Today marks the nine-month anniversary of my father’s passing. While to many of you, it may seem like it was a long time ago, in many ways to me, it feels like no time has passed at all. Of course I fall apart a bit less frequently and a bit more predictably. But the loss is still raw and new. I’m guessing it might be that way for a long time.
Before my dad died, I wrote about how to talk to kids about illness and death. The lessons I learned writing that proved to be invaluable to me and my family. When the time came to say goodbye to my dad, I knew the language I wanted to use with my kids. I knew the ways I wanted to continue honoring his memory with my kids. I was prepared for questions and tears and forgetting.
But along the way, I’ve learned more about how to deal with losing a loved one and helping kids to cope and grieve. This time I don’t have an expert weighing in. These are all my personal experiences, but I truly hope they’ll help others in similar situations.
Every child, like every adult, grieves differently. Of course age plays into it, but so does personality. While Big is very sensitive, Little easily lets go and doesn’t look back (if you were at my dad’s service, there was no denying this). They both think the other is completely bizarre, so it’s best to have emotional (or matter-of-fact) conversations one on one. That way they can focus on their own feelings and not wonder why they aren’t grieving the same way the other is.
Talk together, laugh together, cry together. Let your kids know that all of their feelings are ok and can be shared. When you talk about funny memories, feel the joy. When you’re feeling the loss, hold each other and cry. (And feel free to tell the non-emotional kid who keeps saying, “Are you two going to cry again? You are, aren’t you?” that, yes, you are, and that’s ok—just as ok as not crying.)
Keep the memories alive in the kids’ words. While showing pictures along the way and having conversations about the loved one is wonderful, I think it’s even better if you can help them relive memories from their own perspective rather than yours. I recently sat the boys down and, in a relaxed way, asked them a bunch of questions and wrote down what they said. My hope is that I can use those answers for years to come to remind them why they loved their grandpa. Of course I continue to talk about my time with my dad as well, but I want them to feel they own their relationship and memories too.
Give them something to hold on to. While I’ve been completely honest with Big about my beliefs on where bodies and souls go when they die—and have encouraged and answered extremely detailed questions—I know it’s still so very confusing for him. Recently I told him that every time he sees a butterfly, he should think of his grandpa and know that he’s near, watching over us. Now, whenever he sees a butterfly, he turns to me with a big smile on his face, knowing I’ll have the same. He said the other day, “I’ve seen, like, hundreds of butterflies lately.” And I have too.
Find a book, poem, or song that tells your story of love/remembrance/loss/faith. Our loving nanny gave the boys the sweetest book I could ever imagine for Easter, Grandpa Green. The first time I read it to them, Big and I sobbed the whole way through because it was our story. It totally spoke to us. And recently, indie pop artist, Makenzie Caine, reached out to me with her album and I couldn’t help but fall in love with her song Butterfly. The song, too, felt like a warm reminder that my dad was nearby. I love, love, love having a way to experience our journey through someone else’s words, especially when our own fail us.
Saying goodbye to a loved one is heartbreaking. But there’s also joy in taking time to keep that person’s spirit and stories alive with your kids. At least that’s what I like to think. And the butterflies seem to agree.
Have you found a good way to help your kids cope with loss?