Archives For grieving children

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We call this season the most wonderful time of the year but for many it can be the most difficult.  If you are in the latter group, you undoubtably are caught in a mixture of hope and hurting.  Even over the last two days, I have friends who have lost family and other loved ones.  No matter what time of year loss is one of the deepest pains, but even more so at a time in which most people are enjoying family and friends.  You want to smile, you know you are expected to be happy, but your spirit is just not having it.  If you are blessed to have others around you who also feel the loss it helps.  At least you can hurt together, talk about it, and hopefully even find some reasons to laugh as you remember.

The above picture is from Christmas Eve 2006, one week after my children lost their mom and I lost my wife.  The smiles are genuine but not indicative of the emptiness inside.  In fact it has been a 10 year journey in which we gradually have enjoyed Christmas more every year.  Some years we took bigger strides and some smaller, often depending upon other life factors besides the loss, but now we are at a very happy place in our family.  I’m not a fan of the phrase, “Time heals all wounds.” Instead, I think in time we adapt, grow, and begin anew if we are healthy.  The grief doesn’t go away, we just start again, and that is our most powerful ability.

If it is Christmas Eve and you have lost someone today or ten years ago, you must strike the balance of remembering but also living in the present.  If you can find some reasons to smile and laugh, do not hold it back or feel guilty.  You are going to hurt so when you don’t, embrace it.  This is one of your greatest healing gifts.  Give yourself permission to be happy.  If you know someone else who is hurting or lonely this Christmas, reach out to them.  Helping someone else in pain is a good way to ease your own, at least for a while.  You can’t force happiness but you can seek it.  Your chances are much better of finding it if you make genuine efforts.   Allow yourself to cry, allow yourself to laugh and begin anew.

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How you grieve will sometimes make others uncomfortable.  From the day of your loss and for many years later, people will be watching how you remember the one you lost.  It’s just human nature.  If you laugh on the day of the funeral, some will wonder how you can be happy.  If you cry ten years later, some will say you have not healed properly.  Social media–Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Shapchat–have provided a whole new dimension of opportunities, decisions, and scrutiny.  Should you post something on the first anniversary of your loss?  Is it too maudlin?  What about the fifth or tenth anniversary?  If you were to ask your friends and family you would likely get a mix of responses that would not help much.  Certainly to live an emotionally healthy life there must be healing and you must find a new beginning, but ultimately your appropriate expression of grief is personal and not for others to judge.  To use a current phrase–you be you.  At the same time, your grief is mostly a private matter.

Today is the 28th anniversary of my marriage to Tina Sanges, and December 16 will mark the tenth anniversary of her passing.  She hasn’t been my wife for a decade but I can’t erase this date from my mind, nor should I.  Over time like the picture above those memories fade, yet I can’t help remembering and feeling the loss.  It does not mean that I have not healed, it means I have a heart.  For me, posting anything on social media seems inappropriate.  I know this blog is exactly that, but this post is for the benefit of those I seek to help, not me (mostly).  To make a memorial post on my personal social media pages is too much and would be more for show than remembrance, for me.  Among my family, and friends who were close to her it is suitable to remember privately.  For my children it is essential to talk about it.  Obviously if I were remarried I would want to be respectful to my wife in my expression.  That is a post to come later.  Ultimately the way you handle anniversaries and meaningful dates is your choice alone.

Although you cannot adjust your true feelings for others, their reactions can help you discern what is appropriate publicly.  There is no right or wrong, but you do have to admit that it can be difficult for people around you to know what to say or do.  As much as they can’t tell you how to feel, neither can you tell them how to feel.  People exposed to your grief truly don’t know what to do with it.  It is uncomfortable, for you and them.  Of course their are also those who will grieve along with you.  Grieve in a way that you feel is appropriate and be okay with that, regardless of how those on the fringe react.

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Creative Commons Photo/Imelda

If you are like me, you feel the pain at this time every year.  Of course nobody grieves more on this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack than the families and friends of the nearly 3,000 people who died on that day.  In addition even more names have been added to the casualty list as civilians and emergency responders have died as a result of exposure to the toxic dust they inhaled in the aftermath.  Those who knew and loved these men and women grieve the deepest, but it is very normal for those of us who didn’t personally know them to feel grief at this time as well.  Everyone remembers what they were doing and where they were the day everything came to a halt and all eyes were on New York.  Even now, on this day, every name is read in a public memorial service.

The greatest loss of life in our nation combined with personal painful losses and can have quite an effect.  For me, Fall and the upcoming holiday season cause me to be a bit  melancholy anyway.  I am not conscious of it but it begins to creep up on me and I recognize it when it appears.  To be sure there are many things I love about this time of year and happiness is not a stranger, but I cannot shake a nagging sadness for several reasons–I was married in October of 1988, my late wife’s favorite time of the year was fall, and she passed away at age 40 right before Christmas.  I do not intentionally think about these things or dwell on them but they show up anyway.  Her absence among my children and family members cannot be ignored at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  So for me the September 11 anniversary begins to usher in the feelings.  It cannot be stopped and shouldn’t be ignored, but there is a healthy response.

Dealing with grief requires you to fight at times.  There is a difference between burying your pain and battling your pain.  To bury is to ignore it and will cause only deeper pain for you and those around you.  To fight your pain you must acknowledge it, feel it, and make a decision it will not rule or ruin your life and happiness.  You cannot will the pain away but you can make a conscious decision the you will not give in to it.  The pain can be a fuel you use for change, a reason to fight.  You have two choices:  1)  dwell in the pain the rest of your life, or 2) embrace the change in your life as a chance for new opportunities.  The latter is where new joy can be found.  Grief will sneak up on you at times even from events that may not be directly attached to you, like 9/11.  It is up to you whether you are going to let the fog of grief move back in or embrace the light that comes from new possibilities.

Eubanks Family Branson

Summertime and the living is easy … well maybe, maybe not, but we do tend to find some down time in the summer.  Families with children regularly take advantage of the days when the kids are out of school.  Finding time to get away takes planning but summer is a good time to build some new, happy memories.  A happy time may be more difficult when there is a glaring empty space in the family.  This space cannot be filled by another person, nor can it be ignored.  Both will lead to more pain than healing.  So the challenge, as in all grieving situations, is to learn to enjoy life and still deal with the emotions associated with loss.

I have to begin by saying that it is okay to forget sometimes.  You must.  If you try to spend every waking moment remembering someone who isn’t there you will never find peace.  “Moving on” is not a profane phrase, it all depends on how you move on.  You can move on and still honor the person you lost.  This is a balance and I can tell you from experience that guiding your children is not easy.  Every child is on a different journey and they do not all need the same type of attention, but they all need attention.  You will hit the mark and miss the mark, but they will know you care if your heart and intention are genuine.  With that in mind here are a few summertime suggestions:

Idleness is not good.  Kids certainly need some down time and a week or two of doing nothing at home isn’t bad, but they need something to do.  This can be a vacation, spending time with grandparents, volunteering, camps, swimming pool passes, jobs–you name it.  Kids like to rest but they also know when they have wasted time.  Give them something positive to do.  They may resist but do it anyway.  They will feel better.

Do something new.  When planing a day trip or long vacation, familiarity can be good but it can also highlight the fact that someone is missing.  Early on after my wife died I took my kids to Branson, MO, a trip their mom had planned for us many times.  Although we did have a little fun it was hard on all of us and the overall vibe of the trip was not good.  I suggest going somewhere where new experiences prevail over old memories.

Include some one-on-one experiences.  Individual time with your children is the most reassuring for them.  I have three children, girl/boy/girl, spanning 7 years in age.  Of course they are all very different.  A day of fun planned specifically for each of them individually does much more to make them feel loved and secure than a big family vacation.  It gives you time to hear their specific needs and feelings.

Do not pack too much in the schedule.  The temptation when planning any outing is to squeeze in as much activity as y0u can.  Everyone has their own definition of a fun vacation, but don’t be so busy you don’t have time to connect.

Summer may not always be easy but it is a natural time to plan some healing activities.  You don’t have to go far or spend a lot of money.  Relaxing time together can be healing time together.  You can’t force a child to feel a certain way, but you can show them how you feel about them by giving them your time.

 

Eubanks familyThe last formal family photo with Tina Eubanks in March 2006, nine months before she passed away.

There are times after the loss of your mother when rational thought does not come easy.  On social media people are posting pictures of their mother, and a mix of emotions emerge–pain, anger, regret, happiness.  In your head you know that everyone who has their mother is doing exactly what they should … what you would be doing if your mother was still here.  You would visit her, have a meal, give her cards, and tell her how much she means to you, but you cannot.  I don’t know this feeling firsthand.  My mother is still here, a survivor of cancer and cancer free for almost 30 years.  When I was married in 1988 my mother was undergoing cancer treatment.  She is still here, but the mother of my children is not.  My children were 12, 8, and 5 when their mother passed away.  Nearly a decade later, they miss her every day.  Of course most people lose their mother at some point and it is always hard, but going through your childhood and teenage years without her is a unique kind of pain.

As a father of three hurting children I wanted to do what most men want to do, fix it, but this can’t be fixed.  I tried many things and found ways to survive Mother’s Day.  Decision number one was to skip church and don’t eat out on Sundays.  It is too painful to see everyone else with their mothers.  Decision number two was to do something different, not sit around the house moping.  The first year I took them to the pet store and bought them all hamsters.  I wouldn’t recommend you do that, really, but at least it gave us something to smile about that day and the stories we have are fun memories.  For us, a mixture of diversion and remembering has worked.  We have settled on visiting my mother most of the time.  She and my wife were very close and the she is adored by my children.  She has filled many mothering roles for them.

Deciding what to do is not easy.  I had to try to perceive the thoughts and feelings of my children.  Knowing what one wants during grief is difficult.  Even the griever does not know for sure except that they want the one thing they can’t have.  It is even harder to discern the feelings and needs of children.  The key is to stop trying to make them feel a certain way.  Listen, observe, and discern how they already feel.  Address that.  One thing I learned early on for them is that visiting the cemetery was not something that helped them at all, so we didn’t.  That ritual is only for the living and if it doesn’t help, don’t do it.  You have to find a middle ground of remembering without being maudlin, distracting without dishonoring.  I can’t say I have always done it right.  Most days we have moved on and are living the life before us, but on Mother’s Day she must be honored and remembered.

 

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.