Helping Young Children Grieve
My oldest son had just turned five years old when his Daddy died. Daddy didn’t feel quite right when he woke up on Mommy’s birthday, and rested as if he were dealing with what we thought was Covid or a tummy bug, or a normal flu. The very next day was my oldest son’s 5th birthday. Daddy seemed a little better in the morning, which seemed to confirm we didn’t need to panic. Around 11 PM with just one hour left of our firstborn’s official birthday, Daddy walked out of our home to head with Mommy and Grammy to the ER. There wasn’t time to hug Daddy goodnight, but I do remember the sweet exchange of “bye Daddy” to which my sweetheart responded “bye buddy.” His Auntie put he and his little brother (then 16 months) to bed, which had never happened before. Video chat from the parking lot of the ER showed two little boys in absolute emotional turmoil that neither Mommy or Daddy were there. My boys cried themselves to sleep. Somewhere around 2:45 AM on technically the day after my son’s 5th birthday, his Daddy went to heaven. I returned around 5 AM to two sleeping children, completely unaware that their lives had both forever drastically changed while they were simply just dreaming away, safe and secure in their warm beds.
I’ll never forget the moment my oldest awoke, as if it was a typical day and asked me where his Daddy was. Some memories in life are permanently etched both in the mind and are like a sharp shard of painful glass that never leaves the heart. I explained as best as I could in a way that might help a child to understand the unfathomable. And ever since, I’ve spent almost two years trying to help my innocent little children adapt to the unthinkable, while on many days feeling like an emotional train wreck. How do I help them make sense of something that I can’t even wrap my head or my heart around? It is because of my children that I have been forced to keep moving forward each day when I have felt like giving up. I have learned a lot of things about young children and their grief process from this journey of loss that my sons and I are traveling together. I thought I might share a few things in the hopes of helping and validating another sweet Mama as she deals with this difficult task.
If a child is old enough to attach to and to love their parent, then they are old enough to grieve, meaning even babies feel the loss of their parent. My sweet baby boy was 16 months old, yet seemed to absorb my sorrow and the upheaval of the situation. Very young children seem to need extra comfort during a time of loss. This could mean extra requests to nurse, a need to be held more, special comfort items, reverting back to diaper wearing, or carrying a photo of Daddy. My oldest didn’t seem to have a need to embrace photos but my littlest was so often saying Daddy’s name while looking at his photos and kissing the picture.
Children don’t understand anything about grief. You need to explain it. My oldest thought that if he wasn’t crying as much as Mommy, then that meant he didn’t feel sad of “miss” Daddy. It was important for me to teach him that missing Daddy didn’t have to mean crying and could be felt and shown in many ways. Once he understand this, he could vocalize “Ok, well then yes, I do miss Daddy.”
If you have trouble explaining death or heaven or sickness to a child, there are so many books available on the subject. I purchased several with a Christian theme in keeping with our faith in Christ and for a while incorporated books about heaven into the bedtime routine. thriftbooks.com is a great place to get used books at lower prices.
It is important not to hide your sorrow from your children. Showing them what true grieving looks like is valuable and role models that it is ok to feel sad and to express big emotions. The demonstration of the depths of your sorrow also proclaims the depths of your love for their Daddy.
Using correct terminology is important. My oldest in particular is so sensitive, that phrasing something incorrectly could have really created severe anxiety in him. For example, saying Daddy was “sleeping.” or “gone” could have created fear that Daddy was lost or that if he fell asleep that he or his brother could die too. For little ones, the most simple, age appropriate, yet honest description is best. I asked my child directly if he had any questions about how Daddy died. He truly did and we talked through them. Open communication is key. While tucking them in or riding in the car is a great time for these little chats to come up.
Young children can only handle small doses of grief at a time surrounded by a lot of playing. I needed to remind myself to not be offended if I was having a sentimental moment sharing a special Daddy memory with my boys and instead they were half listening and mostly playing and having fun. Initially it feels like they don’t care, and were ignoring the importance of that memory, but that isn’t true. Children do care very deeply, but young children are rarely able to put those intense feelings into words as others do.
It is important to institute traditions that honor the memory of their Daddy. Our family Christmas tree has become Daddy’s memory tree now. Many ornaments hold photos of the boys and their Daddy and I ordered special new ornaments that represented Daddy’s interests and our happy times together as a family. Daddy’s coke and Disney hoodie is the tree skirt and his Disney Dad hat is the tree topper. We also incorporate a fun annual day to celebrate Star Wars on (May the 4th Be With You) as Daddy used to do, as well as a garden of specially painted memory rocks and plants and other items to celebrate Daddy’s life and legacy.
Make sure the special memorial activities are actually what the children want to do. It is so easy for a devastated grieving Mom to force a special activity of honor or memorial on the children that doesn’t reflect their grief process or their little personalities. If it brings comfort to me, I have to remember that doesn’t necessarily mean it will help my sons. A great example of this is our first Father’s Day without Daddy. I was a mess. Such a day of raw pain. I thought it would be nice to take my children to buy two helium balloons, to write memories for Daddy and messages, tie them to the ribbons , and release the floating balloons at a favorite beach we often visited with Daddy. Much to my dismay, everything seemed to go wrong with that plan. We arrived at dusk, so a bit darer than I’d hoped. The ocean was rough and the crashing surf scared my youngest, creating fear and instant tears. I released one balloon and my oldest started sobbing because Mommy had let his special balloon float away. Clearly this wasn’t working.
I try not to talk about Daddy in past tense all the time. As a believer in Christ, I look forward to a reunion in heaven one day with my husband. Though his physical body became ill, I know that the real him is still alive. I try to emphasize this future hope to my sons.
Comparing them to their Daddy in moments of praise builds connection and a sense of identity. It seems to create a sense of connection to their Daddy when I see a positive character quality or action and say “that was so kind of you, just like what your Daddy would have done.” or “You are very generous, just like your Daddy.” “Daddy used to do sweet things just like that for Mommy” “Someday you will be a handsome man like your sweet Daddy.”
Find hands on, active ways for kids to express their feelings. We created art work, are starting photo album keepsakes, pulled all the special toys Daddy bought his boys into a display area. We sing, eat birthday cake and drink cherry coke on Daddy’s birthday. Daddy’s hoodie sweatshirts are always available to be worn or snuggled.
Realize that separation anxiety will increase drastically in most young children following the death of their Dad. I find that both of my boys have a harder time feeling peaceful and settled when I am not in the same visible room. There is such a sense of comfort for them in seeing me and knowing I am present and alive and well right there with them, even if I am several feel away. This might mean I don’t leave them in the children’s church or another place without me if they aren’t ready. I don’t force a separation if it is obvious on a given day that it will cause emotional turmoil.
Give yourself permission to do whatever needs to be done that is best for your children and yourself. No need to apologize to others or provide explanations to those who don’t care or have never walked in your shoes. No need to take unsolicited advice or to try to be what you think people are expecting you to be or to grieve on the timeline people assume is necessary. Trust your God given motherly intuition and do whatever you need to do as a mama bear to protect, comfort and support those precious cubs during this vulnerable and confusing time of sorrow in their little lives.
What have you learned as you’ve helped your children with their grief?
How does the experience differ with older children?
In Hope & Prayers,
This Widow Mama