Grief. It’s a part of life, but one that I can’t help but notice becoming more complex the older I become. It’s not just sadness anymore. It’s layers and layers of emotions from a lifetime of interactions. It’s the woulda-coulda-shouldas. It’s thinking about ways to keep their memory alive. It’s trying to find the right words to explain death to your kids. It’s deciding whether or not to take them to the funeral.
We lost my grandmother last week. She lived a long life, instilled great values on her family, and created many cherished memories with those close to her. She was stubborn by nature so it shouldn’t have surprised any of us that she decided not to accept treatment when her kidneys began to fail three years ago. Back then, she was told she didn’t have much time left; she proved their estimate wrong by about 34 months!
One would think, as a school counselor, I’d be prepared for her death and I’d have all the right words for my own kids who were crushed. My empathetic-beyond-her-years daughter sobbed in my arms. I didn’t have words; I just cried with her. I hugged her close and we cried. Eventually, we talked about some of our favorite memories and ways we would keep her memory alive.
Feel the Feels
The truth is, there aren’t any “right” words during times of grief. The best thing we can do for our kids is allow them to feel their emotions. They don’t need us to fix anything; they just need to know they are safe and loved.
Let them cry. Death is sad. It’s healthy to cry. Although such simple sentences, they are so important to remember. I had to fight the urge to “fix” my daughter’s tears. She just needed to be sad. We all did, and we are all working our way through this difficult time by processing in our own ways.
Great Grandma In The Box
Kids also need to know the facts, so it’s important to be honest when it comes to death. My three-year-old niece was very concrete in her processing. She reminded us that “Great Grandma is dead. We are taking her to the cemetery.” Although the honesty can be difficult to hear, using euphemisms like “Great Grandma is sleeping” or “She is in a better place now” would have just confused her little brain because developmentally she is not ready to interpret them.
Follow The Leader
Especially when it comes time for the funeral, it’s important to follow your child’s lead. My six-year-old didn’t want to go up to the casket so we didn’t force her. We let her take breaks in the hallway and play with her cousins. We distracted her some but we also let her sit with her emotions some. Even if kids can’t express it in words, they give us hints about their needs.
During these tough situations, I often remind myself that “I’m no good to anyone else unless I take care of myself first.” It’s important for us as parents to allow ourselves time to grieve and process in our own, healthy ways. It is also important to model this process for our kids. Their developmental level should determine how much they are exposed to, but I believe it is important for our kids to see us sad during sad situations. I always try to “think out loud” so my kids understand why Mommy is sad and what she is going to do about it. They pick up on so much more than we realize, so trying to hide emotions is likely only teaching them to do the same.
The wonderful people at hospice have many great resources for grief. It’s also totally appropriate to reach out to your school counselor if you have concerns about the way your child is processing grief. They can connect you to community resources as well as work with your student at school.