When our son Joey was diagnosed with cancer his brothers were five, three, and one year old. We couldn't even begin to imagine how to explain any of it to them, especially when it turned out that the cancer was terminal. My husband had the foresight to seek professional help; but even so, I'm sure we made some mistakes along the way.
Admittedly, I'm no professional grief counselor. But, in honor of National Childhood Grief Awareness week, I want to share some of the things that we have learned going through the grief process. We still are going through the process. After all, grief is tenacious. It doesn't easily give up, and it rears its head when you least expect it. It comes and goes like waves throughout a person's life. It becomes a constant, a part of the scenery we can either fight against or live with if we have the proper tools.
1. It's okay to say "I don't know why." As parents, we think we need to have an answer for everything. But illness, death, war, and all that other terrible stuff has no good reason for being. It just is. When Joey was in the hospital shortly after his diagnosis, the pastor of our parish visited us. I was steeling myself for the Biblical explanation, the priest's way of explaining that "God has a plan" and all that other crap. Instead, he did the best thing ever: He said to me, "I don't know why this is happening." And then he hugged me and cried with me.
2. Don't avoid questions. Even if you don't have all the answers, it's still okay to talk. I was the mom who avoided all things death with her kids. Even a squashed squirrel in the street would get ignored. I couldn't even say the words dead or death to my kids. On the contrary, animals provide us the perfect opportunity to introduce the concept of death to kids. Yes, that squirrel ran in the street and got hit by a car. Now it is dead. Be simple and straightforward.
3. Do avoid euphemisms. According to Wikipedia, a euphemism is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Many people use terms like "sleeping" or "passed away" or "went to sleep" or "was taken from us" to describe death. These terms can confuse children (If Daddy is sleeping, then he will wake up). Again, be straightforward and truthful: "The tumor in Joey's brain caused his body to stop working, and he died." Teach children that all living things eventually die; and once dead, they are dead forever.
4. Expect many emotions and fears. The next natural assumption by the child is that he will die or his parent will die. Again, be truthful while calming the fears: "Eventually, we all die. But if we are careful and make healthy choices, we can expect to live a very long life." You may have to have this talk quite frequently. And you may see children exhibiting a variety of emotions from sadness to anger to depression to apathy. Even if your child seems apathetic, he may simply not understand how he is feeling. Or emotions may hit him when he least expects it. Children may be running and laughing on the day of the funeral, but wake up weeks later after a nightmare.
5. Keep your routine consistent. This is a tough one, I know. Children are actually comforted by routine. At a time when things seem scary and out of control, daily routine can help to start the healing process. It shows children that even though someone we love is gone, our lives are going on and that's okay.
6. Provide opportunities for talk and play. Don't expect your child to talk to you about how he is feeling. He may not even know (some days I don't even know how I am feeling!). Talk about your own feelings and then listen when he talks about his. If he is playing and pretending the person who has died is there, let him play. This is the way kids process their loss. Often at night just before bedtime, our boys will talk about Joey or start to cry for seemingly no reason. That's when we hop in, snuggle up, and tell goofy Joey stories or talk about how our hearts hurt every day now that he is gone. Again, no answers, just empathy. Say the deceased person's name, tell stories, look at pictures.
That is how we acknowledge our feelings and grieve our loss. And remember, everyone grieves differently. Even though we lost the same person, our grief manifests itself as individually as we are.
7. Start a new tradition while keeping some of the old. It's good to remember the things we did with our loved ones, especially if they are still relevant in our lives after they have died. But it's okay to start something new, too, particularly if it is something that honors that person. June 10th was just another day before Joey died. Now, it is Joey Party Day. We look at pictures, tell funny stories, go to the zoo, and eat pineapple, Cheetos, and strawberry ice cream - all the things Joey loved.
8. Keep Heaven out of it. Okay, all the professionals say this, but I'm not sure I agree. I think it is up to you and your belief system. Admittedly, it can get tricky. 'It was in God's plan.' 'God thought it was time.' 'We'll be reunited in Heaven.' Unless you're ultra religious and have the backing of some carefully chosen Bible verses, I would avoid this, too. Our boys all talked about how if Jesus had risen from the dead, why couldn't Joey, too? Our ten-year-old, who self-studies all cultures and religions, honestly doesn't know if he even believes in God. Admittedly the Heaven is for Real book pisses me off as I wonder how these people can make the claims they do. However, I did find myself bringing Heaven into talks as we stood over Joey's grave one day. The boys asked what happened to Joey's body. I answered that it was buried underground, but as Catholics we believe that his soul is with God in Heaven. That invited all sorts of other questions that I just couldn't answer. This is obviously a personal call and a slippery slope.
9. Let them keep a personal object from their loved one. This one comes from me. Obviously, it's emotionally unhealthy to leave things untouched. But allowing your son to wear his dad's favorite ball cap or my boys to keep some of Joey's stuffed animals is comforting. I will admit that I often sleep with Joey's beloved Stripey Kitten.
10. Utilize professional help. There are many family therapists, community programs, church groups, and resources available to help a family through their grief (click here for a list of helpful books and websites). Believe me when I say, seek these out. We didn't; and in researching these posts, I wish we would have.
* * *
It's difficult enough to deal with our own grief; but we must remember that when someone we love has died, our children are grieving, too. There is no pretty way to say that grief sucks, but the amazing writer Anne Lamott has put a spin on it that makes it seem like living with grief doesn't have to be all bad.
What tips have you found helpful for talking with your own children about death? Share below. And if you know someone this post could help, please use the share buttons below. xo