There are some days that you know will inevitably arrive. We all know that the day will come when someone we love will leave this Earth physically. When that person is a child, you may become obsessed with other days you know are in your future. The path of dreams you set out on when your child was born becomes decimated, and you are now forced onto a different path.
There are the major days we know will be hard – birthdays, graduations, marriages and births. These are days that bereaved parents dread. The thought of them evokes a stifling pain that takes one’s breath away.
Then there are less significant days as a whole, but more impactful in some ways. Most recently the shock of physical transformation has been thrust upon me. My angel, Christian, will forever be six years old. Not nearly old enough to say he lived a full life. Many coming of age experiences and milestones fell away in an instant when he was called to Heaven. Each one dropped into the sand, forever buried. So many major mountains never climbed.
This thought often plagues me. He was my oldest child of three so it is only in the past two years that his brothers have begun reaching milestones that he never did. His classmates, however, have been reaching them, changing and growing since the day he died.
As his classmates and friends age it has been difficult to hear of them celebrating birthdays that he may have been included in. It was difficult to watch them grow into the oldest class in the elementary school, have their special musical concerts, special field day events and finally move on to a whole new era in their life; middle school.
Yet, they still resembled their little Kindergarten selves. Recently, though, their faces have changed. The baby fat that once puffed out their cheeks has been chiseled. The hair, that mom was once responsible for keeping clean and neat, now sports gel and hip styles. Clothing choices have shifted and lets not get into the height changes! More than once upon seeing one of Christian’s friends I’ve gasped, shocked at their appearance. It stays with me and burrows into my heart.
This is the year. The year he would have made those stark transformations. Friends and relatives who don’t see him all that often would have been the ones to gasp. As his mother I would have had the privilege not to notice. It wouldn’t have taken me by surprise because the drastic nature of the change would be less visible to the eyes that saw him every day.
It’s the question that haunts all grieving parents. Who would you be now? I want to know 11 year old Christian!! I want to see him, hug him, know his interests. I even want to be able to argue with him. How would his mischief be impacting my life now?
Facing such vast physical changes in his classmates makes it harder to see the commonalities between them and Christian. It tricks my mind into believing he never was a part of that group. They have left him behind physically. Never in their hearts, but they have surpassed him in age, education and now physical appearance. Each change breaks my heart a little more.
This is a day that I knew would inevitably arrive. It’s just so painful. The reminder of how definitive death is and all that it takes with it is biting. My heart cries out again that this can’t be true. I am supposed to be the mother of a middle schooler! I am supposed to be juggling the schedules of elementary and middle schools. I am supposed to be attending another child’s sporting events, musical performances and anything else he is interested in. But I’m not. I’m mourning him.
Yes, there is so much beauty in the pain. It’s been found unexpectedly, but it doesn’t numb the other side. The depth of the pain where no beauty can ever be found. Love to Heaven…
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.
“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.
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…
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…
There is solidarity in grief, specifically between parents who have lost children. To have experienced this deep tragedy is to understand the sorrow that consumes another’s heart. In my travels over the years I have met many grieving parents. Although it is not a title that defines us it is a piece of our identity.
Most recently I met Amanda Russell, a fellow mother who suffered this devastating loss. To meet her today one would not know the difficulties she has experienced in the past. Every time I see her she has a smile on her face and exudes a warm energy. She is pensive and bright. Her inviting smile is framed by a head of bouncy curls. Even her curls seem to reflect her approach to life.
It is hard to imagine Amanda in a place where her emotions were so dark and blinding. Yet these searching, dark emotions took hold of her and served as creative motivation behind the collection of poems in her debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS. When Amanda was 22 and newly married, she became pregnant with twins. In a devastating turn of events, during her second trimester, she miscarried. The grief that consumed her after the miscarriage led to her expression through poetry.
Amanda was no stranger to writing prior to her miscarriage. She says, “I have always turned to creative writing when I need to make sense of something”. She goes on to say, “The miscarriage was hard for me to talk about out loud because I would cry or not find the words I wanted, but paper allows drafts”. Through her writing she was able to find solace. The creation of something new allowed her to process the events and devastation of what she lost.
Each person grieves differently. No two people are the exact same. Some of us use the same coping mechanisms and walk the same bridges to hope, but our timing may be different. Some of us are open to sharing feelings but some of us have trouble. Grief and death, especially untimely deaths, are uncomfortable topics for many people. Amanda’s description of not being able to find the words to speak but being able to find the words through the drafting process is beautiful.
It is extremely difficult to put emotions into words on a first pass. I often say to grieving parents, “there are no words”. Is that ironic being that a large part of my life centers around words? It is challenging to enunciate exactly how much emotion I feel for other grieving parents. Furthermore, how I may choose to describe my emotions may not reflect their feelings at that time. Amanda’s poetry, however, seems to grasp the many varied sentiments surrounding child loss.
While we all differ in how we process our loss, there is a common thread of sadness. On the other side is the search for hope. The collection of poems in Barren Years reflect both sides of loss.
In “Stones Amid Pines” Amanda expresses how shedding tears for her children helps her to feel whole again. These words speak the same language of my heart.
A kind of stone in my own right , I sit
at the grave of my children
and weep so thoroughly
that when I walk away
I am once again whole.
When grief is new and fresh, or when it circles back around, the need for tears to fall is innate. It feels as though the tears that wet our face prove the loss we have suffered. The loss so deep needs to be physically seen and sometimes tears are the only way that can happen. It does not logically make sense but sometimes it is necessary. The expulsion of emotion helps to temporarily purge the deep rooted sadness that has taken up a place in our hearts. It is sometimes the only thing that helps to make us feel whole again.
“Stones Amid Pines” also speaks to time and its softening nature in relation to grief. Never does it change our experiences but rather our relationship to them. Just as surrounding environments continue on, so do the living. As the poem begins she writes about her children being buried where a future church is to be erected. After seven years of time has passed she makes a deferential observation.
Time has done
her great mother-work again.
She has her own way of soothing.
I glance up at the church, birthed out of the hill itself
with castle-like glory
and filled with music,
the intersection of many lives
The glaring contrast of her children’s graves at the bottom of the hill, while a church has been “birthed out of the hill itself” reminds us of how life continues on even when our hearts are not able to beat properly. It is our choice whether or not we carry on, while carrying our angels with us. We have the choice to create new memories and use our own creativity to foster hope. The other choice is to dwell in the place of sadness, allowing the darkness that has seeped into our hearts to forever close our eyes, close our minds and close our future.
The poem succinctly closes by paying homage to grief, sadness and Amanda’s unborn children. She honors “letting it all go once again”. As a reader it feels as though “Stones Amid Pines” is a true reflection of her being able to process grief and realizing that she will forever carry this in her heart. In her words I recognize her understanding that time will continue to lead her back to this sorrowful state periodically.
Writing is so clearly a beautiful form of creative therapy for Amanda. In an interview on the blog, Space Between, she reveals that she utilized other forms of creativity to aid in her healing. “I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again. ” Her hope and healing through gardening is evident in “Spinach and Broccoli”, another poem from her collection.
New sprouts emerge
with a burst of courage;
having broken through clay,
they begin reaching for the sun.
The metaphorical value of this speaks to my soul. This is how it is as a grieving mother. Hope begins with the smallest thought, the tiniest idea. It sprouts, taking much courage. The significance of the clay symbolizing a common factor I have seen in every grieving parent at the start of their grief journey. It is that belief that happiness and joy will never emerge again. The hopelessness that grieving parents experience impedes their belief that anything will ever make them smile again. Then one day the sun spreads its warmth and joy. Eventually you begin reaching for it again.
Amanda’s collection of poems are clearly very personal creations. Some would be hesitant to share the words of their bare souls. I have a deep admiration for her because she is not one of those people. Her belief is that her words will help others. Grief can be an isolating state to subsist in. Bridging to others through writing has helped Amanda and will help those who read her words. There is healing in connection. Barren Years offers a sense of connection, solidarity and hope.
Recently I stumbled upon a quote that burrowed into my heart the moment I laid eyes upon it. Unexpectedly it greeted me on my computer screen as if it were my own personal description of how child loss affected my family.
“It is as if each family were a huge ball of yarn; each member a different colored strand woven and wound together. When one member dies, the entire ball must be unwound, the strand removed, and the ball then needs to be put back together and rewound. However, the ball can never be recreated as it was before.”
Jean Galica, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist is the brilliant author of the quote.
This analogy is so beautiful. It immediately conjures up visions of how my boys enjoy playing with yarn. It usually involves one of them holding a ball of yarn as he frantically runs and jumps around the room, unraveling the yarn ball, causing chaos and mess. Then the other child takes a different color and repeats. At the end we are left with criss crossed colors of yarn, spread across a large space, some of it tangled and knotted. To make use of the yarn we must untangle and roll as much as we can back into a ball. More often than not there are pieces that need to be cut out because they are so badly knotted.
As the shock of child loss sets in and family members enter into survival mode, they often spread apart. Although they are still connected, and their lives are tangled together, each person needs to process loss on his or her own. Even as a mother of two living children, after losing Christian, there was some distance between myself and my living children. The tight interwoven nature of our former relationship had slackened. I was no longer able to love them without the imminent fear of losing them looming over me.
My husband also suffered from the anxiety and fear of losing them. He and I dealt with it very differently. While I found comfort in talking openly about every aspect of child loss, he had a much different experience. He and I remained connected and leaned on one other as we were both attempted to process our own grief. The individual balls of yarn that made up our lives were completely unraveled, tangled, knotted and lacking color.
It wasn’t just our immediate family that was deeply affected. Our family unit is tight knit and my children are blessed to have close relationships with their grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins. In those early days a few conflicts arose from the tensions of knots. Everyone was sleep deprived, saddened, confused, angry and mainly using all their energy to process the tragedy that struck our lives.
Over time as each person began to process in their own way, the yarn smoothed out. We were able to work through the knots. Slowly each color of yarn became more vibrant again. Each strand became straighter. The connection was never lost. It was just a mystery for some time as to how we would be wound together again in our ball of love.
Slowly, slowly as time went on we wound around the children. They brought vibrancy and joy back to our lives. Our extended family ball of yarn is interwoven differently but still as tight as ever.
Today the ball of yarn that is my immediate family is so very different than the one that started out as the five of us. The ball that contained five individual colors, wound together, was only in existence for less than two years. Nothing will ever heal that part of my wound. Less than two years to have your family together on Earth is devastating.
The devastation we have experienced plays a large part in how our ball was rewound. Galica says a strand of yarn is removed after you lose a child. This is true. It does not disappear however, the fibers of that one strand are merely divided to become part of all of the other strands. No longer an individual but an energy, a spirit, an Angel. Our familial ball of yarn, immediate and extended, will never be put together again in the same way. The beauty lies in all we have learned from tragedy, adding dimension to each single strand of color. Christian will forever be a part of each of us in ways he could never be before. Love to heaven…
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…