Grief sucks, and grieving while raising small children adds a layer of difficulty to the situation. Helping my children grieve when I am grieving myself has been a challenge. My children are still just learning about loss, big feelings, death, and finality. Honestly, these are things that I struggle to comprehend as a seasoned adult. I hope the lessons I have learned for helping my children learn about and cope with grief help ease your journey some.
Lesson 1: Children Appreciate Honesty
It can be tempting to say euphemisms such as ‘going to sleep’ instead of explaining scary words like death to our kids. As a pediatrician and a mom who has been through this, I strongly recommend against this. Young children will take you literally and be confused when their loved one is ‘still sleeping’ days and weeks later. Also, phrases like this can be scary for kids when they are due for a nap or bedtime! The truth is sometimes awkward, uncomfortable, and downright sad and scary. But I find that kids appreciate gentle matter-of-fact explanations.
Lesson 2: Give Them Some Control
Children live in a world where they don’t have much control over their lives. Adults make the rules and set expectations for behavior. This lack of control can seem scary and frustrating for young kids. It is even scarier when a loved one dies, and they realize the things they thought were safe are also out of their control. The big feelings this brings out can be overwhelming and difficult to express. So don’t be surprised if suddenly a stuffed animal, dirty sock, worn-out toothbrush, or even lost baby tooth becomes an incredibly important object to hang onto. It may not make sense to us as grownups. But they often act as a proxy for the huge feelings they are dealing with about loss and lack of control. So please, don’t make my mistake and throw out the used-up toothbrush when they get a new one. Ask. And if they want to keep that toothbrush on the counter for a few months, let it go.
Lesson 3: Don’t Try To Fix Their Feelings
Grief is hard. It is messy. It is something we all want to avoid. But it is an important part of saying goodbye to loved ones. We are often tempted to push hard feelings away. But it’s so important that we learn to accept our feelings and allow them to pass in their own time. Pushing them away tends to have unexpected negative consequences. This is also true of our kids. Don’t try and say things about how it will all be ok. Look at their tears and let them know you see their pain. Try on simple phrases like “It’s hard to lose people we love” or “You seem sad.” Ask if they want to talk or just to have you sit with them. Often it’s enough just to say, “I am here if you need me.” This was a hard lesson in grieving while parenting, but one I am glad I learned.
Lesson 4: Show Your Emotions
Don’t be afraid that showing your sadness will make things harder for your children. Let your kids see you cry. Let them comfort you. This is a crucial step in practicing how to deal with big feelings and grief. Let them sit next to you and say the same things you have said to them. My kids often come in and say, “Mama, you are sad. I will sit with you.” Those are the small, uplifting moments I look forward to during my own grief.
Lesson 5: Help Them Process Their Loss
My children first learned about death when they discovered a dead bee on our front porch. Although they had never seen this bee before, somehow, it hit them hard and became a reality at that moment. There was a LOT of crying over their ‘best friend’ being gone. We had a small bee burial in the front yard. They called grandma to talk about their loss. They drew pictures of what the bee looked like so they could remember him. They brought this loss up for weeks. I was a little surprised at the ferocity of their grief. But it was real and heavy to them. When you first confront death and loss, it is a difficult experience. Even if it is for an unknown bee, take it seriously and practice the steps that help during these moments.
Lesson 6: Books Can Help
There are some excellent children’s books on love, loss, and grief. They have taught me valuable lessons on grieving while also parenting my children. These are a few I recommend.
- When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide To Understanding Death
This is one of my favorites. It addresses many aspects of death and loss, grief and remembrance. It touches on many beliefs and faith traditions. It touches on various circumstances a death could present as. And for kids who can’t read yet, you can skip over any elements that you don’t want to cover yet.
- The Memory Box
- I love how this book illustrates ways to remember your loved one as your process grief.
- The Invisible String by Patrice Karst This book is good during times of loss, but also during happier periods. It is a beautiful illustration of the tie that binds us to those we love, even when we are separated from them.
- The Grief Rock: A Book To Understand Grief And Love Kids often respond to concrete visual representations of complex emotions. This book aptly imagines grief as a heavy rock you must carry around. This is an image that helps children understand a topic that is often hard to explain.
- The Grief Bubble: Helping Kids Explore And Understand Grief This is an interactive book created by an art therapist. I love how it lets children express themselves and their feelings on the pages as they learn about what grief means and how we live with it.
Hang in there. Adulting isn’t easy. Parenting isn’t easy. Grief sure as heck is never easy. Doing all three at once is a lot. I hope these lessons in grieving while raising children help you and your children navigate your own loss together.