Right now, we are living through times filled with so much grief.
Not just because maybe those we love have died, but because our whole life has changed.
For some of us, the change was temporary and is getting back to normal, and for others, it may be a long time before we find a new normal. We need to grieve all that has been lost.
We need to find a way to accept those things we were perhaps trying not to know, like vulnerability and just how fragile life can be.
For some, life will never be the same again—they will now face life without someone special to them. Someone who is gone forever.
For those of us who are parents, we may be trying to navigate our way through our own grief, whilst we support our young children to do the same.
I’d like to share with you some things I’ve learnt over my time as a bereavement therapist working in hospice with children and families.
When someone is struggling to find their way through grief, or even to approach it and start to recognise it, one of the most profound and helpful things we can do is just be there for them.
Our natural inclination is to help, to take away the pain and help the person move on and be happy again, but as Samuel Johnsson said, “Where grief is fresh, any attempt to divert it only irritates.”
To just allow someone to grieve is powerful. To simply say, “I’m here.” To be there—whether that’s to sit in silence as they cry, to hug them, to listen to them whilst they share memories or pour out their heart—is more healing than we can ever imagine.
We may feel helpless, but try to remember that just being there and allowing grief to be there with you is powerful medicine indeed.
At the hospice, I use an adapted acronym from Buddhist Psychology:
Recognise and empathise. “I can see how painful this is. I can hear how your heart is breaking.”
Allow and accept. Just let the experience be. Don’t try to change it, or fix it, or make it better in any way. Let the person and pain be experienced and shared.
Investigate with kindness. Ask open-ended questions, like, “How did that feel?” “What was it like?” “I can’t imagine how that would feel. Please help me to understand…”
Basically, let the other person know you are interested and there for them.
This may be done overtly, or it may be subtle. “I’m here when you want to tell me about it.”
Nothing more and nothing less.
It may feel like we are doing little, but in fact, this is a huge thing to do. To hold another’s pain and not shrink away, to not back off but also remember that you may need to take care of yourself too, especially if you are also grieving.
The other important thing to know is that we do what we see others do, rather than what they tell us. We learn by example. So allow yourself to grieve and to ask for help. Then, children will also see it’s okay to cry, and be sad, and ask for help and support.
Many parents try to be strong. They feel it’s okay to tell their child to cry and see someone for support, but they won’t do this themselves, and then they wonder why then their child won’t either.
Please remember that you’re human too, and you’re allowed to be sad and cry. And if you do, you can use this as a way to talk to your child about how it’s okay to cry and talk about why your sad, and work out what might help, such as a hug, a cup of tea or finding someone else who can help you—maybe even accessing counselling and support.
As a parent, I always try to ask myself, “What would I like my child to do in this situation?” And then I do that.
I work in a hospice, so it’s understandable that when I talk about grief, I talk about death and dying, however, it’s important to note that grief can be felt through any transition or loss. Grief is a part of life.
The loss of the womb, the breast and milk when a child weans, the start of school, moving house, divorcing parents, and so many other things. It is a natural process and one we must pass through—not around, or under, or over. Through.
“As a parent, it’s my responsibility to equip my child to do this—to grieve when grief is necessary and to realize that life is still profoundly beautiful and worth living, despite the fact that we inevitably lose one another and that life ends, and we don’t know what happens after death.” ~ Sam Harris
And yet, I have found that most people find it incredibly hard to talk to children about grief and loss.
Many try to make it less painful, less raw, or ignore it altogether. How human to want to protect your child from that pain you yourself have felt and hated.
Yet when we do this, we leave a child alone, unable to talk about the fears and feelings that may, at times, feel overwhelming. And because children have such beautiful imaginations, they may well try to make sense of this by coming up with ideas that are even worse than what is happening.
Children as young as two and three may start to ask you about death, and this is a wonderful time to start to explore the idea with them—to help them understand what loss is and ways we may start to cope with it.
For example, my own three-year-old asked me the other day, “Mummy, are you going to die?”
My reply was, “Yes, one day we’ll all die, but I hope it won’t happen for a long time.”
“But that makes me very sad mummy. Look, I have tears.”
I gave him a big hug and an acknowledgement that this, too, makes me sad. Then I shared with him that we hold each other’s memories and love in our hearts, and always will, no matter what happens.
We often read No Matter What by Debbie Gliori. It has this beautiful passage at the end, which assures my children they will be loved no matter what.
“Large held Small snug as they looked out at the night, at the moon in the dark and the stars shining bright. ‘Small, look at the stars—how they shine and glow, but some of those stars died a long time ago. Still they shine in the evening skies. Love, like starlight, never dies.'”
Yes, my children will be sad, but this is so human, and if we can start to discuss loss at this age, when they are calm and safe, they can process this information far better, and they will be far better prepared for the inevitable time in life when they themselves experience a loss.
As we know, going through loss is like going through any trauma. The brain starts to operate in survival mode, which can make taking in new information difficult (one of the reasons many children may struggle at school during this time). So it’s not the best time to start to give them new learning and information.
It’s far better to be able to draw on what we know.
Remember that even if you feel lost and unsure when faced with your child’s grief, it’s okay.
The best thing you can do is be there, be present, and allow whatever they feel the space to be heard and seen.