It started like any other day. On a warm Wednesday in late September 2009, our family woke up and went about our normal routine of getting the kids ready for school. My husband and I had a rare midweek day off because an appointment got canceled. After dropping our 4-year-old daughter off at preschool and her older brothers off at elementary school, we decided to take advantage of the few hours we had to ourselves and spent the morning across the bay in San Francisco.
After shopping and eating lunch, we headed back to pick up the kids from school. Once back in the suburbs, the boys began their homework and our daughter played in her room. Having had a relaxing morning and a rare early afternoon at home instead of at work, I decided to get some needed chores done before starting dinner. When they finished their homework, the boys announced they were going down to our batting cage, located on the bottom of our large multilevel back yard. Our daughter continued to keep herself entertained by trying on the various outfits we’d picked up for her during our shopping spree.
But that didn’t last. Bored with playing alone, she asked if I’d play with her. I felt guilty, but told her I needed to finish my chores. She asked her dad to play, and he declined as well. Then she asked if she could go down and play with her brothers, and I said yes. I watched her start the walk down the stairs to the lower yard and then went back to vacuuming the living room.
Some time passed and I had one of those motherly urges to go check on the kids. I walked to the top of the stairs and saw the boys in the batting cage. I couldn’t see our daughter, but knowing her independent nature, I figured she was on the play structure that was obscured from my vantage point by a large, thick oak tree. So I headed over to the deck by our pool to get a clearer view.
Two families, one little girl
When my husband and I met, we each had boys from previous marriages. My two sons were 4 and 1, and his son was 3. Despite their different personalities, they became best friends almost immediately. My oldest, outgoing and a bit of an attention-seeker, sought out ways to be the big brother. Extremely active and adventurous, my stepson was a storm of passions about his many hobbies. My youngest was sweet, loving, and creative, but also very shy, anxious, and emotional.
At first, blending the two families was tough. The kids had already survived divorce; now they had to live with new siblings and a stepparent, each with their own personalities, habits, fears, and eccentricities. We had our fair share of family arguments, but the challenge wasn’t so much in learning how to get along. It was learning a deeper level of trust and to understand the unfamiliar reactions of someone we hadn’t lived with before. Deep down, I feared becoming perceived as the dreaded “evil stepmother.” I imagine my husband must have felt the same.
When our daughter, Margareta, was born a few years later, she became the glue that held our family together. Not only were each of us related to her by blood, from the very beginning it seemed as if she was a blend of the best parts of all of us — confident, outgoing, independent, adventurous, and creative … yet observant, thoughtful, and shy around strangers. As she grew, she continually surprised us by how mature beyond her age she seemed.
Doing the right thing, feelings under wraps
Despite our trials as a blended family, my husband and I were confident parents, agreeing on methods and approaches to raising children. We limited screen time — both TV and video games and encouraged face-to-face interaction. We organized family game time and went on lots of family walks. We signed them up for sports, music lessons, and took them to cultural events to expose them to different traditions and points of view. We bought them endless books, which they devoured. We were doing our best to raise independent, socially conscious, considerate, and compassionate children, and we felt we were succeeding.
Despite our outward success as parents, I sometimes wondered what kind of emotional role models we were for our kids. Just like everyone, we both had emotional baggage from earlier in our lives.
My whole life I’d struggled with not feeling good enough and constantly tried to prove my worth to others to gain their approval. I felt compelled to hide my innermost feelings and do whatever it took to appear perfect in my various roles — daughter, wife, mother, and employee.
I put everyone else’s needs before my own and hid any emotional pain. I went to great lengths to avoid arguments and the appearance of being unsupportive. I carefully chose my words and actions to try to influence situations and people in order to prevent conflict and the inevitable emotional pain that came with it.
Not surprisingly, while I could carefully control my own actions, my efforts to control others and my environment often failed. No matter how much I tried to convince him otherwise, my youngest son continued to be fearful and anxious. My oldest son was still going to feel insecure no matter how much attention and praise we heaped upon him. My stepson’s energy was uncontainable, and I had to just suck it up and learn to be patient with him. My husband was still going to ask me to help plan weekly family outings and continue to be disappointed when I ignored his requests because I felt overwhelmed.
I did my best to put a smile on my face and hide strong or negative emotions and feelings from my children and the rest of my family. I did so because displaying pain and insecurities made me feel they would discover my deep-seeded belief: I wasn’t good enough.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, I yearned for the day when I would no longer feel the need to be on guard around those I dearly loved. As a parent, you want to help protect your children from the emotional pain you suffer. But if children learn lifelong emotional behaviors from observing those around them, I had to wonder whether I was inadvertently teaching them the exact thoughts and behaviors I wanted them to avoid.
Despite ostensibly encouraging our children to share their concerns with us, our reactions sometimes taught them the opposite. When my tearful son came to me afraid of monsters in the closet, I told him he shouldn’t feel scared. There were no monsters in his closet. When I told him that something wasn’t worth crying over, the message was clear. I was essentially telling him his feelings were wrong, and he needed to hide them. Even from me.
It’s not that we were callous but like so many American parents we wanted our children to grow up tough and resilient. We wanted them to learn grit, not be quitters, become independent and resourceful. I remember many times telling our children to just “get over” whatever had them in a sour mood because I had lost the patience to deal with their problem, which appeared insignificant to me. Without realizing it, I was judging and condemning their feelings — not their actions — because it was triggering unwanted emotions in me. As much as I loved, cherished, and cared for our children, I sometimes wondered if I was I helping — or hurting — the development of their emotional well-being.
In a matter of moments
Fast forward to that September afternoon in 2009. As I walked toward the deck to look for our daughter down at the play structure, I noticed the gate to the pool area was open … and came face to face with our worst nightmare come true. I screamed for my husband as I rushed to pull Margareta from the pool. I started CPR and screamed for him again even as he came rushing out of the house in a panic.
The next few hours were a blur of pure terror. After the paramedics arrived, I stood by helplessly pleading with anyone who would listen — begging them to save her. The boys were huddled together on the back patio sobbing, scared, and not knowing what to do. The officer standing next to them kept trying to get me to comfort them, but at that moment, I was not in my right mind. I could not tell them everything was going to be okay, when I was faced with the very sobering reality that their sister might already be dead.
We rode to the hospital desperately hanging onto the sliver of hope that she would be revived. But despite almost all the ER staff working feverishly, she did not survive. As night fell, we faced the impossible understanding that Margareta was gone.
The pain was unbearable. I feared I wouldn’t be able to survive in a world without my daughter in it, and I worried what that would mean for our boys. For the first time in my life, I was no longer certain the sun would rise the next morning.
Heading toward a great divide
In the first few days after Margareta’s death, the boys stayed with their other parents as my husband and I dealt with the dreadful details — the coroner, memorial service, funeral and cemetery arrangements. I fluctuated between feelings of disbelief, nausea, and hysterics. My husband found it difficult just to get out of bed.
After the funeral was over and family and friends went back to their normal lives, we were left to grapple with our new reality. After a lifetime of hiding my feelings, I was no longer able to suppress anything. Pounding waves of agony, despair, and guilt could leave me sobbing in a heap on the floor, frozen with numbness, in an angry rage, or too tired to even stand. I had gone from someone who was usually even-tempered and patient to one who was coming apart at the seams. My boys had not only lost their sister, they had also lost the mom they were used to.
When our children were around, my husband did the best he could to hide his profound anguish, knowing they needed their environment to appear normal in order to feel safe. But he too was no longer the same person as before. He was quieter, less active, and you could see the pain deep within his eyes.
He and I isolated ourselves from the outside world. We stayed home and declined invitations from family and friends. When we had to take our kids to their sporting events, we watched alone from a distance because we didn’t want to have to speak to any of the other parents.
In the early months after her death, my husband focused on trying to find out the details of what had happened — as if he could then go back and prevent it — while I wanted to all but forget the images of that horrible day. Even though the boys regularly expressed their feelings of grief to their school counselor, when they were around me, they didn’t show signs of sadness. On their best behavior, they asked if they could help. The roles reversed — my children were now trying to take care of me.
I now know that their actions were acts of self-preservation, but at the time their reactions made me feel like I no longer knew my own kids.
Reaching a new normal
The avalanche of pain from losing my daughter was so deep and so wide it broke the dam holding back a lifetime of suppressed emotions. Instead of hiding my feelings, I now bared my soul to anyone who wanted to listen.
Slowly I learned to deal with my feelings. I talked. I wrote. I reluctantly accepted the universal certainty that pain and discomfort will come into our lives no matter what we do. I learned that only when I acknowledge it, and then seek support for that pain, can I learn to live with it or let it go.
As time went on, our initial devastation and intense behaviors began to soften. Our youngest son was born in the year after Margareta died. An infectiously happy baby he brought joy into our household. Slowly we began to adjust to a new “normal:” old routines of work, school and sports combined with new customs such as trips to the cemetery and support groups. I left my full-time job and worked part-time, so I could better emotionally support myself and my family.
We found ways to include Margareta in our celebrations, because she will always be an important part of our family even though she isn’t physically with us. For instance, we still hang her stocking at Christmas and somberly sing “Happy Birthday” and eat cake at the cemetery on her birthday. No matter what the situation, we continue to think of her and feel she is missing from our daily lives.
While my family still generally didn’t want to talk about Margareta or their feelings with me, I knew they shared their feelings with others. Teachers reported to me that the boys weren’t afraid to talk about her in class or in school assignments that dealt with family matters. The boys would often tell me they wanted to look at pictures of her. We began to introduce our youngest son to the sister he’d never meet.
We came to a point where we could talk with each other about our grief. Many times it focused on the topic of guilt over not protecting her from death. We did everything in our power to try to help the boys let go of that feeling, emphasizing that they were never responsible for her safety or well-being. Unlike before her death, we were all completely honest with each other, and no topic was off limits.
Creating a new path forward
In the aftermath of Margareta’s death, we’ve worked hard to create an environment where it’s safe to share our emotions without the fear of attack or condemnation. Years of counseling taught us that many times the best way to support each other is to be a witness: listening to what someone has to say, acknowledging feelings, and not judging, no matter if you agree or not. If we’d felt the same pain or fear they’d expressed, we shared our experience and that we did overcome it. We found that supporting each other this way deepens trust and strengthens our relationships.
This changed how we reacted to even mundane conflicts. Earlier this year when our highly sensitive son came to us and announced that after six years of playing competitive soccer he was quitting, he had tears in his eyes and his voice trembled because he expected us to put up a fight. He’d shown signs of wanting to quit before, but we’d pressured him to stick with it. He was really good and considered a leader on his team. He even had a chance at earning a college scholarship. We thought we knew better than him.
This time around, we paused. Our gut reaction was to insist that he try out for his high school team as a freshman so he could at least regain his enthusiasm for the game. But we resisted the urge; we knew we had to respect and support his feelings. After mentioning the reasons why we thought he might later regret his decision, we told him we would support him no matter what.
An emotionally supportive environment doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for bad decisions or destructive actions, but we try to deal with the difficult emotions by continually trying to recognize how our emotions affect our thoughts and behaviors, and what actions we can take to proactively influence a change in mood.
I won’t pretend that any of this is easy. Supportive environments and healthy relationships take constant practice. We still experience typical family arguments and problems. But even when we don’t know what the solution is, family issues seem less daunting because we have a deeper trust in each other and know we’re stronger than we could have ever imagined.
The pain of losing Margareta will last the rest of our lives. But like new seedlings sprouting through the layer of ash after a forest fire, our family has been reborn. Somehow these simple principals of emotional honesty have strengthened our relationships and in the end they held our broken family together.
Read more parents pulling through difficult times, handling their emotions differently, and understanding their children.