Parenting Grief

My daughter is making a soft crying sound in the back of her throat, like tiny inward sobs. It’s not crying, really. It’s a way for her to catch my attention, to let me know she is feeling sad about something. Age 5 and a solid introvert, she doesn’t often express her emotions outwardly (something I relate to). Instead, she contrives ways to express that there is an emotion happening on the inside. Like this whimpering. It’s happened over and over in the past two months.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“Heather,” she squeaks.
“Oh. Yeah. It’s okay to feel sad,” I say, and give her a hug.
And then she’s finished. I don’t have any way of knowing if the feeling is still going on inside of her. Outwardly, she is impassive. Having been acknowledged, she tucks her feelings back away for safe keeping. This is how she handles her grief.

The night Heather died, we tearfully gathered our children together on the rug in the living room to tell them the news. Our dog had died a few weeks before, in our home with our children present, so death had recently been a prominent topic of conversation in our household. We talked with them about her illness (cancer), how it wasn’t something we or they could catch like playground germs. We talked about the wide range of normal emotions that happen when we lose someone we care about. How they might see us crying every now and then, or how they might feel sad and want a hug or want to be alone. How they might find themselves feeling happy, laughing, and that doesn’t mean they don’t still miss Heather. How they might feel upset or even angry. All of these are normal when we are getting used to a world without someone we loved.

The way we tend to talk around death in our culture, including couching it in euphemisms (“passing away,” “resting in peace”), doesn’t work for children, and it isn’t always comfortable to be direct in the way children need. Thankfully, there are many good resources on talking with children about death and loss, as well as information to help parents understand grief in children and how to help them with it. Here are a few I have found helpful: A comprehensive collection of information from about talking with children about death and about normal grieving behaviors in children of varying ages. This page from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry includes some of the signs of grief in children that may indicate the child needs more help in coping. I really like this page from Sesame Street that includes video segments parents and children can watch together.

We didn’t have a blueprint for helping our children through grief, but we have been doing our best to be open about our own feelings and allow them to be open about theirs. We have been noticing a wide range of expression as all of us cope with the wild ups and downs of normal grieving (though it feels anything but normal) while time does its work to smooth out the sharp edges and good memories take root.

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