Remembrances and sometimes regrets come along with the loss of a loved one. It’s been years since my parents passed away, and questions still runs through my mind: Did I make the most of my time with my mom? Did my dad know that I loved him? When a child’s parent or other loved one (including a beloved pet) dies, processing grief is even more complex. Our littles lack the tools and experience to know how to grieve. Yet, no child should ever have to grieve alone. We can help children grieve by tapping into our own experiences of loss.
No one “gets over” grief
My experience with helping children grieve started when I stepparented two young children whose mom died of cancer. Not only were my stepkids grieving the loss of their mom, but they also were being asked to find room for me in their lives. I didn’t know their mom and found myself looking forward to our lives together instead of meeting them where they were in their grieving process. Without knowing how to help my stepkids, I at first sat on the sidelines of their grief.
Over the years, I learned—through research and conversations—that grief never ends. It changes as we change, over time. My original approach to my stepkids’ grieving wasn’t helping them or our relationship. I transitioned to asking myself, “What do I want from others when I’m missing someone?” Sometimes I want reflection time. Other times I want to chat with those who knew my loved one, or to look at pictures. I eventually reached a point where my heart melted as I started to “get” how much my stepkids missed their mom.
Tap your wellspring of compassion
Compassion goes beyond a cognitive connection with another person’s situation; it’s a natural opening of your heart toward feeling that person’s joy or pain. That’s why
connecting with some of your own grief needs helps you better understand ongoing expressions of grief (re-grief) in your family. When I tapped my compassion, I thought of things to say and do with my stepkids.
I asked them about their mom’s favorite ice cream flavor and what she would say in certain situations. I hung pictures of them, posed with their mom, in the main hallway of our home. I brought a candle to light at a special luncheon recognizing their mom’s death anniversary. This act also brought laughter when the candle was too big for its container and overflowed! We joked that she was larger than life.
Be ready for anniversaries
An internal clock is ticking in our subconscious minds during birth anniversaries, death anniversaries, and other types of annual milestones. A friend of mine likes to say that anniversaries are like time-release capsules. Anniversaries link directly to ways we relive a loss. We can feel the encoded message physically and emotionally in our bodies, like the time I suffered a pounding headache and irritability until I realized that day was my mom’s death anniversary. Be ready and be gentle during anniversary re-grief.
Death is not the only type of loss
My brother and main babysitter/bedtime storyteller had twelve years on me and left for college when I was six. At six, I couldn’t process how big a loss I felt after my brother departed for his new life. It’s no coincidence that I soon added imaginary friends to my world. While my brother didn’t die, he did disappear from my childhood, and this was a significant life loss upon which I can reflect.
I believe that no one in my family was equipped to address my brother’s departure as a loss, because no one talked about it with me. My parents were probably going through their own grieving process, but they were very quiet about their feelings. Lost loved ones and our feelings about them don’t have to remain unspoken, or taboo. It’s healthiest if lost loved ones can come alongside us as we all move forward. The question is, how?
Help kids honor their loved one
Twenty plus years down the stepparenting road, I can share a stockpile of memorialization ideas; ways to honor or include a lost loved one in day-to-day living. Here’s the salient question: which of these would create the most meaning for your kids? What speaks to your kids’ hearts?
Here are a few of the many tribute ideas I collected for my book, Step parenting the Grieving Child:
- Hold a birthday celebration for the loved one (with cake, of course) at his or her favorite place
- Invite someone to visit who knew their loved one well, and listen to the stories so you can re-tell them later
- Plant a memorial garden that your kids can help tend and grow
- Choose a special new active tradition “in memory of,” such as a team 5K with competition shirts
- Take a memorial trip together that their loved one would have enjoyed
Sometimes trial and error is required to figure out what’s meaningful to the kids. Once I decided that a balloon release on my stepkids’ mom’s death anniversary was a great idea. It felt right to me. The kids didn’t feel motivated to join me, however. When Brian brought a birthday cake to one of his former wife’s favorite outdoor locations, that appealed for them. We learned that things don’t always go as planned, so we keep trying.
Stay open to magic
Whether I’m remembering my own loved ones or helping my kids remember theirs, I can only do what feels forthright. Sometimes these magic moments happen spontaneously. Such lovely whimsy occurred in our kitchen when I uncovered a Southwest Mex recipe handwritten by my stepkids’ mom. I showed the kids and we all got fired up about making this tacarito dish for a family dinner. That meal became a family favorite and each time we made it we celebrated her and enjoyed a great meal.
Together as a family, celebrate your discoveries about helping children grieve. Speak what is unspoken. Give grieving kids a piece of your heart. And share with others what you learn about helping grieving children, so that no child grieves alone.
Photo credit: Gianandrea Villa