Losing my late husband at 29 years old was the hardest thing I have ever experienced in my entire life. Losing Ben was like losing a limb. It changed my whole way of doing things and seeing things forever. I didn’t think I could ever get through it, let alone help a little 2-year-old in his terrible twos get through it as well.
Grieving is messy, hard, and painful but I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean it gives me an excuse to shut the world out forever, especially my son. My son still needs guidance and he still needs love.
An earlier blog post called, Helping My Son Grieve Starts With Me talks a little bit of my own personal journey and how in order to help him I had to learn to help myself first.
FYI I have had days where I completely throw ALL the rules I mentioned below out the window and have said the very things I mention not to say. I myself have said things like, “Stop crying!” I have learned to face my shame of what I did, admit it to my son, ask for his forgiveness, and then and try to remember each day is a new day to do things better the next time. And then I try to go back to these tips as many times as I can remember or am capable of doing.
All these tips can give people starting points and ideas in helping kids grieve death and even everyday losses. Let me know in the comments if you have other things that have helped you or need advice on. I do not claim to be an expert on helping kids navigate grief and loss but I have learned a lot these past 4 years that has helped me and hopefully can help you and others too:
- We have a saying in our family of two that is, “How you feel matters.” Grief can cause adults and kids to feel some raw emotions, especially in the beginning stages of dealing with the death. I have encouraged my son to identify how he is feeling and that whatever he is feeling is ok to feel. What Not To Say: “Stop crying.” Or “That shouldn’t make you feel sad.” Instead Say: “I’m so sorry you feel that way right now. What was happening that caused you to feel that way? “ If my son is crying and missing his dad I put my arms around him and say, “I miss your dad too. We are in this together. I’m here for you.” Sometimes emotions and feelings just don’t make sense and kids tend to grieve sporadically and then they are done. But the most important thing I learned was to acknowledge whatever he had to process and help him deal with it in healthy ways. It’s ok to have intense emotions but not to express it in a way so as to manipulate other people.
- Let him feel emotions with safe boundaries. My son was usually a calm little kid but sometimes he would try to throw things and try to break it. What Not to say: “Stop throwing that!” Saying things like that actually doesn’t help him learn anything. It’s merely giving him a command but not helping him learn the proper way to handle things when he has extreme emotions. Instead Say: “When you throw things you might break it and that is not the way we treat our toys. If we break our toys we cannot play with them and then no one can enjoy them later.” If he tried to run and pick it up again and throw it across the room I would take it away and say, “If you cannot follow my instructions of how throwing our toys is not ok then I am putting it away until you can play with it correctly.” I never wanted my son to feel that he couldn’t feel things but I did want him to learn that hurting people (physically and emotionally) and things is not ok. When he seemed to calm down I would ask him what he was feeling. Usually something triggered him missing his dad and he said he was angry or sad about it. From there we were able to talk and process it together and think of other ways to express sadness or anger instead of throwing.
- It’s important to learn when to table conversations for later. When he was kicking and screaming it was not the time to have in depth conversations of life lessons or how he needs to make different choices next time. I would tell my son, “We will talk when you are more calm and are not yelling at mommy.” Talking when my son was calm was the time I could discuss things and we could both hear what we both had to say about the incident. And if he was crying and wanted to be left alone. I would say things like:“Let me know when you are done crying and want to talk and be with me again.” Having space to process things on his own was important but I also wanted him to know I was here when he needed me to step in again.
- Just be there and be present. As my son got older he began to express the difference he saw in our family compared to his friends. I remember him saying how hard it was to see his friend play with his dad at a bounce place during a birthday party. My son expressed how he wished he had a dad to play with him at the birthday party. I wanted to say, “Am I invisible? I was at that party too! I played with you at the bounce place!” But I realized it wasn’t about me. I knew deep down that he appreciated me playing with him but that day he was realizing the void that he felt in not having a dad to play with him like his friend. As hands on as I am, nothing replaces the presence of a dad. Instead I told him, “Yeah that must have been hard to watch honey. I’m sorry you have to go through that. It was hard for me to see all the dads playing with their kids too. I know your dad would have loved to jump with you at the bounce place if he were still alive. “ My son not having a dad is not fixable but I can validate the reality of how things are hard without a dad and join and comfort him in what he is feeling.
- It’s ok to let your kids see how you handle some of your emotions. I remember the first time my son got really sick I broke down and cried. He asked me why I was crying and I said, “This is really hard for me without your dad. I have to get up every few hours to give you your medicine and I don’t have your dad to take turns with me in the middle of the night anymore. I’m going to be ok but I’m just really sad right now.” I remember my son giving me a great big hug. And it made me realize that I needed comfort when I was sad just as much he did when he was sad. I learned it was ok to talk about what was hard for me too. I cried for a few minutes in front of him and then I tucked him into bed and stayed with him until he fell asleep. And later in my own bed, I prayed and cried out to the Lord about how much I was hurting and for Him to comfort me. I did feel comfort and peace but I still ended up practically crying myself to sleep that night. I’ve learned that in instances like that it was ok for him to see some of my sadness but he didn’t have to see all of it. I think it’s healthy for him to see some of my emotions because it teaches him that even adults can struggle with the things as well. And when I model how I struggle or have different emotions and deal with them in healthy ways in front of him it is reinforcing what I am trying to teach him. Sometimes the best way for our kids to learn how to handle feelings and emotions can be watching the way we handle our own feelings and emotions.
A really helpful book that goes more into detail of being there for our kids is called How To Really Love Your Child by D. Ross Campbell, MD. It talks about how giving eye contact, appropriate physical touch, and focused attention is really important in the everyday lives of our kids. And when I was grieving myself those things were not always easy to give to my son but I learned if I could at least attempt to do those things most days it caused tantrums and meltdowns to go down significantly. And it does help my son feel loved. And love is the bottom line of what all kids need, especially when a parent dies.
Overall, I think the more I knew how to deal with my grief and work through it the more I was able to help him. And as my son gets older he begins to ask more questions and understand deeper layers of what it means to not have a dad. My hope is that since we have a strong foundation now of him coming to me when he is struggling with feelings or grieving his dad he will continue to do that in the years to come.
For me, I’ve learned that some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned have come from helping my son navigate through his grief. Life does’t always go the way we want it to, but we can learn to process the pain AND find the beauty in the alternative. And I’ve also learned that grieving is not something you have to do alone. We can get through it together.