Seldom will anything break your heart as easily as the sight of your child in unbelievable emotional pain... and what greater pain is there to a child than the tragic loss of a parent. Though it has been many years since his death, my daughter still experiences bouts of sadness because Daddy is not here anymore. It doesn't happen as often as it once did, but nonetheless, she still feels his absence acutely -- and she is now an adult.
Following are a few insights and suggestions on how to handle one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with death; informing your children and helping them come to grips with their new reality.
Here Today... Gone Later Today
After a death that was caused by a sudden illness, accident or other tragedy, it is not at all unusual that your child may not understand why their parent is not returning home. Many choose to imbue religious beliefs (i.e., "Daddy became very sick today and now he is in Heaven watching over us"). Regardless of whatever fashion you choose to handle the situation, when they ask if Mommy or Daddy are coming back, you must answer honestly. However, you can also let them know that their parent still loves them and always will. Be sure that your children understand that their parent did not willingly "leave" -- in other words, death does not equal abandonment (not even in cases of suicide).
Do not conceal or otherwise "hush up" the situation. Yes, sharing such devastating news is excruciatingly painful and it will be one of the most difficult things that you will ever have to do in your entire life. However, censoring or choosing to hide the news from your children will not only create confusion (i.e., "Why is everyone crying?"), even the very young can immediately sense when something is wrong. Furthermore, concealing such news will inevitably cause a child to wonder what else is being kept from them -- and even during the most difficult times, the one thing that we are obligated to provide to our children is a sense of security. Their world has already been rocked; don't add to the emotional turmoil by causing a child to wonder what other "secrets" you may be keeping.
The Longest Sunset: When Long-Term Illness Comes to a Sad End
My husband Mike was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) when Kendall was nine years old. After two years of bravely fighting, Mike's battle was nearing its heartbreaking end. As he lay in the hospital the day before he passed away, he expressed a wish that he first shared with me literally the day after he had been diagnosed... the desire to die at home. I was determined to fulfill that wish, as I knew that being surrounded by the familiar, along with his family and loved ones, would bring him tremendous comfort and peace.
As hospice scurried to ready the house for Mike's arrival, I preceded the ambulance home from the hospital so that I would have a few quiet moments alone with Kendall. Then eleven years old, when I told her that Daddy was coming home from the hospital, she was initially very excited. Remember that in a child's mind, when someone is discharged from the hospital, it generally means that things are better... except for us, it meant that things were coming to an inevitable and tragic end.
I will never forget the almost feral wail that emitted from Kendall when I gently explained that Daddy was not expected to live much longer. But as horrible as the moment was and as awful as the ensuing period of time was prior to and for years after Mike's passing, we were both eventually able to take comfort in the honesty of that one moment. As a result, rather than waking up to Dad being "suddenly" gone, or continuing on with daily life while blissfully unaware of what was about to happen, Kendall could instead be a part of the good-bye process. Although unbearably painful then, the memory of those moments gives her great peace now.
While such scenarios must obviously be handled in a sensitive and age-appropriate fashion, a child is entitled to know what is going on; followed by reassurance that they are surrounded by people who love them and who stand prepared to help them through this most difficult time.
Don't Play "Who's Hurting the Most"
Four months after Mike died, I lost my father to an aggressive form of cancer. As we both were trying to absorb the enormity of death visiting our home yet again, Kendall remarked, "Now you understand what I've been going through, because you've lost your daddy too."
I thought for a moment about this lovely gesture of comfort before I answered, "No Kendall, I really don't know what you're going through".
While losing my own father so soon after losing my husband hurt horribly (it did then and it does today), the fact is that I am an adult. The natural course of life tells us that we are going to have bid a sad farewell to aged parents who have hopefully lived a long and happy life. Although in horrendous pain myself, I still did not find my situation comparable to my daughter's loss at all. Keeping this mind, I replied:
"It hurts very much to lose a parent, but that's what happens when you are grown up. It's very sad, but parents grow old and pass away. But my daddy was with me through my whole growing up. He was there for all the important stuff in my life. I think that it must be much harder to lose a daddy when you're 11 years old. So I really don't know what you're going through".
After thinking about it for a moment, Kendall not only agreed, she deeply appreciated the acknowledgment that as much pain as I was in, what she had to endure was so much more difficult in many ways.
As your children move through their loss, you too must realize that you do not know what they are going through; any more than they can relate to what you are going through. While it's fine to let your children know that you understand their loss, make sure that you recognize that while you hurt, their loss too is of great magnitude.
Do not ever play "Who's Hurting The Most" with children. It is to no advantage to try to compete as to who is in the most pain. There are no winners. Don't make your children feel as though their pain is somehow "less" than yours or that your life is so much harder than their lives will be.
Be "Strong" Without Sending the Wrong Message
As parents, we all want to effect an appearance of unyielding strength to our children. However, most of the lessons that children learn from us are "caught" rather than "taught". In other words, you are being constantly watched. It is then not only OK for your children to see you in a state of sadness, you are also sending the necessary message that grieving is part of the healing process for adults. In other words, children (of all ages) need to realize that you are grieving as well.
Conversely, if you are hiding or otherwise keeping your grief away from your children, you are sending the message that adults aren't "allowed" to feel sad or that the grieving period is over. This can easily lead your children to keeping their feelings hidden from you or worse, choosing destructive ways of coping. When you are candid about your feelings and emotions, you are continuing to create an environment of openness during a time when it is most important.
Keeping the Memories Alive
Do not hesitate to keep your late spouse's memory alive for your children. Encourage school-age children to display pictures in their bedrooms and lockers at school. Enjoy reminiscing through family photos and videos with your children. You might consider creating a "storybook" about their parent; complete with how and when you met and sweet/funny/embarrassing/stories about your family that can be used throughout your Healing Journeys and saved as a precious heirloom for your children as they grow into adulthood.
Most of all, don't ever end the dialogue. Many parents make that error and not only does that fail to erase the memory of the deceased parent; oftentimes a child wants to talk or ask questions, but thinks that it is a taboo subject. After all, if you aren't talking about it, then "Grief Time" or "Ask Questions Time" must be officially over. The reality is that depending on age, while a child may have difficulty remembering the day-to-day of life with their deceased parent, the child is not going to forget that they once had two parents and that one of them passed away far too soon. You must create an environment where discussion is always going to be strongly encouraged and warmly welcomed.
You and your children will go through many changes as all of you progress on your healing journey. Be open and receptive to one another and be kind and understanding, one of the other -- even youngsters will grasp this concept. As time passes, be assured that you will see a new parent-child relationship evolve; one that is stronger and more tightly-knit than you could have ever imagined.
Carole's latest book, "Happily Even After..." has won the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award. For more information about Carole Brody Fleet and Widows Wear Stilettos, please visit www.widowswearstilettos.com
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