I am going to warn you now that this is not a “feel-good”, happy Mom post. This is about a very difficult side of parenting that we often try not to think about. My children (my oldest daughter especially) have had to deal with death in a way that hits very close to home over this past year. This week, a student at my children’s high school passed away from a tragic, fast acting, serious illness. Last year, there were two suicides at the same school. It goes without saying that their entire school community has rallied together to support each other through these very difficult times. But there is only so much that hugs and prayers can do for children, especially adolescents, who feel as though they are invincible one minute and are reminded in the bleakest of ways that they are not the next. Even my “tough” 14-year-old son, whose range of emotions is generally confined to goofy, snarky, or sullen, admitted that he was bawling at school with his friends even though he was not close with the student. He was also reminded of the fragility of life this past summer while he was on a 10-day hiking trip with the boy scouts in the mountains of New Mexico when a flash flood hit and a scout from another group was swept away and died. The boy was about the same age as my son. While he did not know the young man, who was from the other side of the country, when he heard about it he felt that stabbing pang of “It could have been me”. I know that this past summer, and especially this week, I have felt the overwhelming sorrow of “That could have been my child”. Adding to the stark reality of the situation, we had an older family member pass away this week, so we have been mourning that loss as well.
While I can mourn the loss other families may be feeling and cry to myself in quiet corners when I am alone, I try to put on a strong front for my children in order to help them through their own fear and confusion. Now that they are a bit older, even my younger children are affected by what is happening. My 11-year-old son came to me today and confessed that he is scared and can’t stop thinking about death. While I can try to reassure him that he has a long and healthy life ahead of him, and we just have to live each day the best we can and try not to think about the “what ifs”, it’s not enough to make his fears (or mine) just disappear.
This isn’t the first time my children have encountered death in their lives. We had a beloved family pet die and we have lost three grandparents and a very close aunt in the not so distant past, but while my children remember these losses, they were too young to truly understand death at the time. My children have seen my husband and I suffer through the losses of some close friends in the past few years, one of which was within the past two weeks. But these were not people they knew. These were adults, and they can give us their own brand of sympathy, but it doesn’t strike home quite like the death of another child, or someone they knew well.
So what is a parent to do? How do we help our children cope with loss that strikes a chord so strong within their hearts that the reverberations can last weeks, months, or even longer? One of the main things is to allow your child to express his grief, fear, or any other emotions. Children have to know that they are allowed to have these feelings and the best we can do is acknowledge them and sympathize with them. As adults, we should, in a way that is not overwhelming, also share our own feelings of fear and grief so they know they are not alone. It is important to watch for signs of behavior that is out of the ordinary, especially in teens, because often they don’t know how to deal with their feelings and, instead, start acting out in order to try to prove to themselves that they are not afraid of anything happening to them. I have tried to encourage my children to do good deeds in honor of the person who has died. I try to remind them of the positive things in life without trying too hard to push a “think happy” agenda on them. Don’t lie or tell partial truths about the circumstances of the death. While it is necessary sometimes to protect younger children, as they grow they will know if you are “sugar-coating” things and may resent you for it. Do not tell your children that you aren’t going to die, or they aren’t going to die, but try to assure them that you hope to live a long life, and that you will do everything you can to stay safe and healthy, and to keep them safe and healthy, since that’s the best we can do. Through it all, stay close to your child so he knows he can come to you and express his feelings and fears, because the greatest harm that can befall a child trying to understand and deal with death is for him to feel like he has to be tough and just carry on and be grateful for what he has. Above all, be willing to get your child outside help from a grief counselor or therapist should the time come. We aren’t given a manual when our children are born telling us how to handle every pitfall that we will encounter as parents, so we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from the people who could write those manuals if they did exist.
When the dark times come, no matter how old your child may be, hold him, remind him how much he is loved, and that you will always be by his side, regardless of what the future holds.