Helping Children Through Grief

In my last post I wrote about how to help a grieving family. It was focused more on the parents and the family as a whole. This week I thought I would provide some insight on how to help children who are grieving. My children were one and three when we lost Christian. Unfortunately we knew the loss would impact Anthony at his age. Many people were of the opinion that Nicky would not be affected as much since he was not yet two years old. As time goes on I am certain that this is not true.

The task of raising children who grow up with a sibling in Heaven is no easy feat. At their ages there were many questions about death and Heaven since they had no point of reference. When children are a little bit older they understand the concept of death more but Heaven is still elusive, even to adults.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says,

“Everyone, including children, must understand four basic concepts about death to grieve fully and come to terms with what has happened. Teens, and even adults, may have a full and rational understanding of death, yet still struggle to accept these basic concepts when faced with the death of a loved one.”

The four concepts we must understand are that death is irreversible, all life functions end at the time of death, everything that is alive dies and there are physical reasons for death.

  • Recently in our community a beautiful little girl gained her wings after 13 short years here on Earth. I do not know the family personally but I do know what occurs in the wake of losing a child, for the family and community. I do not, by any means claim to be a therapist, just a mother who is raising her children after trauma and loss.
  • While questions and answers will differ based on the age of grieving children, some things will not. The absolute most important piece of advice is to keep the door of communication open with a grieving child. Provide him or her with a safe environment in which they can openly discuss the person who has gone ahead to Heaven. Allow the grieving child to share his or her emotions.
  • I can’t speak to what this exactly looks like in a teenager. I would imagine just as with younger children, grief and confusion will be disguised behind other emotions. We had outbursts, uncommon behaviors, difficulty sleeping, regression and even survivor guilt with our children. Almost five years later we see anxiety and anger sometimes. We see sensitivity to certain triggers, not always obvious ones. For example my children still play “dead”, which haunts me, but is normal, age appropriate behavior for them.

    This brings me to my next point. As adults it can be so hard not to put our own anxieties on our children. The grieving child can be even more sensitive to this. The anxiety that arises within me when my boys “play dead” is because of my knowledge, experience and relationship to the word and all that I have lost. This is not how my children see it. They do not yet have the life knowledge, experience and understanding that I have. There is no need to add any more layers of sadness or anxiety onto their own grief.

    If, however, your child is experiencing anxiety about the finality of his or her own life or someone else’s, this is normal after an untimely death. Abigail Marks, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in grief says, “See if you can find out more about their specific concerns and show that you take their feelings seriously. When kids feel reassured and understood, anxiety can begin to shrink”. After losing Christian we were advised to be very honest with our children. We even had a “standard family answer” so that we were all consistent about death. Again, this was age appropriate but we said, “Christian is in Heaven now but he will always be in our hearts and our memories”. We explained that him being in our hearts was the love we have for him and will always have for him. The book, The Invisible String, reinforces this idea. It is geared towards younger children, explaining that we are connected to all of the people we love with an invisible string, even those who are in Heaven.

    My husband and I are firm believers that Christian’s energy is still all around us. He was an extremely persistent child his whole life with us and he continues to exert his persistence from Heaven. We are grateful for this. Through odd occurrences, hearts, pennies and dreams, he has proven that he will always be with us. It will never be the way we hoped, but our relationship does continue. It was important that our children understand that too. They have a continuous relationship with their oldest brother. He often shows himself on important days, regular days, almost every day. They even dream of him. He is a part of this family and always will be. Every day we speak his name at one point or another. They talk about him to their friends and they carry on his memory, just as we do.

    We have been very careful not to let Christian overshadow our living children. We take our cues from them. They have said things like, “Why is everything about Christian?” or “I don’t want to talk about him right now”. That’s okay. It’s normal. We know that means for a little while after they express these feelings we need to monitor how much we speak about Christian, allowing them to bring him up in conversation. Again, we cannot let our anxiety of him being forgotten override the health of our family.

    While we have learned a lot of this on our own as grief is individual to each person and family, we have also worked with mental health professionals since the start of our grief journey. We are blessed with some of the most amazing people in our lives. We thank Christian for this. We believe he put these “angels on Earth” in our path. Their guidance and professional opinion definitely makes a world of difference.

    If you are sensing that your child has some emotions inside but is hesitant to let them out there are a few things I suggest you can do with him or her:

    Get them moving – Here in New York Spring has sprung! Go for a hike, a walk, play a game of basketball, have a game of catch, even ask them to help you complete a physical task – anything to get them moving. Allowing them to choose and giving them control over the activity will encourage them to open up. My son took Tae Kwon Do for two years and it helped him immensely. We even put a punching bag in the basement as a means for him to work out his emotions physically. 

    “It turns out that exercise can be an important coping tool to deal with grief and loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship.”

     

    Give them a journal If you have a child who is maybe a little more introverted or does not share feelings as easily, journaling can be a great option. Journaling does not have to be limited to the written word. Art journaling is a great way to process emotions.

    “According to grief experts, the task of reconstructing your personal self-narrative is critical in the healing process. A grief journal will provide you with a venue for expression without fear of being judged”.

    Encourage music in their lives – Listening, playing and dancing to music are all amazing ways to process emotions. When we listen to certain music, play certain instruments such as the drums or dance around, we are stimulating both sides of the brain. 

    Bilateral stimulation… [which] has been demonstrated extensively in studies to create a greater connection between your mind and your body.”

    Provide them with creative experiences – Ask if they would like to enroll in an art class, take a painting class with them, provide them with art journal prompts (Pinterest has tons!) All of this helps them to get their feelings out and work through them. Emphasize that it is not the end product that is most meaningful but the process.

    “When you are unable to express yourself, but you desire emotional release, making art may help you to do it”.

    Grief is a powerful emotion. Loss, especially when a death is untimely, can be very disturbing. Be patient with yourself as you process these emotions alongside your child. Parents will undoubtedly have an increase in their own fears and strong emotions. It is healthy for your child to see you working through this. While I do not advise voicing your fears surrounding how fragile life is, as your child has learned this firsthand, I do encourage you to share your emotions, memories and age appropriate thoughts. For example you may say, “I was thinking about your friend Christian today. Remember how much fun we had the day we all went to the waterpark?” This may spark a conversation with your child, allowing their feelings to seep out. You may also say, “I went to visit Christian’s family today while you were in school. I feel sad whenever I see them.” These are simple statements but ones that your child can relate to. If they see you modelling your own feelings and that your emotions are there too, they will be more accepting of their own. Grief can be very strong and sometimes that can be scary to a child. Through the parent voicing his or her own emotions, it normalizes them.

    It feels harsh and unfair that some children are exposed to death at such early ages. We have no control over what happens in our lives, but we can control our reactions. Helping our children learn coping skills when encountering large emotions is a lesson that they will value for the rest of their lives. It is horrible to be learned through the death of a family member or friend but it is something that will always be useful.

    How To Talk About Death To Your Child –

    https://www.purewow.com/family/how-to-explain-death-to-a-child?amphtml=true

    Dealing with untimely loss is difficult. As a parent children turn to us for answers we don’t have. There are many times I have said to my children, “I don’t have an answer to your question. It is something I wonder about too”. It’s okay to do that. Parents, be gentle on yourself and do your best. If you feel that you are having trouble answering questions and handling a loss, seek help. Professionals don’t have all the answers either but they have more experience than we do dealing with traumatic situations.

    Above all, open lines of communication are the most important. If that means you have to play a video game with your child to get him to talk – do it! Just let him or her know you are here to listen. Sometimes that is all they want. Listening can be harder than you think. Innately, we want to fix our child if he or she is hurting. There are some things we cannot fix. There are some journeys each person has to take on their own. Grief is one of them. We can walk alongside and provide support, but not fix it. Love to heaven…

    How To Support A Grieving Family

    What do I say to a mother or father who has lost their child? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I make them cry? How about the siblings of the angel? What if death is a topic of conversation when they are around? What if it has a negative effect on them? How can I help the family?

    These are all valid, well meaning questions stemming from a place of love. Death is an emotional topic and hard to speak to. When it involves an untimely death it becomes increasingly intense. I can say that there were very few people who said something that really bothered me when Christian passed away. Even those who did, were not saying it maliciously.

    I am going to give you my piece of advice that answers any and all questions surrounding an especially emotional death, such as child loss. Are you ready? It’s quite profound.

    Just be there for the family in any way you feel you can do that. 

    If that means you attend the wake, funeral, cook for them, call them every day, text them every day, stop by and check in, take care of their children, give them a wine basket, make a donation to their angel’s fund, go for a walk with them, take them to a yoga class or simply just listen to them talk and cry, you are doing the best thing you can for them. A comprehensive list of ideas can be found here. Some grieving parents will need many people around them and some will need to isolate a little. As much as everyone wishes they could take the family’s pain away, we all know that is not possible. Just be there for them.

    Inherently this seems to come easier to the women. Women tend to be more open with emotions and both the grieving mother and friend are able to be more expressive. It can be more difficult with the grieving father. Please don’t forget about him. His pain is just as intense. More often than not he will grieve differently than his wife. An article on the website Love To Know states, “Men often express their grief physically. A grieving father may throw himself into work or projects around the house, or he may take up a hobby to keep himself occupied and avoid dealing with his emotions.” In my own experience I found this to be very true. While I communicated like a rushing river of emotion in every way, my husband tended to be more like the ground after an earthquake. The cracks were deep and full of pain but there was no spouting emotion.

    In addition, societal views tend to portray men as the spouse who needs to be “strong”. NO ONE should be expected to be strong after losing a child. Unfortunately I have witnessed people giving my husband this exact advice. It makes me want to scream. As a mom of boys it is something that I am even more conscious of. Given the extent of the trauma my children have experienced at such early ages, it has been a focus to help them learn how to freely express their emotions.

    When friends, family and community members see grieving parents in such desperate pain sometimes they rush to provide them with books, resources and information about groups for grieving parents. This can be so overwhelming. I remember receiving information from others almost immediately. Again, it was so thoughtful and completely appreciated. In the beginning I wasn’t able to process or utilize any of it. It pretty much sat in a box for the first six months. The focus of each day was merely based on survival. Sometimes that meant getting through minute by minute. As time went on I did look through all of the things that were given or sent to me. Some of them are resources I still use and some never worked for me. Either way it was the thought that counted.

    If you are an immediate family member of the grieving parent you will also have an especially difficult road to travel. As you navigate your own loss you are expected to support the grieving parent. I have seen my family become quite protective over me and my grief. Sometimes things that are said in my presence strike a nerve with my family members as they worry about my reaction to them. When I think about having to watch one of my children grieve his child, while I grieve my grandchild, my head explodes. My parents and in-laws have watched myself and my husband suffer immensely. That road is laden with sadness, guilt and what if’s for them.

    As tight knit and close as my own family is, there are days when I can tell that they are “holding back”. They may not sound like themselves or look like themselves. More often than not they will tell me that they don’t share their bad days with me because if I am having a good day they don’t want to upset me. This sometimes happens between my husband and myself as well.

    Grief is undoubtedly a tricky road to navigate. Grieving the loss of a child is even trickier. It forever changes everything. Grieving parents will need their family, friends and community to support them for a long time, if not forever. The biggest fear after losing a child is that no one will remember him or her. Parents also fear that after time passes he or she will become less relevant, their names will be spoken less and their absence will become the norm. If you really are committed to helping a grieving family, don’t ever let this happen. Continue to speak the child’s name. Continue to tell stories. Continue to attend memorials and life celebrations. Continue to let the grieving parent know you are thinking of them. Above all, just be there for them. Love to heaven…

    Student and Teacher of Grief

    Every day there are two little humans who are watching, observing and learning from me. When I look at it day to day that thought can be quite scary, but when I look at the big picture it becomes less overwhelming. There is a span of many days from which they learn. The way I see it is as long they see me get back up after I fall, after I make mistakes, we are okay.

    Our family has experienced a devastating tragedy. As I am learning how to carry my own pain and continue living, I am both a student and teacher. Along the way of my own journey I am learning about life, myself and my strength. I am also responsible for teaching my children. With my own thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions shaken to the core, it puts me on a shaky ground as a teacher.

    Perhaps the teaching of thoughts, expectations, beliefs and emotions is not the important part though. Perhaps it is more important to model the process of discovering what one believes. One thing my children do see is how to persevere and find the good wherever we can. I am unsure if I am teaching them correctly in so many areas but I do know that my husband and I teach them to see the best in everything. I also know we have fostered an eternal connection with their brother. There is no doubt in my mind that there are areas that I am not shining in but all I can do is my best.

    Although I use the word “heal” a lot in my writing and speaking, I am very conscious that the definitions provided in dictionaries are not akin to my process. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines healing as, “to make sound or whole”. Nope. “to make well again: to restore to health”. If we are comparing to the first days after loss, yes. Other than that – no. “to cause (an undesirable condition) to be overcome”. Nope. For me healing is a journey, not a condition. I am carrying on in my life and continuing to live.

    Last weekend I learned a new phrase, “post traumatic growth”. This phrase is very apropos to my journey. Everyone goes through difficult periods in their lives. We all have our own versions of trauma. When we are under duress, we are forced to change. Change does not mean that things turn out the way we want them to. It simply means that things change because we cannot stay the same and endure the stress or pain we are living with.

    The reason behind change is often the traumatic part. The journey is often the growth part. August will mark five years since we lost Christian. Over those five years I have met many people who have lost children. None of us will ever be the same or whole again. All of us have learned valuable lessons. In life we are continuous learners. It has been challenging to learn while teaching but I suppose this is a facet of parenting no matter the circumstances. Love to heaven…

     

    Hope Is In Every Step

    Hope. We all need it to survive. After Christian passed away it was completely unfathomable to me that I would ever feel it again. Yet I have and I do. That is not to say that it doesn’t waver, because it does.

    This particular topic is on my heart tonight as I’ve just returned home from an amazing workshop at LiveOnNY. LiveOnNY is a non profit organization that works to procure organ donation in the Greater New York area. The beautiful thing about this organization is that they are actively working with the donor families after their loss.

    When Christian passed away I knew immediately that his wishes would be to help someone else in need. After all, our body only houses our soul. Without hesitation we answered “yes” when they asked if we wanted his organs to be donated.

    Right there we chose hope. There was no chance of our little boy coming back to us but there was a chance that his organs could offer hope for someone else, and they did.

    In the moment when they asked us about organ donation I didn’t feel any bit of hope. I didn’t feel it after we said yes. I didn’t feel it for a very long time. We are four and a half years walking this journey and there are still days when hope eludes me. Most days though it is somewhere in my soul.

    How did I get to a place where I feel any semblance of hope? Sometimes even I wonder. I know I have an abundance of love and support that surrounds me. That certainly helps. I also know that I made a conscious decision to carry on. It is something that I work on constantly. Some days it feels fairly simple. Other days it requires my every effort, every minute of the day. I feel like I am walking through sludge.

    Self care, a topic of today’s workshop, is a large part of me being able to find hope again. From the very start I tried anything that I thought might offer the tiniest bit. That included acupuncture, therapy, walks with friends, yoga, art, exercising, writing, attending grief groups and other activities that are not coming to mind right now. Some worked and some didn’t. Some I still utilize as self care tools today. Most importantly my willingness to try things helped me to find a way to survive this unthinkable loss. The key to hope is finding what works for you.At today’s workshop I met many amazing people. For some the loss was extremely new and raw. It took such courage for them to be there. Their desperation to find any sort of relief written all over their faces and evidenced in their tears. My heart broke for them. It is not so long ago that I was in their place. Even in all I tried I don’t think I had the courage to attend a workshop like this so soon after our loss.

    I saw myself in these people. One woman, a writer, unsure if she will ever write again. Another family of a mother and three daughters who lost their only brother, all clearly devastated. I was them. I am them. Time has just taught me how to integrate the pain into my life today. Sadness and joy live alongside each other in my world, as it will for them.

    That’s hope. Newly grieving people feel devoid of it, but they don’t realize that they are already building it. Every step one takes to find relief from the blinding pain allows hope to filter in. They may not feel it today, tomorrow or next week. It takes time to chip away a big enough space to see the hope shining through. It will. Each time one wakes up and makes it through another day. That’s hope. Pepper it with a few healthy attempts to relieve the pain and you are building hope. It doesn’t feel like it, but you are.

    Thank you to the amazing staff at LiveOnNY for the workshop you led. As one participant said it so beautifully to them, “You should feel great about yourselves today, knowing you are making a difference in lives”. They were my dose of hope today. Love to heaven…

    The Blank Canvas

    With the New Year upon us and a fresh blank canvas laid out before us, many adults commit to different ways they are going to change their lives. They iterate goals they would like to reach and set out in pursuit of them. Not unlike others I have goals but I tend to reevaluate them on a regular basis, so I did not make any hard and fast resolutions this year. It occurred to me this morning that it was time to have the talk about 2019 goals and resolutions with my boys, especially my eight year old.

    Each month at school the Principal’s Award is given to one student in each class. As I launched into my lecture about how he may be able to receive it if he worked hard and went above and beyond, he responded with an answer that reflected his personality. “I am going to let other people get them. I am not out only for myself”. This led me to have a talk with him about how that is a beautiful attitude in some areas but that we all need to have something we are working towards, striving for. He looked at me and said, “I am not working towards the Principal’s Award. I want to reach a goal that is closer”. It was only then that I realized that my anxiety had informed this lecture. Didn’t all children wish to be recognized by the Principal while the whole school looked on? Or is that my hope for him? Each time I open my Facebook feed on the first Friday of the month, I am reminded that my son has not received the Principal’s Award since Kindergarten. In turn that leads me to berate myself about how I am not doing enough as a mother. He needs to read more, practice his math facts more and watch less TV. Changes may need to be made, but nothing positive comes out of me criticizing myself. What really needs to happen is that I need to take a step back and separate my insecurities about mothering from him as a student. Furthermore, the Principal’s Award is not the measure of him as a student or me as a mother. (As I sit and write these words I feel quite neurotic but I know that if I am feeling this way so are others!)

    While I quickly reigned in my anxiety, the urgency in my voice quelled and I asked him what his goals were. He explained to me what he wanted to achieve. Now the fire returned to my voice, but not in an anxious way, in a motivational way. “Well, let’s reach this goal! What do we have to do in order to crush it? Let’s get started right away!” For a second there I felt like I was on a big stage giving a motivational speech. It worked though. I saw the fire ignite in him. The drive that I was so afraid he was lacking, kicked in. It was there all along. I just wasn’t tapping into it.

    It is easy to relate to my middle child as his personality mirrors mine in many ways. Fear of failure sometimes affects how I set and achieve goals. Part of the reason I reevaluate  my goals frequently is because I need to make sure they are a stretch but still attainable. My trainer, Jessika Ramie of FYTE.co, often says, “We may have to adjust our expectations.” Through this mindset, and with her help, I have been able to structure my goals and plans to reach them in a way that fosters success. In turn, my confidence is boosted and I am willing to strive for more and more. My aim is to scaffold this same experience for my son. The more confident he feels, the more he will try. If we have no goals and nothing to strive for, we make much smaller leaps and bounds in life.

    Striving to be our best is a lesson that is important for my boys to learn. They must know that their best means their best. In a world where competition runs rampant it is easy to get caught up in it. For some people this means they may become obsessed with it. For others, like my middle child and myself, it means we shy away from it due to fear of failure. I am so grateful for my husband who is always quick to remind my boys to believe in themselves. If he hears self doubt in their words, he is quick to correct them by replacing their negative words with positive ones and making them repeat after him.

    There are kids who instinctively have less fear of failure and more drive. Whether it is a competitive nature that feeds it or a need to be the best. My middle guy is more sensitive in that way. He is aware of not wanting to take away from others. As I explained to him, there is a time and place for that. Individual goals mean that you don’t have to take away from anyone else. As I write this, it is so clear that individual goals would have been the way to motivate him from the start. It is in his nature to achieve on a individual level where he doesn’t feel the pressure of competing with anyone else.

    This simple, ten minute talk with my eight year old taught me so much, in more ways than one. It taught me about him, myself and my parenting. It reminded me why it is so important to be in tune with my boys. It also reminded me of the joys and beauty of being a parent. My husband and I will support our boys in the best way we know how. We will make mistakes and so will they, but as long as we keep the lines of communication open and the love flowing, we will design these blank canvases together. Love to heaven…

    Unconditional Love

    Thanksgiving and the holidays are a time for reflection. We remember special days of the past. We look forward to future days to come. My memories are peppered with holidays from my youth, filled with magic. I strive to create the same feeling for my children.

    I want them to feel excitement, warmth and the abundance of love shared with family and friends. At the same time I want them to learn how to give warmth and love. It’s important for them to know how to express these emotions.

    It’s also important for them to know how to give to those who are not as fortunate to experience an abundance of warmth and love. They have the compassion and strength to help create this for some people. My boys need to know that this is part of their calling. I believe we all have this compassion and strength within us. For my children, given the sadness they know, it’s even more important. They must know that there are people who experience tragedies even worse than what they have gone through. They also must know that there are people who are more fortunate.

    Christian continues to teach and guide us through our lives, as individuals and family. He wants and needs us to spread love, compassion and kindness. My boys know that I love them always and forever. It is unconditional acceptance and love. If I can teach them to spread this type of love, I believe they will make a marked difference in this world. Love to heaven…

    Quick Thought: Humor Is A Lifesaver

    We just got the call here in New York that today is a snow day. I couldn’t resist writing a little something to go with this humorous meme. Give me an hour or two after my kids are awake and my disposition might not be as light! For now though everyone is still sleeping in their own beds. That means no one is smushed so close up against me that I have to get out and walk to the other side of the bed so I don’t fall out! That means no one is rubbing my earlobe. That means creepy baby’s shell of a leg is not sprawled across my face – don’t ask. That means no one has peed on me overnight. That means I have glorious time to myself! Sure it’s way earlier than I want it to be but these may be the only moments I get to myself!

    These moments, these times when they cuddle with me in bed, and use me as their body pillow, will be something I miss. I know I will. It’s just hard to miss something when it is part of a regular routine. I can remember with Christian being so paranoid when I got frustrated with him because I wasn’t enjoying him enough. How many times do people say,

    “You will miss these days.”

    Each and every time I heard that or thought that, I became stressed. That stress caused me to be even more short tempered. In the end that reminder may not be the best. Keeping the idea that I will miss this someday in the back of my head seems a much better option for me than dwelling on it.

  • It’s easy to think about how much I will miss this time when my kids are grown. For the most part I am successful at staying present and enjoying my children. Even before losing Christian I feel that this was my approach to parenting. However, after hearing the “poopy song” 56 times in an hour my excitement about being present dims. Then comes the nerf to the butt. Throw in a little fighting and I am looking to lock myself in the bathroom!
  • It goes without saying that every parent has been there. It also goes without saying that we all love these little antagonizers more than anything. It took me a long time after losing Christian to be okay with these feelings. My heart was plagued with such pain. I would give anything to get him back, even at his toughest moments. A friend of mine taught me the power of the word “and”. This changed a lot for me.
  • I can be a grieving mother who would do anything to get her son back AND still be a person who gets frustrated with her living children. In no way does this mean I don’t love them more than anything. It just means I am a human.

  • The love I have for my children is unmeasurable. I will miss when my boys don’t cuddle with me. Hearing “mommy” in their little voices melts me every time, unless they are whining or screaming. There is so much to be missed but it makes it so hard to enjoy if we think that way.
  • Parenting is hard. Sometimes it makes your heart swell a hundred times. Other times it makes you feel like sticking a fork in your eye. Such is life. Humor will get us through those moments that make us want to pick up the fork. One thing I have learned is that humor heals. If it weren’t for the nerf to the butt what would we miss in twenty years?
  • Today parents of children waking up to find out that school is closed, find humor. When you have refereed the 73rd fight and can’t take it anymore, find something humorous. When you have dressed and undressed them for snow for the tenth time, when you have cleaned pee off the floor for the thousandth time, find humor. If you can’t find that, find wine! Both will get us through. Sending good vibes and hopes for humor to all of you today! Love to heaven…