Death. Grief. Children.
Protecting children from the biggest reality of life is one of those topics that most parents avoid. And for many families, avoidance is easy as getting a sitter when attending a funeral. But what happens when the person who died is part of your children’s immediate family, a part of their daily lives, someone whom they will grieve the loss of?
Being grief-stricken while pregnant is not how I ever dreamed my fourth pregnancy would play out. But at 24 weeks, the doctor told us Amelia was sick with problems making it impossible for her to survive.
Weeks passed by turning into months. She grew and thrived. Each roll and swish turning stronger into jabs and hiccups as my belly grew to accommodate her little body.
And all the while my three children fell in love with her and anxiously awaited her arrival. They sang songs, read books, and would gently touch my belly hoping to feel her move. They were smitten and wanted the world to know all about their new baby. My children were about to learn the hardest lesson about life and my husband and I felt powerless.
We struggled with our own grief and just wanted to protect them, but how? How could we make this horrible, terrible, unfair thing alright for them?! We couldn’t. There was no way to avoid it, no wrapping it up in an antiseptic package that would make the news less difficult, less terrible, more palatable. There was nothing we could do to spare them. So we decided upon the only thing that made sense. We told them the truth about how “Amelia’s body was very sick and she would not be able to live outside of mommy’s body for very long.”
Then came the inevitable.
Anticipatory grief is a hard one to live with, but we didn’t get to choose. And after loosing my own father suddenly as a child, I can personally say that there is no ‘better’ or ‘preferred’ way to experience death. Weather you wait for it to come or are struck by it suddenly ~ grief spares no one.
What was important for our family, was that we wanted to allow each of our children to feel safe to grieve in any way they needed to and to let them know that they were not alone. We also knew that in order to be emotionally healthy, we would have to all deal with the messiness of grief together. We would answer the repetitive questions, give concrete details and information they could understand, acknowledge our own feelings, ask them about theirs, and be the people they wanted to come to when it mattered most.
It will always be heartbreaking to listen to my daughter express how much she wishes she had a living sister or to see the angry drawings created with little hands. Sometimes one of the kids just needs to curl up and cry while we listen to them talk about their feelings. Other times they are candid in public about Amelia’s death and I have had to learn to just let them share their story. At the end of each day, I am always gently reminded that no amount of pain has stopped them from loving her in their own unique ways. And because we made the decision to involve our children in Amelia’s short life, they have had the chance to incorporate her into theirs forever.
Many parents make the false assumption that a child cannot handle big feelings. But the truth is that children have an amazing capacity for understanding. And depending upon age and personality, most children handle grief the way they are supposed to… naturally.
Some ask lots of questions. some cry, some vent, some retreat, some explode, some regress, some avoid and act as if nothing has happened for a period of time. And if you think about it, that is exactly how most adults deal with grief. The difference is that children’s emotions (depending on age) are usually dealt with in spurts. They tend to move in and out of these big feelings because they are not able to maintain them. And this can lead to the false assumption that a child is ‘fine’ when they are not.
If you would like some ideas on helping your child with grief, there are many resources and books available.
Here are a few to begin with:
We Were Gonna Have a Baby, But We Had an Angel Instead by Pat Schwiebert (Children’s Book, Grades K-3)
I Miss My Little Brother by Lydia Allen (Children’s Book, Grades pre-1)
Am I Still a Sister? by Alicia M. Sims (Children’s Book, Grades 3-6)
The Empty Place: A Child’s Guide Through Grief (Let’s Talk) by Roberta Temes (Children’s Book, Grades K-4)