Parenting Through Grief:Teaching Your Kids Healthy Coping
I've taken a little time away from writing to get my feet under me. Our dog, our “first baby” Ger passed away over Christmas. He was 11 years old, and had been having a few health problems over the last 2 years. But his passing was unrelated and quite sudden.
I was so worried about how the boys would take the news. I am lucky that they are young. They don't understand grief the same way we do. My kids have experienced small losses (grandparents pets, bug “pets”, etc). They understand death because their middle names honor their late grandfathers, and Nick and I have been open about our fathers’ deaths. Breccan especially has kind of a posthumous relationship with Grandpa Mitch, and I hope in time Olin will feel similarly toward Papa Dan.
I've written about sharing your mental health struggles with your kids. Grief is another mental health issue that it is important to model for your children. Even more than depression, anxiety, or mood fluctuation, your children will inevitably experience grief in their lives. They will not escape it - death is part of the life cycle. So it is important to frame death in a healthy way.
Scaffolding is a term in the early childhood education community that means adding in supports to learning and removing them gradually as the child learns more. Tying shoelaces, for example, means having the child learn to pull the knot tight, then learn to cross the loops, then learn to make the loops. It also involves asking probing questions, or modelling steps. Just like you use scaffolding to model writing or building or getting dressed, you can use it to model healthy grief coping.
By explaining how we grieve, we show our children ways to deal with the grief they will inevitably experience in the world. Here are some tips and resources for how to get started.
Know What You Are Going To Say
This is not a conversation to wing. Ger passing away on Christmas was awful, but I'm also kind of grateful it happened on a day and in a place that the kids were super distracted. We were able to sit back and decide what to say, what information was age-appropriate, and look up what the experts advise.
Use Their Language
One framework for explaining emotions we use is “zones” of feelings. We are in “red zone”, “yellow zone”, or “green zone”. When explaining that my husband and I are very sad about the dog, and what that looks like for us, we let them know we are “red zone sad” or “yellow zone sad”. If you have a way of talking about emotions, use those key phrases.
Let Them See You Cry
Crying is healthy. I am particularly sensitive to showing crying as healthy because I am raising boys. I want them to see me and their father cry and to know that crying is sometimes a good outlet for emotion.
That said, if you are distraught, that might be somewhat frightening for young children. It is also okay to turn on the TV and hop into your room for 15 minutes if you need to wail into a pillow! I have definitely had a few of those moments over the last few weeks. When you experience a big loss, those things are perfectly normal.
For older kids and teenagers, this can be a time to come together as a family and truly help each other through grief. Leaning on each other is, in a way, what family is about. It is okay to show your vulnerability to your kids. In fact, it is vital to model that in age appropriate ways to give them healthy expectations for themselves and their partners when they are adults.
Books, Stories, and Pictures
I also tell stories about Ger, and pull out pictures and videos of him. I find this a good way to spark conversations that might answer questions. It helps me cope, and we don't immediately stop talking about Ger just because he is gone.
Alert Your Village
Kids exhibit grief in different ways than adults. They may put on a brave face for you and let it out elsewhere. They may regress on certain behaviors. While you don't need to broadcast your grief to the world, alerting people like their teachers, nannies, or other caretakers is important. Keep them updated on things they may say and how you are addressing things if you have specific do's and don'ts.
Respect Their Boundaries and Their Processing
There are times Breccan wants to talk about Ger. There are also times when he asks me not to. I try my best to respect that. The best way to teach them is to teach when they are ready to listen. Probing an uncomfortable emotion is a certain way to shut a kid off to it. We have all been guilty of this, but do your best not to!
In the same vein, remember to manage your own emotions when they ask difficult questions or say something that seems cruel. A few days after losing Ger, Breccan mentioned that he wasn't sad Ger died. I initially felt a spike of hurt. But he is 5. Not only is his understanding of death less permanent than mine, his expression of emotion is still rudimentary. We were having a cat friend visit; he was too busy being excited about that. There wasn't room for 2 big emotions at once. In the moment, I had to slow down and be mindful of how I reacted and make sure he didn't feel ashamed. It was a hard one, but it is important to not shame our kids’ emotions even when they make us uncomfortable.
Loss of a loved one, whether they are human or animal, is a family experience. The grief process can be too. If you are conscientious, your kids will learn lessons that foster resilience for the inevitable losses later in life.