I recently got heart-breaking news delivered right as my sixth graders returned from lunch. I had not processed the news enough myself to even know how to respond when the students came barreling in and saw me crying as I hung up the phone. I left school quickly, fully expecting someone would tell them why I was upset so that they would understand.
I received so many emails from students in the subsequent hours. Students who had not even seen me that day, or who were in my morning classes, were emailing because they heard I was crying. They wanted to make sure that I was okay. And they all wanted to make sure that I would be coming back to school the next day. I was told to tell them I had a family emergency and would be back next week.
There was a time a few years ago when I thought I needed to shelter my kids from any kind of sadness and suffering. I tried for several years to shelter them from their dad’s seizures and cancer. I did not think they needed to know he was sick. I wanted them to have a carefree childhood free of pain and suffering. But when my twins were only three years old, their dad took them on a walk through the neighborhood and had a seizure. He fell off the curb into the road. They sat with strangers and watched as he was loaded into an ambulance and waited for me to arrive to pick them up. I realized when they explained it to me that they knew far more than I realized and that sheltering them only made them more afraid.
Here is what I have learned about sheltering my kids:
- Loss and pain is a very real part of life. It is everywhere. You cannot hide from loss and you cannot run away from it. Someday they will have to face pain. And when they do have to face it head on, they need to know how to process it.
- Sheltering them makes them think we should ignore hard things. When we shelter our kids, we are teaching them it is not acceptable to talk about hard things. It is teaching them that pain and loss and things to be avoided. When my kids first started school, I remember a teacher telling me that my son needed to go to counseling because he was always telling people his dad was dead. I remember saying, “but he is.” The teacher told me that it was not healthy for a six-year-old to talk about loss so much. But speaking that truth is necessary for us to process it as reality. The last thing I ever want is for my children to grow up thinking that they cannot talk about hard things or that they should avoid them because it might make others uncomfortable. That loss is a part of who they are.
- Letting my children feel the pain and loss of others has developed compassion in them. It has taught them to feel for others who have lost. It is teaching them to be kind individuals. When I told my kids about losing their grandfather recently, the first words out of my 7 year old’s mouth were, “That is so sad for Grandma. Now she has lost her son and her husband. She must be very sad. Are we going to go see her so we can hug her?” And I cried. Not only for our loss, but for her loss, and for my mother-in-law’s loss. And because my children have had to process so much pain already in their young lives.
The last few years I have struggled with whether to shelter or expose my children to pain and loss and suffering. But pain and loss are very real parts of life. They will not be able to avoid those difficult moments as the get older and they have to know how to persevere through hard things and come out stronger.
I still pray that difficult moments will not find them. I pray that we will not have to face the loss of anyone else that we love and I pray they will not have to mourn lost relationships. I try to make sure that my kids lives are filled with as much sunshine, confetti and roses as possible and I try to teach them to embrace every single day head first. But when those difficult moments come, so much more frequently than I would hope, I hope I have taught them to face them head on too. We cry the tears, we embrace the sadness, we hug each other a little tighter, and we learn the lessons… together, one heartbreak at a time.