Sibling Saturday – From the beginning

All of my lovies together at our family photo session last October.

All of my lovies together at our family photo session last October.

I didn’t have much of a game plan when I started this.  I just knew that I wanted to be honest, raw, informative, and helpful.  As I’ve been thinking about how to proceed day to day, I keep coming back to how our five kiddos have handled Caleb’s death, both individually and as a whole.  So, this post kicks off “Sibling Saturday” as I reflect on how my lovies are coping, processing, and growing.

“A” is our oldest.  She is 12.5 years old and loves school and the arts.  “T” loves drawing, sports, and music.  He’s coming up on 11.  “L” followed him a year and a half later, is 9, and loves anything he can build or that has moving parts.  “E” is 7 and proudly proclaims her tomboy status, but insists on her hair never being cut more than 1-2 inches above her bum.  “L2” is 5 and our resident girly girl with a princess flair.  Caleb is our youngest and assumed the role of glue.  He had a bit of everyone in him and was down for dance, sports, drawing, Legos, wrestling, outdoor fun, and playing the prince.  As long as he got to be in the thick of things with his favorite people, he was happy and so were they.  He was the little middle piece to our family jigsaw puzzle.  I’m sure that’s why we all talk about the “heaven hole” in our hearts.

They all have eclectic interests, but manage to find common ground and play so well together.  All of our kids have been so great about playing alone, in smaller groups, or all together.  It’s wonderful to watch their bond and how they grow closer over time.  That’s not to say they don’t fight like crazy sometimes, but they always make up…or I make them hug it out until they’re laughing.  Note:  Having them repeat things like, “You are my forever brother and one of my best friends.  I love you and I’m sorry I spoke to you like that.  Please forgive me.” while they hug it out leads to laughter much sooner.  Doing this often enough leads to laughter as soon as you tell them they need to hug it out.

The way Caleb’s death has changed, strengthened, and devastated them individually and overall is unimaginable.  I know they aren’t the only kids to bury a sibling, so I hope our experiences and insight can be helpful.  The biggest thing we noticed right off the bat was a few days of very strong reactions from all of them.  They each fell into one of two categories, very emotionally volatile or completely shut down.  Once the first week passed and Christmas was behind us, they all seemed to adjust very quickly.  It was almost eerie.  Then, I read about how children often stifle their grief and really fight to be strong until they know their parents and the adults in their lives seem stable enough to handle them letting it out.  We very much saw this.  In fact, I think we were all trying so hard to be strong for each other, none of us were being true to ourselves and our feelings for at least all of January.  Sure, Brig and I would have our meltdowns after the kids were sound asleep and I’m not quite sure what they may have been saying to each other, but things were so very mellow.  Too mellow.  Calm enough that I knew something was coming.

The first bits of them processing everything initially started to show in then 8 year old “L” and then 6 year old “E”.  He became very obsessed with harmonious living.  The slightest raised voice or inkling of a disagreement had him frantically pleading for everyone to get along.  He’d often break down in tears if anything was said between family members with anything less than the most gentle and kind tone of voice.  He could not handle even the slightest bit of contention.

This brings me to “E”.  My sweet, energetic girl became angry and very combative.  Her behavior at school was fine.  She held it together there.  Home is her safe place.  She’d walk in the door and I’d hear things like, “I want a snack!”, “I’m not doing my chore!”, “No, you can’t make me!”, “No!  You do it!”, “I don’t care!”, and the coup de grâce “Shut up!” (a big no-no in our house).  I’m guessing anyone who has ever encountered an angry child can imagine the kinds of faces and body language that accompanied all of this.  So, where did we go from here?

I’ll start by pointing out that this is around the time that I was finally able to find a wonderful grief counselor that we began seeing as a family, individually, as a couple, and the kids as a group (yeah, we pretty much lived there the first few weeks).  What turned out to be a huge breakthrough for both of them was acknowledging their underlying feelings.  For “E”, it was an honest, pointed chat in the car with just the two of us.  She was very sassy with me after school one day and I prayed again with everything in me to know how to help her.  I knew that attitude wasn’t her and I immediately knew what I needed to say.  I opened my mouth and the words just poured out.

“I know you’re angry that Caleb died.  I’m angry, too!  I know you’re mad that you couldn’t save him.  I know you’re mad that he had that surgery and then this happened.  I know you’re mad that you didn’t really get to say goodbye, not with him awake to say it back.  I know you’re mad that you can’t fix it and that dad and I can’t either.  I know you’re mad that you don’t get to see him everyday, hear his laugh, and play with him.  I’m mad, too.  All of that makes me mad, too.  But honey, being mad won’t bring him back and taking it out on me and your family doesn’t fix it or make it better.  It makes everyone more sad and upset.  If you’re really feeling mad, let’s talk about it.  Come to me and tell me about it.  If you’re feeling it build up at school, ask your teacher for a hug and talk to her.  She’ll listen and she loves you.  If it’s really getting rough, ask to call me and I’ll come right there, give you a big hug and listen.  If you need to, we can just sit together and cry it out.  Just don’t take out all your anger on us.  Please, honey, just talk to us and cry when you need to.”  By the time I was 2-3 sentences in, my lovie was in tears as I saw the weight, burden, and pent up emotion surrounding the death of her only little brother lift off her small shoulders as she agreed to share it with me.

For “L”, he feared the death of a family member happening again and was trying to ensure that we would never slip up or regret anything in our interactions with each other.  He also feared not being “good enough” to make it to heaven and see Bub again.  Once we addressed these deep concerns, he began to relax.  He’s still much more kind and understanding than before Bub died, but he had some room to improve in that area before as our shortest fuse in the house.  That’s likely the reason his grief manifest this way.  Caleb’s death brought some guilt out in him.  I began having a conversation with him that was very similar to my conversation with “E”, but wound up backing off.  You see, “E” overheard us and stepped in.  She’d had a couple of days to process my words and began to share them with her brother, adding some of her own wisdom in.  She even made sure he knew that I’d come to the school to give him a hug.  It was wonderful to see them come together, supporting one another, sharing, learning, and uplifting.

There’s so much more to this journey.  We’re a big family with much to learn and process still.  Really, it will never stop.  I just hope sharing what we learn can help make it wisdom as what we know is put into action in a helpful and meaningful way.  It all goes along with our fight to stand in the light.

2 thoughts on “Sibling Saturday – From the beginning

  1. You are so eloquent with your words, Jenelle. All that you and your family have gone through really hits me deeply as I now have family with whom, there is just about no relationship whatsoever. Sure, they are all grown, but that’s when us parents are supposed to really be able to have strong, good, bonding relationships with our children. That you are all so very close and working on being closer as a family…wow! Did it take Cale’s sudden passing to help out in this? Perhaps we’ll never know, but for sure, that young man is desperately needed up there. His memories are truly awesome for your family. I feel for you, Jenelle. It never is easy to lose a loved one. Continue on with all the great things that are helping your family out. Prayer helps a lot, doesn’t it….perhaps even more as time starts to take away, one bit at a time, the profound sadness and the tears from you and your loving family.
    Love ya,
    Kathy Mills (formerly Sexton)

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    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Kathy. I’ve always had a close bond with my own immediate family, it’s just the way my parents raised us, and how we are raising our kids. Family is with you no matter what, forever. That’s the goal and we were raised to be mindful of that. We’ve raised our kids the same way. Family is who you turn to, laugh and cry with, love, and cherish. Brig and I know these are the years to really solidify that teaching and belief. We were close before and Caleb’s death, by nature of the trial and how we deal with hardship, has brought us closer because we turn to one another for love and support. We want our kids to know that in good and bad, family is ultimately who is there and who you turn to. Family is the constant.

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