My Genre ‘Walking Through Grief with a Child’

‘Walking Through Grief with a Child’

My Genre

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Mary E. Plouffe put her grief down on paper when her sister Martha died of cancer in 1998.

“I wrote to survive, to soothe my own pain,” says Plouffe, a clinical psychologist in Falmouth.

But her personal writing soon took on another purpose, a way for her to help her brother-in-law handle the grief of his and Martha’s delightful 3-year-old daughter, Liamarie.

Plouffe, who had been her niece’s caretaker during her mother’s hospitalization, started to write also “to remember and process what Liamarie was saying and doing,” she says, and she shared that with her brother-in-law. “We both wanted to have clear memories to offer Liamarie when she was grown, and the writing was a way to do that.”

From that came Plouffe’s recent memoir, “I Know It in My Heart, Walking Through Grief with a Child,” a gripping journey through the death of a beloved, strong sister and the mother of a young child. The journey for Plouffe began in her mid-40s, followed her into her 50s, and she’s now in her late 60s. It winds up as a book that offers gentle wisdom and understanding applicable to anyone grieving a loss.

Contacted during a summer whirlwind of a national book tour, speaking at a number of centers for grieving children and other venues, Plouffe talked with My Generation about her book.

Q: You write that you thought you knew about grief, but that through your sister’s death you came to learn more about yourself and your niece. Can you describe the biggest lesson?
A: The biggest lesson was how different child and adult grief can be. Adult grief is about a person we have known and loved. We can remember past times and imagine future ones that will never be as we adapt to our loss. We understand finality, permanence and forever. We have a relationship that is defined and known, and we can integrate that with our understanding of death.

For young children, so many of these constructs have not yet been formed. They can only understand what they have lost right now, and they must grow into understanding of what that loss will mean to them as they mature and develop. They can miss the arms that soothed them at 3, but cannot know what it will feel like to miss those arms at 13, when their needs are so different. Missing Mother becomes Missing Mothering, and that becomes weaving Motherlessness into their sense of self and the world as they grow. What does it mean about me that I do not have a mother? What does it mean about safety, security and intimacy? These definitions are shaped by an early loss.

Children grow into their grief.  They may have few, if any real memories of the person they lost, but the loss affects them deeply, nonetheless, as they grow cognitively and emotionally.

Q: How did your education and career help you with this experience? Did it hinder you in any way?
A: Being a psychologist made this book possible. Others have more horrific stories to share; others are better writers. What I had to offer that was unique was the lens of my experience as a therapist, consultant and clinician. I hope that gives our story some special value to those who are experiencing grief themselves, or trying to help a child.  My training gave me the language to describe what we were both experiencing and hopefully to translate that into understanding that is useful to the reader. The challenge was to balance the “voice” of the book, staying true to my personal pain while occasionally adding my professional observation and analysis.

Q:  There is a particularly moving passage in the book about “sisterloss,” where you express the uniqueness of grieving a sister’s death, and even your anger when people try to commiserate. For people who haven’t read the book yet, can you explain?
A: Martha’s death was not the first in my life, but it was the one I felt most deeply. Adult sibling loss is often minimized in our culture, and often called a “disenfranchised loss,” somehow less significant than other losses. But siblings share your earliest stories, the truths as you learned them in your family. Even if you have grown apart in adulthood, that shared history is lost with them, and we grieve that. I was discovering the uniqueness of loss, and in those early stages of grief, no one’s loss matters but your own. Only later does the universality of loss soothe, once we have explored our own story deeply and fully, and can go beyond it to reach out to others who offer comfort.

Q: How has writing this memoir and having it out there changed you?
A: Writing the memoir was a huge challenge. It required me to be more open, more disclosing and more honest about myself. But grieving one loss deeply often helps us integrate and grieve other losses in our lives. There’s a richness in that, and I am grateful that the writing process gave me that opportunity. It has also given me a chance to share our story in a way that turns tragedy to good. Martha was a rebel, a crusader, and she would have liked that. She would have wanted me not to waste our pain, but to shape it into something worthwhile. So, a little piece of her courage lives in me now, and I am grateful for that.     

Q: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your story?
A: I hope others who are introverted, solo grievers will find comfort in hearing my story.  Not all of us reach out to others first when we hurt. We reach inward, to time alone, to music, to whatever it is that soothes our soul. That was my path.

I want to encourage readers to see that as normal and healthy as well, even though it is so different from the extroverted path of reaching for people and support from others. We need a balance for sure, but there is no one RIGHT way to grieve. There is only YOUR way, the path each of us must find that heals.

Q: How is Liamarie?
A: Liamarie graduated from a top university with distinction in June 2016 and is on a teaching fellowship in England for a year. She continues to be a strong resilient young woman, a leader in her peer group, and a political activist who makes us all proud.

Amy Canfield is a writer, editor and bibliophile. She lives in South Portland.

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