10 Things I’ve Learned About Helping Children Grieve

Image Source: Becky McCoy
Image Source: Becky McCoy

My first child was born the evening of October 30, 2012, and my dad died early on the morning of October 31 — 3,000 miles away.

Life was bittersweet. We had this perfect little boy who came at such a raw time in life, and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t have my dad and my son. It felt as if I’d had to trade one in for the other. I spent much of the next year completely numb to what had happened and pretended that I was managing just fine. It was easier to be in denial.

The pretending went on a for a couple years as we moved back East, bought a house, and settled into life, hoping that the hard stuff was behind us.

On Father’s Day 2014, I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive. My husband, Keith giggled and danced through the house. I burst into tears. The timing meant I would probably be giving birth while Keith was deployed in the Air Force somewhere far away. It took me almost the entire first trimester to work through those fears. I told him I was also terrified someone else was going to get sick and die before I gave birth. He assured me my fear was silly and that everything would be fine.

Come October, Keith was exhausted all the time. He started waking up in pools of sweat each morning. I knew my worst fears were coming true.

The next two months were spent traveling to doctor’s appointments, procedures, and tests. The week before Christmas, he was given a diagnosis of Adenocarcinoma, a cancerous tumor, and a prognosis of several months to a year. We spent Christmas with our families and anticipated heading back home to make plans to start an aggressive chemo treatment.

On New Year’s Eve, Keith was admitted to the hospital, and by January 5th he was gone. I found myself a single mom of a barely 2-year-old and eight months pregnant with our daughter.

Grief was becoming a habit, and I was living a nightmare. It wasn’t fair that my dad had died before meeting his grandchild. It was intolerable that my husband hadn’t met his daughter.

On the morning of February 4th, I woke up in contractions, and after 10 hours headed to the hospital. My daughter was born one day shy of a month after her dad died.

Unfortunately, my children were born into a house of grief. As I’ve learned to parent each of them, I’ve also been grieving great losses. This past year since Keith died has been full of challenges, the largest of them being learning how to help my children grieve.

It’s a humbling responsibility to be the one to guide young children through grief, so I’ve compiled a list of the 10 most important things I’ve learned through this process.

1. We have permission to be sad.

The first month or so after Keith died, I tried to hide my tears from my son. He picked up on my efforts and tried to hide his tears from me. Eventually, I sat down and we had a conversation about how we were both sad. Grief, by definition was sad, but we were trying to protect each other from it. Once we both had permission to be sad, it got a little easier.

2. I can’t anticipate every hard moment.

It’s impossible to know which days, hours, moments, and milestones will be the hardest. Everyone always says holidays are the worst, but for me it is birthdays. They are the markers that growing and maturing have happened without my husband there to celebrate with us. The hard moments are the random little moments when my kids remind me of their dad or do something he would have thought was hilarious. And sometimes those aren’t hard moments at all. I can’t predict the hard moments or protect us from them.

3. They need to hear me talk about it.

My kids need to know I’m grieving. They need to know I have good days and bad days. We talk about sadness, but we also talk about their dad and our favorite memories with him. His name is not taboo in our house.

4. My grief dictates their mood.

This is similar to the good parenting advice I was given when my son hit toddlerhood: children reflect the mood of the adults around them. This is not a reason to hide sadness (see Lesson #1), but just something to be aware of. If my kids’ behavior seems to change without reason, it’s probably because my grief has changed.

5. They grieve the way I model grief.

Children learn most lessons by modeling the adults around them and grief is no exception. If I deal with grief by avoiding it, my children will too; I want them to learn to be healthy grievers.

6. I have different needs than my kids.

And they have needs that are different than mine. We each grieve differently. It helps me to talk about my husband and share memories (especially the ones that make me laugh). So far, my son hasn’t objected to my way of grieving, but I anticipate that a day is coming where he will want to express his grief in a new and different way.

7. We all need to feel safe to ask questions now and later.

My son often brings up his dad randomly. I try to stop what I’m doing and answer his questions. I try to ask him questions about grief in return. I want my children to know they are safe and loved so that when they wonder why our family is different (and probably experience some anger about it), they know I’m ready for their questions.

8. It is hard and will continue to be hard.

Grief is more than sadness. It is a constant exercise in reminding yourself that what you had and what you had hoped to be is no longer reality. Grief is exhausting and completely unavoidable. There’s no knowing how long it will be difficult. I keep thinking it’ll be easier in another month or at the end of the first year. It might be, but I’m encouraged when I remember that grief is hard for everyone; I’m not the only one who struggles.

9. I need to show myself some grace.

This point may be more of an addendum to Lesson #8, but since grief is so hard, I need to be gracious to myself. Grief is hard and it leaves me with less capacity than before. After Keith passed away, I was so discouraged that I wasn’t cooking dinner or feeding my son the well-rounded meals I had before my husband died. My friends kindly reminded me that if I was still feeding my child, then I was doing great. I adjusted my expectations so that I wouldn’t burn out trying to achieve an unrealistic standard. When I take more time to care for myself, my kids are more relaxed and content. They do better when I’m doing better.

10. Grief is significant and asking for emotional and physical help is not a sign of weakness.

My unrealistic expectations led me to think that I should be able to balance and manage parenting and household duties as a single parent just as well as I had before my husband passed away. The weight of my own expectations left me feeling alone and discouraged. When I allow people to help with the house, I get more quality time with the kids. When I allow people to help with the kids, the kids know they are receiving the gift of someone else’s time. When people help, we all benefit.

Image Source: Becky McCoy
Image Source: Becky McCoy

As my kids mature, their needs will change. When my son goes to kindergarten, he may begin to feel like our family is broken and his dad was taken from us, and it will be my responsibility to find him a counselor that can help him work through those thoughts. On Keith’s birthday each year, we’ll write letters if the kids feel like they need to communicate with him in order to process his absence. Our methods of grieving will change over time, but I’ll always be coming back to these 10 guidelines to be sure we are grieving well.

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