Photo of my daughter Rileigh at age 5 courtesy of Donna Evans Photography, Conway Arkansas
Whenever a child loses a parent, some well-meaning but patronizing person is bound to say to the surviving parent, “Well, kids are resilient,” as a platitude. I can tell you from experience that this is not helpful at all. In fact it hurts. Don’t say it. Kids will live on, yes, but the loss will also greatly affect the rest of their lives. The most often used phrase, “This too shall pass,” is equally dismissive of the emotional affect that such a loss has on children, even as adults. This is not to say children can’t lead emotionally healthy lives, but just saying that they will “get over it” because they are young is fallacious. These are some simple rules that will help you with grieving children. When my children lost their mother they were 12, 8, and 5. Dealing with my own deep pain, I began the journey of also helping them heal. Now, ten years after their mom was diagnosed with cancer, I am living with three wonderful children who bless my life every day. I will not reference their private experiences–that is their story to tell. I can, however, offer some general insight for parents helping their children after a devastating loss. There will be many more specific posts to follow, but let this be a starting place.
Allow them to see you grieve. One of the main ways that children learn to cope with pain is by watching you. They take your lead. If you always put on a happy or brave face around them, they will stuff away their pain and that is when real damage is done. This is not to say they don’t need to see you be strong, they do, but an appropriate show of grief will help them feel free to express their own.
Seek private help for yourself. In order to learn from you, your children must witness your own healing journey. Whether it is dear friends, other family members, a pastor, or a therapist–get help. I sought help from all of theses sources. As much as your children need to see you grieve, they also cannot be your support system. They are kids. Find adult help and make sure it is from an emotionally healthy adult. There are many free services that are available. You can also ask people you know to connect you with another adult, preferably of the same sex, who has advanced through their own grief journey.
Listen to and watch your children, individually. No good therapist dispenses advice without listening first, a lot. Each child responds to pain within their own experiences and personalities and to advise or correct them, you must hear and observe them. Doing so without listening first may well result in an unhelpful intervention. Like adults, children respond best when they know they have been heard.
Take your time. Healing takes a long time and in fact never completely happens. There isn’t an end to grief. Time does not heal all wounds. You are helping them learn to lessen their grief and find a new beginning. Give yourself time as well. It took me four years to turn the corner, but it will always be a part of my life.
Start with this simple advice. It will help you make it through the day, and that is the goal in the beginning. My pastor and grief mentor, Greg, told me this early on: Grief forces you into a one-day-at-a-time perspective, and that is okay. Yes, kids who lose a parent can heal and thrive, but leaving them to figure it out on their own can lead to depression, bad relationships, intimacy problems, and substance abuse. Some have to figure it out on their own and do fine, but their chances are much greater if you help them with wisdom. If you are a person of faith, pray–a lot. Faith is another topic for another time. In my experience, it has been essential.