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Teaching Children About Grief

Today, my son saw me cry. He asked me, “Whatcha cryin’ bout, Mommy?” He is an eloquent little guy. I told him I was sad because my friend went away. I’m sure there will other occasions when he asks me this question and I will give him the same answer. There will be times when I am irritable, angry, and impatient because my friend went away. Emotions are such a complex thing and the way we explain them to kids is so categorical! What is that?!

I lost a very dear friend three years ago, when I was extremely pregnant with my son. Today is the anniversary of her passing. There were several moments today in which the weight of my grief pressed hard on me. It doesn’t just happen on the twentieth of December. It happens all the time, sometimes at the cue of a strong reminder, sometimes for no reason at all. Sometimes we think of the one we lost and laugh, sometimes the thought brings us to tears.

How to discuss the emotions of grief with children.
My dear friend Missy and I, back in college. Missy would pass away from cancer four years after this photo was taken.

How do you teach children about grief? When do we start? How young is too young to understand loss and how it affects a person? From the time our kids are very small, we teach them about emotion. What it means to be happy, sad, angry, and scared. We tell them that it is okay to feel their feelings. We teach them how to express emotion and how to discern emotions in others. But it seems as if we rarely broach the topic of grief with children unless our family is suffering a loss.

And even then, what do we say? How do you explain grief to little ears? How do we explain such a complex emotion? The fact is, there is no way to define grief in a way that is understandable to a two-year-old. He understands sad. Sad is a flat emotion that has a trigger and eventually passes.

Grief does not pass. It varies in its concentration, but it is a weight you carry for the rest of your life. Sometimes the weight is a buoy in the water, held afloat by everyday life, joy, memories, busyness. It doesn’t feel so heavy. Other time the weight is all there is. In the beginning, it is all there is every day. And then there are part of the day when you don’t feel the weight. Eventually, you resume “normal life.” But normal is never normal again. You have a new normal. That weight is there and you become stronger to carry it. But even the strongest of us sometimes cannot withstand the pressure of out grief. Intermittently and inevitably, we succumb to our grief, and it manifests itself us, demanding to be outwardly expressed.

Grief has many faces. There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each of these stages looks different on different people. The stages are not a straight line from the loss to acceptance. Rather, they look more like a scribbly drawing that my two-year-old might draw.

I tell our kids, “It’s okay to be sad.” I tell them, “Tell Mommy why you are upset.” I want my kids to own their emotions. I want them to be clear and secure in how they feel and be confident in their self expression. A large part of teaching this to them is to be an example of it myself. Sometimes I cry and my sons sees it.

I try not to make a habit of it because I also want to be strong for him, to be his safe place, his place to go when he is scared. (Another dichotomy involved in the quest to be the perfect parent! Yay!) But, on the occasion that my son witnesses his mother shedding a few tears, I explain to him. “Mommy is sad, baby. Mommy cries when she is sad.” He learns to put a name to the outward expression of emotion. He learns that it’s okay to discuss your feelings.

Later I hope I teach him that it is not only okay, but essential! Cluing those around you on where you are emotionally is a vital part of relationships. Sharing the weight of your grief helps. It provides comfort and clarity. I hope to teach him that when he suffers a great loss, it will become a part of the landscape of who he is, and that won’t mean that he is broken. Queen Elizabeth II said that “Grief is the price we pay for love.” I wear my grief like a badge. Though grief is pain and terrible and sometimes unrelenting, it is also proof that we were connected to another soul. That makes it beautiful in its own way.

When I am struck by a wave of grief, I try not to push it away. I try to let that reminder of my friend sit with me for a bit, and in that moment, I revisit the good times and warm memories. I also hope to teach my kids to not push away the unpleasantness of grief, and that however it manifests itself in them is okay. And while I hate the thought that my babies will one day experience the deep sorrow that comes with losing a loved one, I know it will happen. It’s just a matter of time. I just hope that when it does, I have prepared them, and I hope they can see the one they lost within the times they are pulled under by their grief.


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