An old and very good friend of mine recently passed away. I was home watching my children when I found out and was so upset that I called and asked if my husband could come home from work early. He watched our children while I did my best to keep myself busy by talking to his family and helping to contact all our old friends. Throughout the day, my children would come up to me and give me a sweet hug, rub my arm, or tell me, “Mama, you’re so pretty.” It was their way of comforting me even though they didn’t quite understand why I was so sad. Instead of teaching children to grieve at that time, they were teaching me.
How I’ve Been Teaching Children to Grieve
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to explain death, grief, and loss to my children. My mother passed away when my oldest two children were just babies. Since then, death and loss have been an ongoing conversation with my children. My son once asked if we could take a spaceship to visit Grandma on the moon. My daughter, just a toddler, quickly replied, “No! We don’t have any spacesuits!”
I once wrote a brief article on explaining heaven to babies. In a rare moment of what I consider my own brilliance, I explained heaven as a place we can feel in our hearts and visit in our dreams. This was prompted by my children asking to go visit my mother. I still repeat this definition of heaven today when they ask about her, although now we also sometimes visit her grave site.
The loss of my friend, a young man my own age, has me reeling. He was about to become a father for the first time and we would have had so much more to connect over and about. I was planning on inviting him over for the holidays and was truly looking forward to seeing him again. It’s still so fresh that I haven’t fully accepted his loss.
Yet, I still have to be present as a mother and wife. I am consciously aware that how I manage my grief is an active lesson my children will one day need to learn from. I need to remember that even when I want to break down and scream, I am teaching children to grieve and need to be a mode. Despite my best efforts, they will experience grief and loss and the death of loved ones. What lessons do I want them to learn?
I’ve considered this at length, given the death of my own mother at an early age, and I want my children to know a few things. First, I want them to know it’s okay to grieve in their own way. Whether they are criers, stoic, or they laugh at all the good memories, it’s okay. There is no right way to grieve, despite what others may tell them.
Second, I want them to know that life does go on. The person who died is the one whose life is over, not ours. Our lives go on. It is different and it’s hard to accept the change, but we go on. And that is okay as well. It is okay to laugh, to sleep well, to find joy in little and big things. Sometimes this can feel like a betrayal, but in truth the people who love us would want us to go on with our lives and enjoy them.
Finally, after a loss there is a new normal. Any major change, including death, brings a shift in our world. After my mother passed, it involved shifting how I got through nearly everything, since I was so close to her. My daily routine had to change; I no longer could call her first thing in the morning or go visit her after nap time. I’ve not yet adapted to this new normal after the death of my friend, but I know I will never hear his laugh again or get a great big hug from him at reunions with our old friends. This new normal takes a while to adapt to, but in it there is joy and peace and comfort.
I hope that the way I am grieving and taking care of myself, and honoring this loss, is setting a positive example for my kids. Teaching children to grieve is not easy, but I hope that one day, when their own hearts are broken, they remember these lessons and are able to find their way through the grief and pain back to laughter and joy.
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