The first time I felt loss was at the age of ten when my grandfather passed away. I remember it being an awkward situation that no one talked about. Death was not explained to me, nor any feelings that I had associated with the loss of such a kind man in my life.
When my mother died, I was in my twenties. I had two children that were quite young. My immediate concern was talking to them about the loss, explaining death, and allowing them an opportunity to explore what they are thinking and feeling in a safe space. I enlisted the help of the book by Hans Wilhelm called Waldo, Tell Me About Dying, in order to trudge through this process.
The reality that life has loss has never made it easier to accept, navigate through, or process no matter how old you are. When you are a child, grief can be much more confusing. This past year my family has experienced an enormous amount of loss. My father died, our cat died, and two weeks after that my dog died. In the midst of my own mental health crisis, I would have to force myself to step out of the self-absorption and check in with my teenage son who was questioning why this was all happening. It was a chaotic time in our lives.
I became overly concerned with how my son was processing or not processing things, when I checked in one time with him. He immediately stopped the conversation and told me that he needed to focus on a big game he was playing that night and didn’t want to talk about things at that moment. In my opinion, I thought he should spend more time talking about our losses openly, but I was wrong. Everyone experiences grief in a different way. I know this from my own experiences in life. T
he most important thing I needed to do was give him the option to talk if he wanted to. I wanted him to know if he had questions, he could come to me and I wanted him to know that if he needed help grieving that I would be there.
Grief can be heavy, messy and sometimes it can feel that way for a long time. It can feel awful, until it no longer does, and then resurface over and over. What that looks like can be different for everyone. Children and teenagers, with all of their questioning about what life is, may struggle even deeper wondering what death is. Teaching them how to grieve builds resiliency but more importantly, it allows them to be exactly where they are in the grief process. It is about giving children the permission to feel, or not feel, talk or not talk. It is about giving them options and outlets that are healthy and resourceful and keeping an open dialogue so they know you are there.
There are many suggestions on how to teach children to grieve, and ideas about how they should or should not be processing grief and loss. You can’t protect your kids from the pain of loss, nor can you predict their reaction to it. If you need tools of support to help you talk to your kids about loss, there is help. According to virtualhospice.ca, it might be time to get help when:
- You need help understanding your child’s behavior or how to support them.
- Complicated issues such as mental health and addictions, war and political conflict, suicide and homicide have contributed to death.
- Death is sudden, unexpected or due to an accident.
- The death was the fault of the person who died.
One of the most important ways to teach children how to grieve is to let them see you grieve. My children have seen me give myself permission to do basics when I am grieving. Basic meals, basic cleaning, basic socializing and basic life. Going back to basics is the place where I acknowledge the pain, not ignore it, and allow myself to feel.
They have seen me put one foot in front of the other and sometimes not. They have seen me weep on the floor when my dog died a few months ago, and they have witnessed me find gratitude for being by my dad’s side when he died. I did not push away grief through addictions or ignore it by burying myself in my work. I did not allow people to tell me to get over it, but I did not allow the grief to swallow me whole. Like the ebb and flow of a river, I allowed my grief to come and go.
While my children observed my grief, they allowed me to observe theirs. My son would send me pictures of our cat that he had taken over the years, who was his best friend, to let me know he was thinking about her. He would sit on the couch and pretend that he was still petting her and look at me in a way to say, I really miss her without using any words.
Seeing your children in their grief, whatever it may look like, and offering them a soft place to land their pain in your comforting love, is the best way to help your child through their grief.