How We’re Helping Our Children Process Grief and Death
It’s been a little over a month since I lost my father and my children lost their grandfather. While I’m no expert in helping children deal with grief, we’re learning as we go of what works and what doesn’t work. A big difficulty as a parent in helping children with grief is that you are most likely grieving the loss of a loved one yourself. Today, I’m sharing what I’ve learned and what has worked for us.
Meet Your Children Where They’re At
Both Theo (4) and Josie (2) have processed grief through play. This felt really strange and sad to me, but after talking to a few friends, I learned that it’s actually a really good thing. I showed them a Daniel Tiger episode when Daniel’s fish passes away. It’s a completely different level of grief, but they seemed to appreciate the fact that Daniel was going through something similar to them.
Theo pretended that one of his trains died and was having a funeral for it. This really shook me to my core and my initial thought was that he shouldn’t have to know what a funeral is at four.
Josie drew a picture of Grampa in heaven (Kevin, as the girls call it). She was very proud of her work and I told her that Grampa would be very proud of her picture, as was I.
Children understand so much more than we give them credit for!
How should you react when your children cope this way? The only “wrong” thing to do is to tell them to stop. I engaged very minimally because both Theo and Josie seemed to want to be alone, but later I talked to them about the way they were playing. I simply reinforced that Grampa loved them so much, that it’s OK to feel however they need to feel, and that their daddy and I are always available to talk.
Understand that Grief Looks Different in Children
Grief looks different in everyone, but it can look very different in children. It can actually look like a huge temper tantrum. Our children had terrible behavior after they lost their Grampa. Theo was especially mean to his sisters. He was stealing their toys, hitting them, ripping books, etc. Now, my child is not perfect by any means, but this behavior is definitely not the norm for him.
When a child acts up and it’s out of character for them there is usually something else going on. In this case, it was grief. I’m not sure how much he understands why he was acting the way he was, but I do know that it’s very important to respond with grace.
If you’re struggling with sleep disruptions in children caused by grief, this is a wonderful resource from Katrina of Mama’s Organized Chaos from when they lost their daughter, April, at 20 weeks gestation and it was a big struggle for their older daughter.
Handling Discipline and Correction with Grief
It’s natural and good to discipline a child when they misbehave. “You’re being mean to your sisters? Well, you lose the privilege to be around them, and you have to stay in your room.” That’s what I wanted to say. However, knowing that Theo’s meanness was coming from a place of grief, I responded differently.
When I snapped at my husband during my grieving process, he didn’t tell me to go to our room and leave him alone. He gave me a hug and asked what I needed from him. I was mean to him, and he gave me a hug and asked what I needed from him. Shouldn’t we show the same grace with our children?
Yes, but it is still very important to acknowledge their bad behavior and let them know it isn’t OK. I explained to Theo that I knew he was mad and sad and that was OK; however it wasn’t OK to be mean to his sisters. I told him that when he felt like being mean to come to me and we would figure out what to do together.
I don’t think that Theo fully understands his feelings about death and grief and that it’s my job to help him learn to cope.
This Good Behavior Mantra is a great resource to help you find balance with discipline.
Realize Your Limitations
Treat your grief, especially in the first few weeks, as if you’re sick. Many people, myself included, experience physical effects of grief (<– you can read more about the physical symptoms of grief by clicking the link). I can’t fully parent consistently when I’m not feeling well. Knowing this, there have been things I’ve had to let go that I normally wouldn’t tolerate.
We’ve had way more screen time and snacks than we usually do, and that’s fine. It’s only a season. It’s better to realize that you won’t be able to follow through on something than to tell your children there will be a consequence and not follow through at all. We had one occasion that I told the kids that if they didn’t do XYZ that they wouldn’t be able to watch T.V. when we got home. Well, guess what? They didn’t do XYZ and as soon as I pulled into the driveway I regretted my words. The next time I felt like making a promise like that, I didn’t.
This is a great post about finding time to grieve as a mom.
This is another great post about parenting when your world is crashing down.
Consistency is Key
Can I even write a parenting post and not include the word consistency? It is so important. So, while I need to show grace to my children, and realize my limitations, it’s also so important to not let my children get away with things because of our grief. Yes, some days they do, but I know that if all of a sudden they have an absent mommy, it’s going to make things worse for them.
I’m honest with my children when I’m upset and I need a break. I’ve apologized when I’ve lost my cool and I try to make up for any angry outbursts with extra cuddles and one-on-one time.
Read my tips for keeping cool in the moment to overcome being an angry mom <– here.
Remember, it’s just a season, and although it is an awful season, it will pass. Joy will start to be more present and the clouds will pass. You and your children will get through this, even if most days it doesn’t seem like you will. You are doing our best in this incredibly difficult season and you are doing a great job, mama.
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