I’m no expert on grief, but I’ve had a lot of practice with it. In fifth grade, a classmate died on a field trip. By the time I graduated from high school, I had lost seven peers. A year later, my dad lost his battle with cancer. And recently, I have watched our community mourn the death of a teenager killed by a drunk driver. These losses prompt me to address this heavy and unpleasant topic because I believe that while I don’t have all the answers, I can speak from my own experiences and the deep conviction they bring.
I’ve learned this: No one ever masters the process of mourning, and our culture is no good at it. We have few, if any, societal norms for dealing with death. Unlike the Jewish traditions, we don’t have the five stages of the mourning process, such as sitting Shiva for seven days following burial. While it’s not something particularly pleasant to consider, I firmly believe that we have an obligation as parents to teach our children how to mourn as surely as we teach them to ride a bike.
We cannot shelter our kids from loss. When we fail to include our children in the hard and honest conversations, we handicap them from the ability to confront the grief that life will inevitably include. As a young mom, I was shocked to overhear an off-the-cuff comment that my father knew he wouldn’t make it. I felt robbed of information that would have equipped me to grieve better. I had always wondered what my dad thought about his illness and death.
I don’t fault my parents for being protective. They were doing the best they could with a horrible reality. Yet, this revelation causes me to passionately proclaim that we fail to empower our kids to grieve when we fail to include them in conversations about the very things happening to them. Of course, conversations have to be age appropriate and designed to meet your child’s temperament and emotional abilities. But, I implore parents to sit and have the hard conversations.
I believe we help our kids to mourn better when we make ourselves available to answer questions and to give information. In doing so, we model for them the importance of discussing even the most dreaded situations. We present ourselves as the safe harbor when we don’t shy away from anything that life may bring. We let our kids know that no topic is off-limits and we convey trust and confidence in them by giving them facts of their reality.
Dealing with loss is one of the most out-of-control experiences in life. We, as parents, are the gatekeepers between our children and life’s circumstances. When we thoughtfully offer our children choices that we deem are appropriate in how they say good-bye, we are empowering them to mourn. These options may include actually seeing their loved one a last time, if that is a luxury afforded and appropriate. Or, it may include writing them a goodbye letter or drawing them a picture, even after they are gone. Other choices we can offer our children include attending the funeral, going to the graveside later with flowers, or releasing balloons with a quiet prayer. Offering our children choices of tangible experiences for the abstract idea of death not only allows them to take some control, but it also allows them to process the loss.
Another way we teach our kids to mourn is giving them a wide berth for all the emotions it brings. One of the most profound statements about mourning that I’ve been told is there is no handbook on grief and no right way to go about it. I was released from any expectation when I was told that it was okay to feel all the feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or even happiness about other things amid the days of mourning.
We disable our children (and each other, for that matter) when we tell them how they should feel. We become a sacred place of consolation when we gift our children with the freedom and grace to feel all the feelings, and then make ourselves available to help them process and direct those feelings.
At times, this may include the need to seek play therapy or counseling. We take the lead to normalize seeking help when we make it available, or even openly seek it for ourselves. Here, in our own backyard of Fort Worth, we are privileged to have the incredible resource of The WARM Place. Founded in 1989, The WARM Place offers a wide array of services to meet the needs of children and teens who are dealing with the loss of a loved one. They offer help to children as young as 3.5, and to young adults up to age 25.
Indeed, may we keep our kids from drowning in the grief of life by teaching them to mourn. May we tell them honestly that while time doesn’t heal all wounds, we will walk with them every day in the process of learning to co-exist with the voids. And may we all have few opportunities to do so.