I would bet my life savings on the fact that there is not one parenting book that has a chapter dedicated to how to love and parent your children through the loss of a sibling. It’s not natural, so it’s not something that anyone naturally chooses to prepare for or read up on when they prepare themselves for the holy task of bringing a child into this world.
When we found ourselves thrust into the role of parenting six children who had tragically lost a sibling, we made a few promises to them. We said things like this:
“You will wrestle with questions over your brothers passing that you may never get answers for in this life, but know this–I will wrestle with you.” (This spoken by their father as he spoke at our son’s funeral.)
“Your Dad sees you and cares about your broken heart. I am with you, son.”
“This Papa has your back, baby girl.”
“I will carry you through this, my precious boy.”
We sat with them in our living room just days after our son Mattie died, and told them they were never to feel alone in grief. We told them that as a family, we were choosing to grieve together and to grieve openly, that no one ever had to hide their tears. We told them that even in our own sadness as parents, we would always be available, never unapproachable.
In the almost 2 years since our son Mattie’s death, we have learned a few things:
- We learned very quickly that in order to take care of our children’s hearts, we had to take care of ours. We sought out counseling.
- We learned that one of the most healing gifts we can give our children is to allow them to see our grief, to give them permission to mourn.
- We learned to recognize that some of our children’s behaviors are markers for grief that haven’t yet found its way out in words.
- We learned to slow down, listen, and look beyond the surface.
- We learned to simply sit in it with them and allow room for pain to release and words to come.
We don’t have it all together, but we’re doing the best we can. After all, there is no book. And even if there was, it wasn’t written for my family or for my kids, and grief has a way of being unique and unboxed.
I’ll never forget the time I was driving in the van with my three youngest, talking about a school-mate of Emma and Aiden’s who had passed away; we also started talking about our own sadness.
As the conversation was near the end, these are the wise words I heard in the back seat from my daughter Elia, who was 8 at the time, “Sometimes when you cry it comes out of your eyes, but sometimes when you cry, it just stays in your soul.”
So as we carry on, sometimes holding our tears in our soul and sometimes allowing them to pour down our face, we wrap each other up and hold on tight. My children are not afraid to see their mother or father crying. They have learned that it is as natural as breathing. They don’t go away quietly and hide because they have been welcomed in over and over again. Most of the time if the kids see me cry, they come to me, wrap their arms around me and begin to share their own hearts too.
Just the other day my 10-year-old son, Aiden, saw me crying and said, “Are you sad? You miss Buddy?” I replied, “Yes, son, I am.” His response?
They are learning empathy through a life lesson that I wish had not been theirs to learn. They have learned by watching and by feeling. Watching me grieve has shown them that I love, that I feel, and that they are welcome into my heart. It has also taught them, that when they drop to the floor without warning and start crying or when they start acting out because those darned tears are stuck in their soul, that we will sweep in and gather them up and hold them tight.
Just this week I sat with Aiden as he processed his grief. It crushes me to watch him in so much pain. I would take the pain and carry it for him if I could. I would bear it all on top of my own. I would. But that’s not how it works. So I offered him understanding, a deep knowing that only I could give in that moment. I sat with him in his pain and told him my truth, “I am mad too. I am so sad too. My heart hurts too.”
And I sat.
While he screamed, while he said viciously mean things to me, I sat; and I told him over and over “It’s ok. I love you.” He hissed and screamed at me, and I told him again, “It’s okay. I’m mad too and I love you.”
And I waited.
Until he broke and fell into my arms with his pain because he knew I was safe and I understood.
Parenting a child through grief is heart-breaking, devastating, and my friends, it is exhausting. Some days the selfishness inside of my own broken heart makes me want to quit because it feels like it’s just too much to bear. My pain, my husband’s pain, my children’s pain, it’s just too much.
But we promised.
We promised our children they would not feel alone.
I pray with all of my heart that one day they will look back and feel that we kept our word.
And to you, precious Momma or Daddy, bearing the weight of your pain and theirs, I see you. I know it’s hard. I want you to remember to take care of yourselves. Throw on the life-vest and the oxygen mask, seek help and pursue healing. It is through your own journey of grief and healing that your children will find their way to heal. Being open in your own journey gives them more than you could ever know, you are their roadmap. Don’t hide. Don’t turn away. Lean into your pain and lean into theirs. Together, may you all heal.