When my children were little, I worried about losing them, not to illness or death, but to kidnapping. I felt our community was safe, but I was aware that bad things could happen.
Then in 1983, when my daughters were 9 and 5, 10-year-old Jeanine Nacarico was kidnapped from her home in Naperville, Illinois -- a watershed moment for me. Though the kidnapping was in another Chicago suburb, it was something unconscionable that could happen: Jeanine is home alone sick, her mother checks in on her and then a man breaks in, takes her, rapes and murders her. Days later, her body is found.
Shattering. I couldn't get a grip. I read newspapers for answers -- the mother did something careless? Absolutely not. The horrific event made me realize again: These things actually happen. And my husband and I had our daughters to raise. I needed to cope, take seriously my duty to keep them safe. But is it even possible to teach meaningful safety and stranger danger to children and how specific should a mother be?
The motherhood journey can be fraught with jagged turns and fears. Variables are many. Now that all my children are raised, I ask myself: Did I experience luck? The definition of luck is success or failure apparently brought by chance, rather than through one's own actions.
Within reason, my husband and I did everything we could to keep our children safe -- the one major variable was the world out "there." They must live in it. So, what to tell them? We learned it's a process, from within to without. When they are very young, instead of leaping to the boogey man on the outside and scaring them, it's best to build on the strengths they possess on the inside. And the rule must be that you answer their questions as honestly as possible, emphasizing positive information. But it is frightening for parents -- sexual predators do exist. So concluding that a child's own strengths might be their best defense really helps.
We taught our daughters their bodies belonged only to them. Before their nightly baths, they ran naked through the hallway, laughing, confirming and honoring their bodies, knowing that everything about them was good -- even sacred.
They trusted us. They knew they could go to us to discuss anything. Such talks helped them form a personal shield of armor that they gradually learned to rely on outside the protection of home. We knew they would need us less and less.
We kept safety in mind, but didn't frighten them, only saying that if someone's words or actions caused them to feel threatened, that was a sign to get away, call for help. We encouraged questions about anything. But I must confess when they were little and the questions were about sex and simple answers weren't working, I often metaphorically crossed my fingers when giving the answer!
Children react differently to information. When our older daughter's school notified us that sex education would be presented in three months, we talked to her. Using a recommended book as a resource, we gently explained things in the most positive way we could.
"Do you have any questions?" my husband asked when we were finished.
"No. Thanks." She couldn't get out of the room fast enough.
Four years later, we went through the exact same scenario with the younger daughter. Her questions lasted over an hour. Variables, for sure.
But I made mistakes. I did not share the news of a rape in our suburb when the oldest was in the 7th grade. (It was 1987.) She heard about it, did her own research and much later said: "You should have told me about the rape, educated me instead of ignoring it." She was right.
As they matured, if our daughters had questions about adult behaviors, they asked their friends, rarely us. This is normal. Our daughters and son remained safe -- they never went missing. The only loss we experienced was the natural one -- they grew up.
But loss is never very far away for any of us. Pauline Boss, a family therapist affiliated with the University of Minnesota, created a theory for those who lose someone: either because the physical person is missing or the mind of that person is gone. She calls this heightened grieving process the ambiguous-loss theory. Her breakdown:
Type One: there is physical absence, but psychological presence. Examples: kidnapping, missing bodies due to war, 9-11, natural disasters or genocide. More common examples: absent parents due to divorce, giving a child up for adoption or the loss of physical contact with family due to immigration.
Type Two: there is physical presence, but psychological absence. The loved person is psychologically absent, emotionally or cognitively missing. Examples: Alzheimer's disease, dementia, traumatic brain injury, AIDS, autism, depression, addiction, or other chronic physical or mental conditions that takes away a loved one's mind/memory.
These losses are life-altering. They are the known unknown, families unable to grieve in the traditional manner. Dr. Boss calls this "frozen grief," relating that it's part of our American heritage. Boss: "we're very uncomfortable with not knowing. Our culture doesn't know how to handle ambiguity. It's really about wanting to be in control." Her guidelines for dealing with this grief can provide comfort and help.
- Don't blame yourself -- life isn't always fair; bad things happen for no reason.
- Find a new you -- if your role in life was defined by your relationship to the missing person, try to find a new role.
- Express yourself -- being sad/angry about the loss is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Don't bottle up emotions.
- Revise attachments. Grieve for your loss while cultivating new relationships; celebrate what you still have.
- Discover hope. In time, you'll become more comfortable with uncertainty; you'll find things you can control to balance ongoing ambiguity.
AARP Magazine, "The Missing" by Christopher Beam and David Dudley