I asked my 3-year-old daughter Izzy if she wanted to say goodbye to her daddy. Earlier that morning, her father Ian had just passed away from Uveal Melanoma.
At first she hesitated, but then she grabbed my hand and asked to go see him. We entered the room where my husband lay lifeless. Her grip tightened as we approached his hospital bed.
I can still hear her timid, confused, yet so innocent voice as she softly said, “goodbye daddy.”
We stood there for a second and then she looked up at me and asked, “can we go?” I nodded my head and we left.
We walked the beach and when we came back Ian’s body was gone. They had taken him to the mortuary while we were out. When Izzy entered the empty room she looked at me in astonishment.
“Where did he go?”
“Up in the sky,” I answered.
“Yes, Izzy. Just like that.”
Children are often the ones left behind in the wake of grief and loss. They are the silent grievers. Depending on their age and their social/emotional development, they might struggle to fully comprehend the permanence of loss or to verbalize the complex feelings and emotions involved in grief.
Their understanding of death largely impacts the way that they grieve. While preschool aged children tend to see death as temporary or reversible (ie. magical thinking), school-aged children understand the finality of loss but still might have many questions or have difficulty processing that such tragedy could happen to them. And while teenagers may cognitively comprehend the magnitude of such a loss, they might lack coping skills or feel isolated from their peers.
Izzy had a lot of questions after Ian died. She asked if we could go visit daddy in the stars. She asked if he was coming back. I told her that he was still with us in spirit, but she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see him and touch him. Even now, almost two years after his death, Izzy still checks in to see if daddy will be coming home — to hold her, to hug her, to tickle her and go swimming with her.
Children’s knowledge of death and the world around them influences their feelings about the loss. For instance, children tend to have a self-centered view of the world, which leads them to believe that they caused their loved one’s death. Such thoughts might trigger feelings of guilt and self-blame, and these feelings impact their behavior. Some children act younger than they are — needing more attention, cuddling, baby talk or might even regress to wetting their beds.
In the months following Ian’s death, Izzy who is usually a fantastic, independent sleeper had to cuddle in bed with me every night. Every bedtime was a battle as she hysterically clung to me and begged for me to sleep with her. She couldn’t tell me why in words, but her actions said everything.
Just like adults, emotional memory and trauma are also stored in our body. So while feelings are driven by conscious thoughts, children might express how an emotion feels literally in their body. For instance, a child complaining about “tummy troubles” might be experiencing anxiety. Children might also experience an emotion and not be able to verbalize it at all, so they act out physically. For instance, anger might be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, and irritability, among other behaviors.
Izzy was constantly fighting with her brother — wrestling, kicking and hitting him. She would also lose her temper and shout over minor upsets. For me, it was hard to distinguish what was grief and what was normal 3-year-old behavior.
I consulted child grief experts in Denver and they told me that it’s impossible to separate out what is grief vs “normal” developmental behavior and that it actually didn’t matter! Bad behavior needed to be corrected no matter what the root cause. For instance, I wouldn’t excuse her from beating up her brother because daddy died.
So, I ended up reprimanding bad behavior but also provided her with coping tools. We explored breathing exercises, how to shout into a pillow to release anger, or how going into her room to color and enjoy some “me-time” could calm her down.
I also realized that Izzy behaved better when she was able to move her body — when she ran around the playground or played soccer. Just like me needing a workout, she needed a physical release for these intense emotions. I’m still exploring contact sports like Jiu Jitsu as a healthy outlet for Izzy to feel her feelings.
Unprocessed grief and trauma can have long-term effects. Research shows that bereaved children are at an increased risk of disrupted development, mental health issues, and decreased academic performance. And in the midst of such devastation, children’s grief might to be overlooked as parents or other support figures are dealing with their own.
These situations are hard. There is no right or wrong way to navigate them. So, based on my own personal experience and research in the field of grief and loss, I’ve compiled some tips to help support your grieving child (and also take care of yourself).
Let me know if something resonates!
TIP 1: Help Your Child Express his/her Feelings
Children should be encouraged to express their feelings openly or freely. Ask them — how are you feeling? Are you sad? Are you happy? If they are having trouble naming their emotions, you can do this with books and pictures. I love the “Little Unicorn is Angry/Sad/etc.” book series for this.
If verbalizing feelings isn’t working, provide other outlets for expressions such as drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums or telling stories.
TIP 2: Be Direct
When talking about the death, try to avoid using euphemisms. Kids are extremely literal, so hearing that daddy “went to sleep” or “is resting” might be scary or create fear around bed time.
When Ian died, we told Izzy that he had Cancer. I explained to her that she couldn’t get cancer and that she also didn’t give it to daddy. Cancer made daddy’s body stop working and he died.
This language might come off as abrupt or too harsh for children, but remember that they are trying to process the loss just like we are. The more honest and concrete we can be about the facts, the easier it will be for them to understand and accept the loss.
TIP 3: Stick to Routines
The world becomes a scary and unpredictable place when someone who we love dies. This environment can trigger anxiety, fear and anger as our body and mind respond to perceived threats. Sticking to a routine provides a sense of normalcy by creating safety, comfort and predictability. So if your child attends school, extra curricular activities, or playdates — maintain their normal schedule. Just like adults, children are more than likely craving these types of outlets.
If you are worried that your child is too withdrawn, sad or anxious to return to the schedule, consider lessoning the load and by all means trust your intuition. You know your child best!. But, be aware of our adult projections over the situation. Follow their lead!
I would get so worried when Izzy would breakdown in tears, missing her daddy. But typically within five minute she’d be off playing with her brother without a care or concern in the world!
TIP 4: Give them Closure
For adults, we typically find closure after a loss by attending funeral, memorial service or celebration of life. We often wonder if children should attend or not. The rule of thumb here is to give them the option. If they want to attend, then allow them to. But if they don’t, then there is no need to force it. Although we are probably trying to protect our children from these harsh realities of life, preventing them from attending important rituals or leaving out vital information about the death often creates more questions, more uncertainty — thus more trauma around the loss.
If your child chooses not to go to the funeral or memorial, try to create another ritual or ceremony to create closure. Ideas like planting a tree, sharing stories or releasing balloons with special messages to their loved ones are great options.
I questioned if Izzy and Theo should attend Ian’s Celebration of Life. I honestly wanted that time for myself — so that I could say good bye to my husband free of distraction from my children. So, I decided that I would attend the paddle-out (a traditional Hawaiian tribute to those who have passed on) alone, and my children would attend the reception after. However, I did create a “mock” paddle-out with Izzy and Theo, my brothers and some close friends to provide them with the same type of closure that I needed.
TIP 5: Put your own Grief First
This tip is really hard to put into action, but essential to both your healing, as well as your child’s. It’s easy to feel guilty about taking time for yourself and away from your child when both of you are grieving a loss. But, as the saying goes — you can’t pour from an empty cup.
If I didn’t make space for my grief by attending a yoga class, meditating or walking in nature, I found myself irritable, angry and incapable of serving my children’s needs. I was better able to help Izzy cope with her emotions after I had leaned into mine.
TIP 6: Consult an Expert
The loss of a loved one is overwhelming and all consuming with the range of emotions experienced in grief and the logistics involved in adapting to our new normal. We have little time to process our own grief, so supporting anyone else’s can feel impossible at times. If you find yourself in this situation, get support! Find a child therapist or local non-for-profit that supports bereaved children. Knowing that your children are in expert hands can lighten the weight of carrying other’s grief so that you can focus on yours.
I enrolled Izzy in play therapy for about one year following the loss of my husband. This was a safe space for her to process her emotions through play. The therapist would talk to me after each session and notify me of any “red flags.” Having Izzy’s behavior validated by an expert gave me a sense of comfort and alleviated some of the concern I was carrying regarding Izzy’s grief.
TIP 7: Keep their Memory ALIVE!
Death kills a person. It doesn’t kill a relationship. Talk about your deceased loved one! Share funny stories about them and keep their legacy alive. Teach your child how to connect with their loved one without them being physically around. I love the book “The Invisible String” for this!
The memory of a loved one is all that we have after he/she dies. Keeping these moments alive helps fill the void of their physical absence for both you and your children.
While Theo is still too young (2-years -old) to understand death or verbalize his grief, he already owns his story. He tells me that daddy died and sends “shakas” to him up in the sky before bedtime. I know that as he grows older, he’ll have questions and I’ll answer them as honestly and openly as possible.
Izzy is still processing her father’s death. Just like me, she has good days and bad days. She has outbursts of tears as she longs to give him a hug, but she also giggles as we look at pictures of him together. She talks to me, other grown ups and children about her loss — how daddy died of cancer and how he’s not coming back. Her grief needs to be witnessed, just like mine!
When asked to draw pictures of her family at school, we are still a family of four. I love this because she understands that despite Ian being physically here, the love never dies.
We are always connected by an invisible string of love.