Mothering Grieving Children

Children are amazing. They possess the uncanny ability to absorb information even when we have no idea they are listening.

A little over a month ago we lost a very special person in our lives, my father in law. To my children he was Nonno.

They had a mutual adoration for each other. What wasn’t to love? Nonno was a warm, cheery guy who took them into his garden, sang to them and supplied them with raspberries and whole chocolate bars. He had a big heart, big smile and even bigger hugs. Every time he said goodbye he made sure to tell them, “If there is anything you need or want, you call Nonno”. He was a quintessential Italian Nonno.

Family has always been a top priority in both my and my husband’s lives. We are fortunate enough to live 5 minutes away from both sets of our parents. Our children have grown up seeing their grandparents at least once a week. This was an important factor in deciding where to raise our family.

When we knew my father in law was nearing the end of his time on Earth, we knew honesty was imperative when speaking to our children. They’ve had more experience with death than some adults. It was crucial that we speak openly with them.

Curiously they each had a separate reaction. Anthony, age 9, immediately assumed the role of a mature big brother. He seemed to be stoic but it was unclear whether that was for him, for his little brother or for us. We constantly reminded him that we were a safe place. If he had questions or emotions, he was free to share them with us. At times he did provide insight to his feelings. His approach was extremely matter of fact. Death is imminent for all of us. He would miss Nonno very much, but when it was his time, it was his time. He was not detached from his emotions, merely aware of the reality of death.

Nicky, age 7, had a very different and much more effusive display of emotion. He immediately began to cry, demanding to know why so many people he loved had already died and he was only 7. He was angry, confused, hurt and sad.

It would have been great if I could have given him a answer as to why so many people he loved had died. Instead all I could do was listen and tell him I understood why he was so sad.

It can be hard for parents to sit with their children’s feelings, listening to their hurt and sadness. Our immediate instinct is to fix them. Pain and sadness are viewed as negative, undesirable emotions. While no one enjoys feeling them, we must. It is simple as that. We must feel our feelings. Children must be allowed to do that too.

Navigating grieving a child and raising other children at the same time has been one of the hardest things I ever had to do. It is completely overwhelming. Tasked with processing my own grief, and watching little people whom I love so much do the same, is all consuming and confusing.

There is nothing that I would love more than to wave a magic wand and erase the grief their little hearts have endured. I am certain this is not possible. The best course of action is to teach them how to maneuver grief, to teach them that all emotions, and expressions of them, are acceptable and healthy. Most importantly I can teach them how to continue a relationship with their loved ones who they are no longer able to see in the physical state.

Death is always going to evoke sadness. Grief will present itself throughout all of our lives, in different ways. My children’s relationship to grief will most certainly be different than most, given their young experience with death so close to the heart. In a total of 7 and 9 years they lost their brother, great grandmother and grandfather, all whom they were extremely close to.

Mothering my grieving children has been my job for the past six years. At times it hasn’t felt like enough. It certainly doesn’t pay any bills. It doesn’t always offer a sense of reward or accomplishment. At times it feels like I should be doing more than “just” mothering my grieving children. There are plenty of mothers who mother grieving children and have their own career. Sometimes it feels like I should be doing both. Many a therapy session has been spent processing these emotions, which run much deeper than just this. However, Christian is teaching me to trust my instincts and to be grateful for where my feet are.

One day shortly after my father in law went to Heaven, I was getting ready to go spend some time with my mother in law for the day. As I was saying goodbye to Anthony he said, “Mom, give Nonna a giant hug for me and tell her not to worry. Even though we can’t see Nonno anymore he is still here”. My heart melted. It was in that moment that I knew my “just” mothering grieving children was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.

Nonno and Christian and Grandma Tisi are all still here. They send us signs constantly. We feel their love and know they will never truly leave us. Even my boys have experienced this. Thank you Christian for helping to me teach your brothers this very important lesson of life, death and unending love. Love to Heaven…

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