I’m learning a lot about how (my) kids grieve and how very different and similar that can be compared to how I grieve as an adult. Truth is, their loss feels every bit as profound and traumatic to them as it does to me; they just exhibit it so differently sometimes. It’s important for adults to understand this so we don’t sweep their grief under the rug, unintentionally dismissing their pain. We can’t assume they are fine because they look fine. We can’t watch them play or laugh and marvel at how “resilient kids are.” This isn’t fair, and it isn’t accurate.
When my husband was battling cancer (when it rains, it pours), I read lots of books on how kids handle these situations. Thank God I had read those books! Because that terrible night at the hospital when I had to tell my kids they had to say goodbye to their dad, they said some very shocking things. There were things said that most adults would find offensive or inappropriate at best. Thankfully, even in my shock, devastation, and grief, I knew better.
Here’s what I’ve learned about my kids’ grief:
1. Sorrow is overwhelming for them too.
Grief overwhelms me, and yet I have the advantage of a fully developed brain (most days), life experiences, and wisdom to help me sort out complex emotions. The kids don’t have these advantages. They are working through very heavy stuff and aren’t fully equipped physically or emotionally to do so. Grief is overwhelming for them too.
2. Sometimes they tell it like it is.
“Well, at least now we can go places,” “Maybe you can find a new husband so we can be a normal family again,” “I know God could’ve snapped his fingers and Daddy would be okay, but he didn’t,” “I’m never wearing a suit again for at least a year,” and so on and so on. My kids aren’t trying to be insensitive, rude, or inappropriate, they are just verbalizing what’s on their minds. They are working through their questions and fears and brainstorming solutions, out loud. Their candor doesn’t mean they didn’t love their dad, it just means they are trying to understand their loss without the benefit of adult perspective and without a social acceptability filter. I sort of love and admire that about them. Wouldn’t it be so much healthier for us adults if we did that sometimes too?
3. They will act out or behave like jerks sometimes (or maybe a lot).
Even as an adult, I sometimes behave like a complete jerk, so it’s no wonder this happens with my kids. Sometimes they can be brutally honest and verbalize their thoughts, but other times they can’t and that grief has to get out somehow. At our house, it comes out as temper tantrums, backtalk, anxiety, and behaviors including, but not limited to, instigating, pinching, kicking, and other forms of mild sibling torture. It looks like disobeying rules, yelling, and short fuses.
Sure, some of that is just being a kid, but in my home, these behaviors have escalated since our loss. So we talk about letting grief out. If we hold it in, there’s no room for joy. And also, if you don’t release it, it will spill out on its own because grief needs an escape. My kids and I are still working on more constructive ways to let it out. It’s going to take a while, and it’s hard to know when to discipline and when to hug them tight. Currently I’m doing both. (Also, the adult version of this also looks like short fuses, impatience, and yelling. Also it looks like carb-loading. We’re all a work-in-progress.)
4. They want to protect me.
My kids worry about me. When I’m sad, I don’t hide it from them because I think it’s so important to be open and honest with them. So I show my emotions, and we talk about it. They are sad when I’m sad, just like I’m sad when they are sad. It’s inevitable. It’s compassion. However, sometimes they don’t share their grief with me because they don’t want to worry me or make me sad. But here’s the thing: They need to share it with someone who cares about them and understands. If not me, then a counselor, pastor, close family member — someone.
5. They sometimes think it’s their fault.
Moments after saying goodbye to his dad, my son said he knew it was his fault and proceeded to name all of the things he’d ever done wrong — sneaking more screen time, lying sometimes, etc. It was heartbreaking, but I’m so glad he shared that with me. With the help of child life specialists at the hospital, we were able to reassure him that it was not his fault. Kids can wrestle with these feelings for some time, though, so I’m prepared to have this conversation whenever self-blame resurfaces.
6. They feel guilty for having fun again.
As humans, we are wired for joy just as much as we are wired to endure and overcome pain and sorrow. When joy clamors for its rightful place in our lives again, it can throw us for an emotional loop because grief is still sitting at the head of our table. It somehow feels wrong to allow joy back in, and so there is guilt. I know it is unwarranted, and yet it’s there, cramping my style. My kids feel it too sometimes. We talked openly about it early on. We named the feeling, and I gave us all permission to be happy sometimes — without guilt. Of course, their father would want that, but so do we. We just needed to name it, talk through it, and then kick it to the curb.
7. They can have a hard time sleeping.
When your mind is swirling with questions, fears, guilt, anxiety, and sadness, sleep can suffer. Luckily, this was an early-on and fairly short-lived issue for us. Had it not improved, I would have definitely sought help.
8. They crave normalcy.
If kids are laughing, playing, and running around like nothing has happened, that’s because that’s what kids do. My kids craved normalcy, so they did normal kid stuff, which gave them comfort and distraction. It doesn’t mean they are fine. It doesn’t mean they are “resilient” — it means they are coping differently than the adults in their life. And that’s okay. Let me say this again: Resilient doesn’t mean “fine.” By definition, resilient means able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Working through grief takes time — lots of time. There’s no “recover quickly” happening with grief. In fact, it takes way more time than we’ve given it so far.
9. They have great big fears.
Their dad died. My kids have experienced something that, thankfully, many kids don’t. They are now aware of the fragility of life before their developing brains can fully process it. Because of this, they now deal with fears most of their peers have never even considered. They worry about losing me, the only parent they have left. I can’t reassure them in the same ways now. I can’t promise nothing will ever happen to me. They now know that would be a lie. But I can reassure them that I’m healthy and working on being even healthier. I can reassure them where our hope lies, no matter what happens. For us, that is God and eternal life. For other families, it may be something else.
10. Sometimes they don’t want to talk about it.
I really should understand this one better, but I’m their mom, so when they aren’t talking about things, I worry. The truth is, sometimes they don’t want to talk about their feelings. Maybe they just aren’t in the mood or maybe they can’t identify what it is they’re feeling. It’s important to for me to give them space and also give myself a break from the worry.
I guess my kids really aren’t all that different from me, at least not very different in what they are feeling. How they act out their grief is different though. (I’m not pinching or kicking anyone yet — although I was sort of close with that insurance agent).
I don’t have this all figured out. We’re still struggling with grief, so we go to a counselor trained in mental health and grieving. This doesn’t mean we’re weak. It means we’re going through some terrible stuff right now, and we need additional support. If you’re struggling too, I encourage you to take care of yourself in this way.
Grief is not an individual sport. And there are people who are here for you.
For additional resources, visit the National Alliance for Grieving Children.