About a month before Ben died, I remember sitting at church and one of the kids saying, “I get worried that daddy is going to die.” It was an unexpected comment as Ben was with us at church and seemed to be doing really that morning.
I only thought about it for a minute, and then said, “I know I worry about that too. But you know what? We can pray that God gives us as much time as possible together and no matter what we know that one day we will all be together in heaven.”
I could have replied differently. I could have told them not to worry, that daddy wouldn’t die because I really didn’t expect him too. But I didn’t say that. And I definitely did not know then what I do now about preparing kids for loss and trauma.
Here is what I know now. No one is immune to loss, not even kids. Kids lose toys, friends, relationships, home, security, you name it. And to them that loss may seem as monumental as losing a parent. AND how we help them walk through those losses carries over into how they handle breakups, loss, and trauma for the rest of their lives.
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it.” When we teach children how to process grief and pain at a young age, we give them tools for success as adults in handling their emotions and the losses that are bound to come.
So here are some of the things that I have learned:
- Don’t tell them not to feel bad. Always validate their feelings. If they are hurting, it is valid, and they need to voice it. Listen and let them share. We do not tell people not to feel happy about something, so why would we tell them not to feel sad?
- Do not make them hide their emotions. When we send them to their rooms, or tell them to calm down when they are crying, we are telling them it is not okay to share how they are feeling with others! We want them to openly share how they are feeling so they feel heard and understood! Sit with them in their pain and let them cry and feel all the emotions. Emotions that we do not feel, we cannot heal. Teach them to lean on others when it hurts instead of always burying things inside.
- Don’t replace the loss. Coming from someone who eats their emotions… this one is big for me. I try not to feed my kids to make them feel better. When we lose or break something we talk about it. Often people think that immediately replacing something will make the pain go away. Speaking from someone who heads to the freezer when sad and overwhelmed, I know for a fact this one is truth. We rush into new relationships as soon as one fails. I do not want to train my kids that there are “more fish in the sea.” Otherwise, when they are older and suffer a breakup, they will think the best way to fix it is with another relationship!
We still talk about losing their dad every single day. We include him in our nightly prayers, and they frequently tell me how they miss him being with us. If one day I’m lucky enough to bring someone else into their lives who wants to stay, that person will play a significant role, but they will know he doesn’t intend to replace their dad. People are uniquely valuable, and not replaceable!
- Time does not heal all wounds. Just because they are not talking about it or because enough time has passed does not mean it is forgotten or no longer important. We can not ignore something and assume it will get better eventually. The only thing that truly heals is actively working towards healing!
- Don’t let them own your emotions. Kids know that they can sway our moods. They can make us happy or sad depending on how they are behaving. When we say “you make me so frustrated” they start believing that they control your moods. This is dangerous territory. I know because I have walked it as an adult, feeling responsible for the feelings of those who I am in relationships with. Teach them to own how they are feeling. “I am frustrated because the house is a mess.”
This list is not exhaustive. There are so many other things I have learned (and am still learning) about parenting kids through grief and loss. If you are like me and want to prepare your kids for success as adults in managing loss, I highly recommend looking at the book, When Children Grieve by John W. James and Russell Friedman, which shares many of these points and more!