cautious with their grief, moving carefully and quietly around the school, one of them, a young teenager, who like my children had been at the school since babyhood was almost immobilized by his emotions. He was hunched over unable to stand or sit up straight under the weight of his feelings. I knew his fear of beginning to shed tears that may be never-ending.

When I got home that night I told my children how their friends were, especially the young man. My twelve year old said she would come in with me the next day to show them how to grieve, like we did. She came in the next day with her head covered, black shirt and chimonera and gave them permission to open to their sadness by sharing hers. She led conversations about their grandfather, friend and school director. They cried for him as family, extended family and community. In the weeks that all of this was going on, I watched and waited for our youngest to show how she was feeling. She was a little clingy but otherwise just her usual self.

Back to Big Bird discussing Covid19 with Anderson Cooper. My little one wasn't really interested in the town hall. She felt she knew everything there was to know about Covid19. She sat next to me on the couch dressing and undressing her two little dolls until Big Bird said that some people had died, that some children may have lost someone due to the virus. She got really still and put the dolls down. Her whole body was quiet. Big Bird went on. He said he knew how hard it was to lose someone because he had lost his friend Mr. Hooper.

"Mommy," she said to me as if she had just realized what had happened to her. "Do you know that I lost someone too?"

It took everything I had, and then some, to hold it together and not override her emotions with my own. My words "Pop-pop died" didn't address her sadness in the same way Big Bird's words did. I used her name and asked her who she'd lost.

"I lost my Pop-pop".

Her Pop-pop. She had been grieving. I don't remember what I said, hopefully something wise about how much he loved her and how much she meant to him. I don't remember but I do remember how it felt to be sad together on the couch, acknowledging her pain and giving a receiving comfort. She was learning to name her loss, she was learning how to mourn.

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