In May of 2016, our beloved family dog had to be put to sleep after a short battle with an aggressive cancer that couldn’t be treated. In May of 2017, my last remaining grandparent — my maternal grandmother — passed away after a few months battling varying issues. A couple of days ago, my uncle died after dealing with kidney cancer over the last year. While cancer makes you think we’d be prepared, we weren’t. His treatment had actually gone well overall. When complications started a couple of weeks ago, even those seemed to be resolved. Until overnight everything changed and within 12 hours, he was in heaven.
Dealing with these loses has been difficult. Each time, in the midst of my own grief, one of my first thoughts has been, “How are we going to tell the kids?” Because grief with kiddos is hard, and they were very close to each of these loved ones. I want to protect them and shelter them from every hurt that can happen in this imperfect world. I want to make it all better for them. Yet, that isn’t one bit how it works. I know there are articles and books written on grief with kids. I know there are actual experts on the topic. I am certainly not, but I do know what dealing with grief looks like in our family. And from that experience, I offer some thoughts.
Give yourself time to process the loss.
I have found it’s important to not tell my children until I’m ready to have a conversation without sobbing. My husband and I need time to process the loss first before we can talk to them. This has happened in various amounts of time based on the situation. But usually, it has been within 12 to 24 hours.
Use the right words.
Once we are ready to talk, then we sit down together as a family without distractions and try to be as straightforward as possible using words like “die” and “death,” so they understand what we mean. Little kids, especially, don’t understand or know euphemisms such as “passed away.”
Talk about heaven.
We talk about how our loved ones, especially in each of their situations, are no longer in pain. We talk about how they can run free. As the losses have continued to accumulate, we even talk about our loved ones interacting in heaven. We talk about how good it is for them there. We talk about how we can be happy for them but sad for us and that is OK.
Discuss different reactions and emotions.
My son is the youngest of our family. He was 3 when our dog died, 4 when my grandma died and now is 5. He processes things very matter-of-factly and doesn’t quite get all the feelings right away. My daughter was 6, 7 and 9 during these losses and understands them differently. She immediately tears up. We talk about how it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to not cry. We talk about how sometimes we feel like crying when it surprises us or sometimes we don’t cry when we think we would. There is no wrong way to have feelings during losing a loved one. Sometimes sadness comes out in tears and sometimes in other ways. My older brother, for example, was almost 4 when our paternal grandpa died and my mom said his first reaction was anger. And that’s OK, too.
Let kids see your emotions.
I don’t often cry in front of my children. I have times of getting teary or choked up, but outside of these losses, I’ve not really cried in front of them. I think it’s important for them to see my tears and be reassured that any sadness they are feeling is OK and they aren’t alone. My husband usually displays his sadness without as many tears, because that’s more his nature and that’s OK, too.
Let them ask questions.
After we give them the information, talk about heaven and emotions, we also make sure to ask if they have questions. I have been surprised sometimes at where their minds go and the things they wonder about. We are also honest when they ask questions that we don’t know like “Why did God want them in heaven now?”
We also reassure them that if they think of questions later or just want to talk about it or whatever, they are free to come to us any time. And we keep that open. It has pierced my heart a couple of times as they have brought up things later on that brings that grief coming back fresh, but I want them to have the freedom they need to process it in whatever amount of time it takes them or in whatever way they need to.
Address their fears.
Sometimes our kids have brought fears up, but sometimes we have brought them up first. For example, we are quick to remind them that the kind of sickness our loved ones had was more than just a regular sickness and they don’t have anything to worry about if one of us gets sick with a cold or virus. Since I’ve had a few surgeries in these last few years, we are also careful about correlating a surgical procedure to death. It’s a pretty quick and easy leap for kiddos to start thinking sickness or surgery equal death.
Follow their lead.
Kids are so very resilient. Each time we have dealt with a loss, I am amazed at how quickly they shift gears from being sad to wanting to do something else. While my husband and I still need to deal with our grief in different ways, we do our best to move on with them to another activity. We have learned to plan something as a distraction each time that we can offer to get everyone shifting gears, even if it’s just going out to dinner.
Talk about ways to be proactive.
We try to also talk about how grief is hard. We don’t diminish that, because grief is really stinking hard. But we also assure them that we will get through this and it will get easier. And we talk about something we can do. For example, when my grandma died, we talked about how my mom and aunt would be feeling sad and maybe the kids could give them extra hugs. This week we’ve talked about coloring pictures and making sweet treats for my aunt to remind her that she isn’t alone.
Don’t push; just be there.
While I have been surprised by my kids’ resilience and ability to shift gears, I have also been surprised at various times they bring up the loss and how they are sad. It pops out at odd times sometimes, just like it does for grown-ups. While my daughter has been older and tended to cry a bit with the information, she has moved on pretty well during the day. But then bedtime comes and she tends to struggle more. Last night, she crept back downstairs and was feeling very sad. So we just sat snuggled on the couch for a while, neither one of us talking. Sometimes sitting together in silence is the best. And then I gently helped her think of some other things to help her be able to move forward into going to sleep.
Know when they need grace.
This one can be a bit tricky to assess sometimes, but my kids get extra grace for their behavior and words when we are dealing with a loss. I need extra grace for my behavior and words. I know I’m not at my best and that sometimes I get grumpier much more than I would usually. I don’t expect them to be any different. So sometimes when they do something that would usually merit a strict punishment, they get off lighter or get a reminder that isn’t how we are supposed to behave. If it keeps happening, especially in one day, we stop and ask them questions about how they’re feeling. They don’t get carte blanche permission to do whatever they want to without consequence, but they do definitely get some grace along the way.
Losing a loved one hurts. Each time, I have wished I could take the hurt away from my children and told them as much. But we’ve also talked about how it hurts because we had so much love, and love is a good thing. We have talked about good memories and how we’ll always have those memories. We have mourned together and even found some laughter in the midst of mourning. I really do wish I could take the grief for them, but I also want to do my best to prepare them for loss since hurt and grief is a part of the world.
I don’t have all the answers and am not an expert at dealing with grief myself. Sometimes I’m good at distracting myself and pretending if I don’t think about it that it will go away. (That never works, by the way.) But I have learned more and more through the years that sometimes I have to just let myself feel all the feels and be broken down in order to start healing. I have shared that with my children to an extent according to their ages. I have also learned, though, that no matter how hard and painful this stuff is that God is always there. He is always ready to comfort me. He hears me when I get a phone call with news and can only pray “Jesus” over and over because my heart is broken. In the end, as always, Jesus remains the answer to grief whether it’s my own or my children’s. I pray that they realize that and see me living that out, in spite of the times when I mess up.