When my mom died, I was 10 years old. She’d been ill for a while, but not seriously — or so I thought. I wasn’t there when it happened, so the exact details will always be locked away in another room, in a hospital, in another place and time.
I’d like to say I don’t remember much about that night when my dad came back to the house to tell me. Hushed whispers in the hall. A man breaking, slowly. I’d like to say I don’t remember it, but I do. I will omit those details here, though. Grief is tawdry in that it is both private and yet universal, it wants to be kept secret even though it is something we all share. That’s not the point of why I’m writing this though. It’s what my dad did next that is worthy of comment, and it continues to baffle me to this day because it was so extraordinary. You see, he carried on — and that made all the difference for me.
So I’d like to share with you some of the things that I believe helped me during what is surely one of the most difficult things I will ever experience, and ways in which you might be able to help a grieving child in your life start to heal. I will add this disclaimer, though, that I am not a medical professional and these are only things that come from my experience. That said, wherever possible I will offer resources that are from some kind of reputable authority on this issue so that you can get the best possible advice for you and your situation.
1. Talk to Your Child About Death Before it Happens
Obviously, death is a difficult topic to tackle. It is especially complex because, in no small way, it has roots in some of our most deeply held beliefs. I am an ardent atheist and as such I do not have the comfort of believing that I will ever meet my mom again (though I would say I meet her memory often and always gladly). That aside, I believe that we can talk about the facts surrounding death in a child-friendly manner, and in a way that increases understanding.
I remember that shortly after my fifth birthday, I was given a number of books on the topic of death, and one morning my mom sat and read them with me, asking me questions and helping me try to understand this difficult topic.
There is some research to show that books can be helpful in broaching the topic of death with a child, and reading through age appropriate material may help you explore the topic in a way that speaks to a child at their level of development. You can find a list of such books here.
2. Try to Keep a Sense of Routine
Let’s be frank. If a parent, a close relative, sibling or best friend has just died, the world for your child is not spinning as normal. However, when Mom died, I remember Dad making the necessary phone calls on the Saturday morning (she died the night before) and then it was dinner at 13:00 as it had always been. Then it was off to the supermarket at three, as we had always done. Then to my grandma’s at half past six so we could have tea. The deal here was, if we needed to fall apart, we did so but always in the framework of our regular routine. In fact, with more of those phone calls made, I was back in school by the following Monday afternoon for a few hours to be among my friends.
For some, that would be too soon. For me it was not. Sticking to that routine as best we could helped me feel grounded and helped, gradually, restore a sense of momentum away from the event that was my mom’s passing, but of course there is the caveat that every child is different and it’s important to gauge what the child is ready for and when.
3. Keep Talking and Sharing
It can be tempting to want to remove personal items that the now departed person left behind because we fear that for a child these will be triggers that will set off feelings of grief. However, I did not find that to be the case.
As well as involving me in the funeral arrangement for my mom, which I believed help me say goodbye to her, my dad would talk to me very openly about her even just a few days on from her having died. He was always ready to answer questions about her life, her illness, and more, and he would listen to my memories and thoughts patiently and kindly. I was especially grateful to him for this as I grew up because it helped me to keep alive that sense of a connection with my mom that might otherwise have been lost.
Mindful of the above though, I also don’t think it is helpful to be too demanding or overt in our efforts to help keep that connection. I think the process should always be child led.
There are some wonderful ideas about how to do this in a healthy and affirming way, including making a scrapbook so that your child can express themselves, and their feelings, while incorporating things that make them feel close to their deceased loved one, including pictures, stories and things like that.
If you are looking for ways to discuss feelings of grief with a child in an age appropriate manner, you can find a rough guide which is broken down into age ranges here.
4. Tackle the Anxiety Surrounding Loss Early On
This one is quite specific, but one of the main things I remember feeling as a child was a sense of fear surrounding the realization that, well, people in your life will go away. Things will change. While this obviously is naive from an adult perspective, as a child you maybe aren’t aware of this fact until something like a close relative dying happens to make you fully grasp the idea.
As I said above, the sense of routine my dad instilled in me (something I still use as a coping mechanism for anxiety, actually) helped me feel more secure. I am especially grateful now that my brothers who were all young adults by this stage reassured me that they were there for me. This is the way in which an extended family and close friends can help to reassure a child that even though, yes, people do die, there will always be someone to care for them.
I am also told that it is common for children to blame themselves for a parent dying. This didn’t happen in my case but I can well imagine how reassuring a child that of course they were not to blame can help take away some of the burden of grief that child might feel.
5. Don’t Shoulder the Burden Alone and Give Yourself Time to Grieve
If there’s anything I wish that I could change about what happened in the immediate aftermath of Mom’s death, it would be that I would reach back through the years and as an adult be able to ask my dad to take some time for himself. In picking up the pieces we’d all fallen into, my dad showed he was uncommonly strong. Yet he didn’t give himself time to fall apart, and as many experts in the field recognize, we all must deal with grief in order to move past it. As a result, my dad’s health suffered a great deal, and he was forced to battle depression while holding down a demanding job and caring for me as a newly single parent. His needs came last.
That’s why I think it is important to stress that your health matters too and that, in order to be there for your child in the long term, you must also deal with the fact that you have lost someone very dear to you. Don’t put off asking for help, because needing to grieve isn’t a sign of weakness, it is the strength to recognize that to be the most effective and loving parent you can be, you need to take time for yourself.
If you would like more resources on the topic of helping a child cope with the death of a close relative or friend, you can find a guide with wider reading material here.
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