Grief is a challenging, confusing struggle. As adults we wrestle with it, so how much tougher must it be for children? Last week, I wrote about grief over at Defying Shadows. It occurred to me later how differently we face things as adults than children do and that I’d be remiss if I didn’t share what I know about grief and children.
Children aren’t just “little adults.” In fact, the way they function and process are quite different than how we operate as adults. When my children lost their father, we were all reeling from the shock and grief. I had lost both my parents by then and was no stranger to grief, but I was very much a stranger to dealing with significant loss as a child. I learned a lot from my children during this process just as I learned a lot about them. That support was absolutely vital to their healing and mine.
My children and I had a frank discussion about grief now that they’re three years out from the initial trauma. I wanted to know what had helped them these past years and what I could have done differently. I wanted to know for myself but also in an effort to give others insight so they can help children as well.
My children were 9 and 13 at the time of their dad’s death and they each faced the tragedy differently. Of course, initially they were both horribly grieved, pained. When friends, teachers, and church friends arrived at the funeral home and offered support, they felt immensely loved. It comforted them and was vital to their healing and mine.
SURROUND THEM WITH SUPPORT
Never feel that going to the visitation or a funeral goes unnoticed. We remember everyone who came. We may not remember every word that was spoken, but let me stress that showing up counts. Even if you feel uncomfortable and words are few, show up.
ALLOW THEM TO EASE BACK INTO LIFE AT THEIR OWN PACE
I allowed my children to grieve on their own terms. I wouldn’t have known any other way to do it. I let them choose what they could and could not handle for quite awhile. My oldest wanted to return to school immediately. She found comfort in her familiar routine and being with friends. School work kept her mind occupied.
My youngest required more time off. He felt comfort being with me and was physically and emotionally exhausted to the point he slept several extra hours per day for two weeks following his dad’s passing. There was no point in forcing him back to school and into a world he could not yet properly function in. But when he returned to school, a plan was put into place. His teacher, guidance counselor, and I all devised a plan so he could feel comfortable, especially if he got emotional or just needed a break during the day. More than once, he put the plan into play, having lunch with a buddy at the counselor’s office or simply calling me for a few minutes from school.
RESPECT THEIR BOUNDARIES
They may not want to talk about “it” at times and other times they absolutely need to. Being available to them and listening to what they’re saying and what’s between the lines will help gauge how they’re coping. They may want to stay far away from places that remind them of the person they’re grieving. My daughter had difficulty attending church some weeks. It reminded her of her dad and the fact that he wasn’t there was painfully obvious. My first reaction was to make her go anyhow. But I respected the fact that it was too much and church could wait or we could attend another one in the meantime. Eventually, she was able to handle returning to our home church.
Remember: EVERYONE GRIEVES DIFFERENTLY
My daughter talked about and still talks about her dad often. My son rarely does. There’s no right or wrong to that. She fears her dad will be forgotten so talking about him and reminiscing keeps him “alive.” My son, at least at this point, doesn’t share that concern. In fact, he distanced himself from his dad early on. He was angry at him for the way he died (suicide) and didn’t feel the same closeness with him that his sister had. As he’s gotten older, he has found a healthy balance where he feels he can safely remember his dad and recognize some traits they share and be proud of that.
My daughter has always had a fierce loyalty to her dad which at first kept her from getting too close to my husband, her stepfather. Although she loves both men dearly, I could see that she felt she couldn’t have both. She has since realized that although my husband isn’t a replacement for her father, he’s in every way a father to her and they are now very close.
ALLOW THEM TO REMEMBER
Whomever they have lost, allow them to honor and remember that person however helps them best. Whenever we return to our hometown, we visit the cemetery if my children feel they’d like to. If they don’t, I never push it, but if they do, I’m always supportive and go out of my way to make sure they get there. I let them lead. If they want to plant a tree in their dad’s memory, we do that. There are no rules that state they can’t have their dad here just because I’m remarried. I married a man who respects their need to do that…I never would have chosen him otherwise.
My children were angry and rightly so. Sometimes, especially in the weeks and months following the tragedy, they took their anger out on me. But it is important to note that the anger, while entirely normal and not unhealthy, wasn’t anything about me at all. It was simply directed at me because I was safe. I was there and I wasn’t leaving so they knew they could express themselves with me…even if it was anger.
I lost my Mom when I was 26 and my Dad 8 years later. Although I felt seriously cheated, especially losing my Mom before I had children, I believe God used those losses to help me understand my children when they lost their dad at such early ages. I could understand their grief of losing a parent although I could relate from the standpoint of a 26-year-old and not a 9 or 13-year-old. But I could indeed empathize and I knew their need to never forget, to hang on to certain material items, to cry, to bargain, to be angry, to visit the cemetery, to miss school on the anniversary of his death, to memorialize him, and to cling to me.
SEEK BIBLICAL COUNSELING
This is something that we sought immediately upon recommendation of our pastor, but it was clear we all needed it. We counseled individually and together at times. This was so important to our healing process and it helped us gain a richer understanding of each other and how we were each uniquely coping and going through this journey. And, please realize that just as there’s no grief timetable, there’s no timetable for needing assistance and clarity either. Although we counseled on a regular basis for the first year, my children still see their counselors on an as-needed basis and I fully support that. It’s crucial and so very helpful, especially since they’re growing up and experiencing so many phases of life. They may go several months without seeing their counselor and then suddenly have the need to talk to their counselor again.
As they grow, they see the situation through different eyes and as such, different questions arise and they need to talk it out with someone outside the situation. Again, find a biblical counselor, one whose goals include eventual independence from frequent counseling.
HAVE OPEN EYES AND OPEN EARS
Be your children’s best shoulder and listening ear. Be their biggest cheerleader and strongest support. Whatever the loss, they need to know you are available at all times and are consistently supportive. Even if my children don’t the subject, I do. I would “check in” on a regular basis and ask questions about how they are feeling, what they are thinking, are they angry or having bad thoughts. I let them know I’m a safe place, that there’s no judgement, and above all, I love them and want the very, very best for them. This continues to create an environment where they can tell me things with raw honesty. The fact that they keep talking to me is key. Because of that unconditional mother love, I will always do what is best, healthiest, and safest for them and be their best advocate. They need to know that.
SHOW THEM HOPE
Loss is bad. It’s painful. Encourage them to do things that will help bring healing and even a modicum of closure by doing something in honor of the loved one whether it’s running a special race or simply going out for lunch on the anniversary of their passing. They will not always feel this much pain. God is comfort. God is good. He is hope.