This could be an entire book, but for now, let’s look at the basics of children’s grief.
Children and loss– Kids don’t have experiences or resources in knowing how to deal with death. That’s our duty is to teach them, probably right along with ourselves, how to do this in the most healthy way. Unfortunately we are learning right beside them and some days have limited energy. Ok most days I was in survival mode. I made a ton of mistakes and told them that. I should have told them more often- though. I’m really good at saying nothing because either I don’t know how to bring something up or I don’t want to make them sad when they seem happy, but that’s the adult’s responsibility to start the conversation. If they don’t want to talk about it then, at least they know you are open to talk. Tell them you will be there when they are ready.
I had 6 kids when my husband passed away. They were my top priority. Since I had so many kids, the variance on the crazy chart was huge.
My oldest child was 19 and in Sweden on a church mission. He had only been there a few days when he heard the news his father died. It seemed he did fine for the 2 years when he was in Sweden. I visited him twice while he was there. Matt, the man I wanted to marry asked to meet Riley face-to-face to make sure it was ok with him to marry his mom. It was so great to see him doing well and he said yes. When Riley was done with his mission Matt and I picked him up and toured Europe for a week so we could get to know one another better. Riley came home not only to a new dad in the home, but a new brother and two sisters, a dog, a new house, and neighborhood. You could say that nothing looked familiar to him. Even the sisters and brothers he had before had grown so much, he barely recognized them. If this wasn’t a shock- I’m not sure what is. Riley seemed to do fine with it for a year or two then I think it hit him and he has been trying to deal with feelings and emotions since. He tells me I have changed, well yes- every fiber of my being.
Fortunately, my other five children were all at home and they received a lot of care and attention from friends, family, and the neighborhood. The care was unbelievable.
My oldest daughter was 16 and was my new partner at home helping me with everything she could. She got dad’s car and helped me take the kids to lessons, etc. I finally couldn’t do it all and took most of them out of everything- piano, violin, dance, art, etc. They couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t remember who had what and when. I slowly put them back in lessons a couple of years later. But this changed how much I pushed them and myself. Little things didn’t matter much anymore. Only passions carried weight.
The only boy I had left in the home was 13 when his dad died. People would tell him the worst comment ever, €œYou are the new man of the house. No, he’s still the 13-year-old boy in our house. This added pressure wasn’t helpful at all to this already sensitive child. Jeremy did really well for a couple of years and then on New Year’s Day he snapped. He wouldn’t come out of his room, he wouldn’t talk, oh- ya he’s a boy so he did still eat. We took him to the doctor and to counseling but nothing seemed to help. It was situational depression is what I believe they came up with. When he was 18 he left on a church mission for 2 years and when he came back he was a new man. Yes NOW, at age 20, he was a man and I could treat him like one.
My daughter who turned 8 a couple of weeks before all of this happened had a complete breakdown a couple of nights after my husband died. We called it a Cat 5 Hurricane. It was brought on by the simplest of things- I wouldn’t let her add salt to her nachos. She yelled and cried for about 5 hours. Nobody could calm her down. For weeks and months after that, she wasn’t like herself. It hurt my heart. She didn’t know how to express herself. Luckily when I remarried, my husband had a little dog and he was Rachelle’s new best friend. I think Chester may have saved her sanity. And mine.
The other kids had their ups and downs. A psychologist told me that the kids will have good months/years and bad years- as adults do. Watch for those low times and get them the help they need. I could see the anger come out of different kids for years. Kids most likely don’t have words or communication skills to voice their feelings. My biggest goal is to teach my kids to honor their feelings. Children need to know that strong people cry. All ages grieve- I found out that if kids are old enough to love, they are old enough to grieve. Some kids rebelled and took it out on me. I figured out I was a really good punching bag for the first 5 years until I decided to create stronger boundaries.
I found an awesome children’s therapy group in my city. I called as soon as my husband passed away to get on their waiting list. A few months later, they got in. It helped them to be with other kids who were going through the same thing as they were. They went about 5 times, then they told me they were done so I took them out because I think they got out of it what they needed- they weren’t alone.
Remember that kids take things literally. Don’t be surprised by their questions- Won’t he be cold without a blanket in the casket? How does he eat now? When will he wake up? What is a headstone- is their head in there? Communicate. Ask them questions.
This experience has been a great way to teach responsibility and to pick yourself up when you fall- and everyone falls. This path isn’t easy, but I used it to my advantage when they had a hard test coming up or try-outs for a team I would tell them- you can do hard things. You have proven this for the past 5 years, so you can also do this. And if something happens that you weren’t prepared for- you can also deal with that. There will be other tragedies in life, but knowing you made it through this one will give you great hope that “I can get through challenges”. Oh by the way when you talk to kids, they will look like they are not paying attention- on their phones, fiddling with things, but they are listening. I have found that if they have something in their hands to play with, what you say will go in their heads better- also their attention span will be longer when they aren’t looking at you while you talk. Kids who have lost their parents lose their innocence quickly and know there are no guarantees in life. But if taught positively, they will see that no matter what life throws at them, they will get through not just fine, but better than they were before.
It’s really interesting that kids have hard days on anniversaries- even if they don’t know the calendar yet. There really is something to emotions and energies surrounding death.
The kid’s perspective on life changed as mine did. Suddenly many things became unimportant. I believe this is one of the biggest blessings that come from this rocky road. If they didn’t do well on a test or in a game, they would say, It isn’t the worst thing that ever happened. And it wasn’t. How we model loss will affect how our children and their children to come will react to it.