My kids have had more than their fair share of death in their short lives. Several years ago we lost my sister in law in a horrible car accident and not long after that our 4th son passed away shortly after birth as a result of a placental abruption. Within the same period of time, my kids also lost 3 of their great-grandparents so it’s no surprise that they have slightly warped views on mortality at times.
Grief is not linear. It comes in waves. We’re two years out from the death of our son and some days it still hits me like a brick wall so I shouldn’t be surprised that my kids have had the same experience as they’ve tried to deal with the death of so many people that they love.
My 5 year old has been hit the hardest by everything. I think it’s partially his age and partially his personality. He was the only one of my children to hold his brother’s tiny body in the hospital and he was the one who broke down crying when they took him away. We tried to explain to him our beliefs about life and death and made it clear that we believe he will see his brother again. We found comfort in our beliefs but in our grief I don’t think we took the time to recognize how confusing the entire concept was to a 5 year old who was still trying to grasp the whole idea of death in the first place.
For the past several weeks he’s been telling me, “That’s weird. We haven’t died in a while”
After hearing him say it several times, I finally got him to explain what he meant by that. It turns out that he thought that death was something you took turns doing. He thought that right now it was his brother’s turn but soon it would be someone else’s turn and he would get his brother back (he was up for trading in his younger brother who always takes his toys).
We’ve talked to him about how we believe that we will see his brother again after we die without fully explaining the doctrine behind our beliefs and that was confusing to him. I had to explain to him that death is something we only do once, and hopefully we do it when we are really, really old.
My word choice would cause him a huge amount of anxiety. He’s been going through a growth spurt so we keep telling him how big he is getting. Suddenly he began insisting that he did NOT want to grow up. We thought it was cute and carried on with what we were doing. A few times he told us that grown ups don’t get to play with toys and we accepted that and giggled at how cute it was (secretly vowing to spend more time playing with toys in the future).
On Mother’s Day I was getting him dressed and noticed that his pants were getting too short so again, I told him, “You’re getting so big. Soon you’ll be bigger than daddy.”
And with that, he burst into tears.
As I held his shaking body he told me that he did not want to get bigger because if he got bigger he was going to die. I told him “You are not going to die. I promise you get to stay with us.” (my experiences have taught me well that I can’t make these kinds of promises, but there are times when a little gentle lie is just kinder to a child). I should have stopped while I was ahead but I told him, “You don’t die until you are really, really old.”
My son paused for a second then burst into fresh tears. “Then Nana and Grandpa will die! Then you and daddy will die!”
I brushed off the desire to explain how not old I am (if asked, my son will insist that I am 100), and helped him work through his feelings.
It was apparent that despite the time that had passed, my son still needed to process what had happened. He needed to talk about death. He needed to understand why hard things happen and learn how to cope with them when they do. As a parent, I’d tried to shelter my children by moving past hard things without allowing them to see me grieve or work through my own emotions and in the process I had failed to help them deal with their own feelings.
What tips do you have for helping children deal with grief?
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