Experiencing grief as a child must be indescribeable. For most of the kids who experience grief first hand, the amount of confusion, fear and anxiety must be very difficult to process. We all know that kids are constantly learning, that they thrive on routine and predictablility. When death and grief invade a family, these “normals” change. They fall by the wayside as the family adapts to this new life they’ve been handed. The emotions that come with death and grief are very different that the emotions that we experience on a daily basis, probably even more so for children. Watching the people -YOUR people – who are your constants and your stabilizers cry, crumble and change, without really understanding the why and how must be so difficult.
When there’s a death within a family structure, we’re given resources, information and support from trained professionals. As a parent or caregiver that is responsible for the kids in the family, YOU become that person. You need to provide the resources, the information and all of the support. A child can’t tell you when they are unable to process the heaviness, when they need a higher level of support. It’s like walking tightrope. Trying to find the balance between maintaining a semblance of normalcy for your kids, and addressing the elephant in the room…the death of a family member. In our case a little brother.
I think that knowing what is age appropriate in these cases is very important. Understanding what to expect, and how to react to these situations, is vital. That being said, knowing your children is the most valuable piece of information in this house of cards.
My youngest, Malik, is 2 years old. When Killian passed, he didn’t understand what was going on. Even now, almost 3 months later, he doesn’t ask questions about Killian. He knows who he is, he mentions him by name when we look at pictures, but there’s no sadness or questions associated with that. But he has severe anxiety since all of this happened. His ability to control his emotions is limited. Take the typical toddler, and add some severe anxiety. He clings to me like his life depends on it. To him, his mom was suddenly gone for 9 weeks, and now she’s home. He’s not letting me out of his sight without a fight. Some days his hightened emotions and iron arms around my neck can be beyond tiring and draining. But I always stop myself and try to remember that his entire world was shifted not so long ago. Everything he knew changed. And I try to recognize that he can sense my emotional state. He is tuned to the changes in me. So my job right now is to support him. To do everything in my power to give him his security back.
My oldest, Ryker, who’s 4, is a whole different ball game. He’s a smart little guy, and he’s asked lots of great questions. We’ve been very conscious to not exclude him from the conversations and talks we’ve had about Killian. Through keeping him involved in this process, we’ve been able to keep the communication open, and i’m so thankful for that. I think that we often try to shield kids from the hard things, the sad things, the tough times. But maybe if we kept the dialog open, by describing our emotions, and being honest about what we’re feeling – sadness, fear, anxiety to name a few – our kids would be more willing to talk about these tough things with us as well.
At bedtime, Ryker and I always lay in bed and chat about our day. One night I could tell he was feeling off, yucky. Eventually he told me that he was scared to go to the Doctor. He knew that Killian had lived in the hospital, and he didn’t want to die like baby Killian. He thought that the Doctor’s had made Killian die. I explained to him that the Doctor’s had tried to fix Killian’s heart, but it was too sick. I explained that the kind of sick that Killian was, wasn’t something that he could catch, it wasn’t the same as a cold that made him sneeze, or when his belly was sick. The next day, I made a Doctor’s appointment for him. We went together and it was a comforting experience for him. Thankfully by really talking to him about his fears, and by addressing what had happened and what it all meant, we were able to tackle something that was giving him anxiety.
As the support systems for kids dealing with grief, I think that we need to reassess our reactions and expectations for them. Our instinct is to send the kids to another room when things get emotional and raw. We don’t always ask them if they have any questions. Ryker has asked a lot of philosophical questions that i’ve had to tell him I simply don’t know the answer to, because i’m still learning too. If his question is something that I don’t know the answer to, I am honest with him, but I also tell him that I will try and find him an answer. Children are often scolded in extemely emotional situations for their bluntness. Ryker recently told a lady at Tim Hortons that “Killian is dead and he’s not coming back”. Try to recognize that their bluntness isn’t meant to cause pain or sadness, they’re simply stating the facts of the things that are surrounding them. A few weeks ago, a friend stopped by. Ryker was playing with his playmobile. The game he was playing had a lot of death in it. His “guys” were dying, and his other “guys” were crying. My friend asked me if that was upsetting to me, and if I allowed him to play that. My answer? Of course I do. Children learn through play. They process emotions and lessons by playing them out. It actually gives me some peace knowing that he is processing all of this heaviness through healthy avenues.
I think that by allowing our children to be part of our grieving process, we will help them learn how to accepts and work with their own grief. Because they do grieve. Differently than us, but that’s how this grief thing works. We need to allow them to be open and honest with their fears and their emotions, and I think we can give them permission to do that safely, by sharing ours. Obviously there needs to be boundaries with our sharing, that’s where the literature on age appropriate dialog needs to be referenced. But we need to stop sending our children away to shield them from pain. Because they are so sensitive to us, their people, and to the air around us. We need to show their process the same respect that we want in these situations. And we need to give them the tools they need to navigate their new normal too.
We talk so openly about Killian with the boys. Our bedtime routine is my favorite. Every night I tell Ryker that I love him all the way to the moon, and he tell me that he loves me all the way to Heaven, where baby Killian is. My heart swells a lot and breaks a little bit everytime he says it.