Help! My Kids Are Grieving.

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“My kids are grieving, but they won’t see a counselor. It’s all on me.”

As a widow and a Mom, you’re learning to cope with your grief and supporting your children through theirs, as well. To be a single parent, grieving widow, income earner, laundress and chef - and simultaneously try to teach and support your children about grief can feel overwhelming and frightening. But you don’t have to do this alone -- and you don’t need to become a grief expert or family therapist.

You’re the mom. The Parent. There’s a ton of resources and support available to help you as a parent while you’re all grieving together.

Here are a few things to consider:

Age Matters

When it comes to talking to your child about grief and death, it’s important to consider their age and developmental ability. Here’s a chart that lists age and developmental stage for children, along with the impact grief has at each age. But, even if the chart says they're ready to process existential questions about death and the afterlife, you know your child better than anyone else. Remember to trust your intuition.

Grief is a never-ending process for kids. As they grow, develop, and reach developmental milestones, they may re-grieve or revisit grief. For instance, my youngest son was just 20 days old when his father died. At four years old, he talked about “all those times I held and kissed my dad and would read books to him.” At age eight, out of the clear blue nowhere, he said, “Hey, 20-day old babies can’t hold and kiss their dads and read them books!” Suddenly he was developmentally able to reprocess his age at the time his dad died. Realizing this led to a few weeks of talking and tears about all he missed experiencing with his dad because he was a newborn when his dad died.

As a parent, it can feel like backtracking through old territory you thought you had cleared. In fact, these resurfacing conversations and emotional bumps are signs of integration and growth. I learned this for myself by having a front seat in my children’s lives as they grew and we continued to talk about and process grief together.

*A special word for helping kids between the ages of 2-5, the age of repetition. Children at this age love, and need, to be told the same story over and over again. You may experience this phenomenon by reading the same bedtime story what seems like 500 times a week.  Repetition is developmentally important, and that comes into play with grief, too. Your child may need to repeat the story of dad’s death over and over or hear every morning that he’s gone and can't come home again.

All of this sucks and is excruciating for you, mama. The repeated pain is like putting your hand on a hot stove every day because someone you love has asked you to. But it’s important to do it. It doesn’t mean your child has memory issues, is death-obsessed, or that you are for repeating the story. It’s all typical for children at the age of repetition.

I wish I could reach out and grab your hand! You’re not alone, and this is fucking hard work. What help do you need as you face each day with your sweet baby asking you the same painful question again and again? Find a counselor, or get on the phone with your tribe, or your friend angels and cry your eyes out. Scream! Swear! Do what you gotta do, but know that you’re doing amazing things for your children by meeting them right where they are and giving them what they need.

To Cry and Not To Cry

My two-year-old distributed kleenex to each person the day we planned David’s memorial service. I will never forget this beautiful toddler walking around the room in his diaper offering tissues and a hug to everyone who cried during the meeting. We reassured him that we were OK - we were sad because we were missing Daddy.

Crying in front of your kids is a good thing, but there are different kinds of crying. So, to distinguish - the crying I’m speaking about here is the gentle tears and maybe a little soft sob that catches in your throat. It’s truly powerful to show your kids you’re struggling, too.

The kind of crying that might not be helpful is full tsunami crying - a scream/cry with a wail. That may be too much for your children to witness but check with them. Ask if your tears unnerve them and then talk about it.

Sharing your tears with your kids can be helpful. By crying in front of them you:

  • "Model" having feelings and demonstrate a healthy way to cope with the intensity of emotion.
  • Raise the permission level for them to share their pain with you.
  • Give them an opportunity to demonstrate compassion for you. Let them bring you tissues and hug you for reassurance.
  • Crying openly like this helps to create a family culture of care and love. To be clear - tears aren’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of emotional health and courageous sharing.

Your Grief Tribe

You’re going to need to get one for yourself. You can search for a local support group by calling local hospice organizations, hospitals, therapists through psychology today, Meetups, and Facebook. Or get together with other people with kids who are going through this too.

The best way to support your kids in their grief is by having your own support. Find a therapist you feel can help you. Also, find childcare and take time for yourself. Soak in a hot bath without interruptions or have dinner out with a girlfriend. Do what you need to do for self-care to keep your cup as full as possible so you can navigate this intensely emotional experience with your children.

For many, the best tribe support has come through an online and in-person support group. Tell the universe you’re looking for your people and you may be surprised by who shows up in your inbox or on the other end of your phone.

Furry Family Members

We got our dog five years after my husband died. I waited that long because it felt like I had plenty of responsibility and chaos without adding a furry family member to the mix. But my heart kept telling me our loud, happy household could use the healing presence of a dog and I wish I’d brought one home sooner!

Joey, our 9-pound rescue poodle, rescued us. He brought us constant compassionate support, a healing presence, and joy. He’s helped my boys learn responsibility by taking care of him. I can’t say enough about the powerful healing that happens to my boys when they’re with Joey.

Over the years, whenever they were in tears about missing their father, they’d ask to hold Joey while they cried. Joey’s presence brought an energy of love and healing like nothing else has all of these years. Believe in the magical healing properties of our furry friends!

Death Talk at Dinner

Make grief a part of your family’s culture and regular conversations. Kids are curious and may have a thousand questions.

“Where do we go after we die?”

“What happened to my dad’s body after he died?”

“Will I get sick like he did?”

“Will you die, too?”

“What do my friends think about me now?

Making it safe to talk about these things lets your kids know it’s safe for them to feel whatever they’re feeling. This is what we want because feelings aren’t bad - they’re information. Welcome them with open arms so they can teach us what we need to know and helps us release what needs to go.

Over the years, I’ve often thought my family could be known as the House of Macabre after going into a deep dive at dinner about the after-life or what happens to a body after it’s cremated. Some families talk about politics, religion, or the weather - we include a regular serving of death at our table.

If you spend enough time on this topic, you know that talking about death is talking about life and about how to live. You’re talking about what you believe in spiritually, what gives your life meaning, love, pain, and growing. It’s all in there and it is all welcome at our table.

Grief is hard. So. Hard.

Please remember that the best way you can help your children through their grief is to get help for you. Remember the oxygen mask example - put yours on first so you can help others. Self-care, therapy and a tribe who understand and get you will go a long way to bringing you the love and support you need for this journey. You can find my contact information here on the site, reach out and I’ll answer you right away

You’ve got this mama. I believe in you.

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People Say The Strangest Things

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People can say the strangest things sometimes -- with and without good intentions.  Every griever has a collection of stories.

“I thought you would be better by now.”

“How long do you plan on being sad about this?”

“If it was me, I would sell my house and move as far away from here as possible. I don’t know how you do it facing that big house alone.”

I have my own collection of these stories:

“Hats off to you for still being alive - if it was me and I had just lost my husband, I would kill myself.”

And two weeks after my husband died, someone told me they were worried no one would be there to help them in case a bad thing happened in their life because I “had drained and exhausted the community of all of their helpful energy.”

All the obtuse, ridiculous, hurtful and plain old dumb things people have said. It’s hard to process these statements. They send you reeling from a new wound to the grief-bruised body you walk around in. Your anger might result in a dizzying replay of the comment and what you wish you’d said at that moment.  

And truly, these things are probably said with the best intentions - to try to help you feel better.  You know they don’t mean it.  You know they love you.  But they said it!

The plain fact is our culture doesn’t do grief well.  We have no social container to hold sorrow and grieving pain with care and compassion on a large, collective scale.  We’re not gifted with the language and shared experiences of mourning to help us interact with care for one another.  Which means people stumble.  A lot.

You Must Save Yourself

Speak your truth - sometimes you need to get the words out of your brain and your body. Go ahead and tell them their words were hurtful. And guard your boundaries - diligently! Call the doctor’s office back to let them know it wasn’t ok for the receptionist to tell you her personal history of loss when you checked in for your appointment.

Write a letter. Let your fingers fly across your keyboard, or push your pen without stopping.  Let your words say what you would never say face to face. This lets you own the pain while giving you the time and space to express what you need to. I recommend writing it out first to see if you feel better for purging on the page. Then burn it.

And you might need to block some peoples’ phone numbers. Or lock your door and pretend you’re not home when your silly neighbor comes calling. If those around you are causing you distress because of their ignorance or insensitivity - remove yourself from their presence. Think about firing people out of your life that can’t help you grow and adjust to your new reality.  

And Soothe Yourself

Part of your job now is to take the best care of yourself that you can. Something awful has happened in your life. You have lost someone you love dearly. Taking the best care of yourself is your full-time job now. Soak in a tub, spend time in nature, do yoga, or buy yourself fresh flowers. Treat yourself like a friend who is having a hard time.

When you do have a bad experience with someone - call your grief buddy. Having that reliable person you trust, who really listens to your story of pain and commiserates right at that moment, is healing.

If you don’t have a special person to support you, it’s time to reach out and find a new tribe to lean on! Join a local support group for grievers, or find an online group on Facebook. Connecting to those that understand through their own personal experience can make all the difference. And these fellow grievers are probably collecting their own list of stupid things people say.

Grievers are teachers - even if you don’t want to be. People will learn from you what to do and not do - what helps and what doesn’t. You are teaching the people around you about your unique needs/desires and ways of healing. Hopefully, people will take that forward in their lives when they interface with other grievers in the future.  Your job is to focus on what You need.  Get the help you need - through private counseling and support groups.


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Your Friend is Grieving - What Do You Say?

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You’ve just learned that your friend has lost their spouse, child, parent, sibling - and you’re devastated for them. Your first impulse is to call, or visit, right away so you can tell them...What? What can you possibly say at a time like this?

In fact, you feel like the words running around inside your head sound awkward, insensitive, and even a little detached. And while you struggle with the right words - time is passing and your sense of urgency to show up for your friend is growing along with your anxiety.

This is tricky to navigate for the closest family and friends, or any loving bystander.  The struggle to find comforting words is real.  We want them to know we love them and even loved the person they are now facing a life without.  

We just want to help.

So what can you say? Try these suggestions:

Say the name of the person they’ve lost.  “I miss Mike, Bobby, Sue or Sally.”

Grievers report that within days of their loved one's death - people around them stop referring to them by their name.

Say, “His life mattered and I will always remember when he…”

Gradually grievers stop hearing the funny stories and sweet memories of their loved one - and it becomes another loss to endure.  You can share stories, and what they meant to your life.  Grievers want to know how their loved one impacted the lives of others - to see the footprints they’ve left behind, and the influence they had on the world.

Say, “I can only imagine how you are feeling.”

This acknowledges a terrible truth and one that you can only imagine.  Be ready to hear about how their loss is affecting them. Hold back from the impulse to compare their pain to your own story of loss.  Their pain is different than your pain - it’s their own unique fingerprint of grief.  In time, they may invite you to share your own story, but for now -- let your grieving friend own the mic.

Say, “It’s ok to feel whatever you’re feeling,” and “I am sorry for your suffering.”

I hear from many grievers that this is a comforting way to be approached after a loss.  By acknowledging the suffering your friend is experiencing, you’re sharing in their loss.  You’re validating their deep sadness. Being present for them, allowing them to let it all come, however they’re experiencing it, is a great gift.

Your grieving friend will be feeling a lot of different things, at different times, simultaneously and in no particular order.  Because grieving is hard and confusing work, with the feelings coming in surprising waves and blasts.  It can come over the course of an hour, a moment or a day. Or the feelings can seem like a permanent, pain filled fixture in their lives.

The 5 stages of grief include denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance, but these stages don’t come in tidy, progressive steps.  The griever may be overwhelmed with sadness one minute and overcome with anger the next. Whatever they are feeling - they need validation and a safe place to be. 

Say, “You mean so much to me.”

This has been swirling inside your head ever since you heard their terrible news -- how much you care about your dear friend, and how painful it is to see them in so much pain.  So tell them that they matter to you, that you love them and will be there for them.  Anchor them with your love and remind them there is a whole community of people who care about them. These connections of love will make all the difference in light of their loss.

Say, “I want to help.”

There is a world of difference between saying this and saying “Let me know if there is anything I can do - anything at all.” The problem with the later is, no matter how heartfelt the offer, it’s a tricky thing for someone in grief to know what they want or need at any given moment - let alone looking around at the practical parts of their life.  Everything needs to be done, and nothing needs to be done all at the same time.  

Your willingness to just show up, watch and help with mundane or monumental tasks will make a huge difference but offer only what you’re truly ready to give and follow through.  

And sometimes, Silence.

The sad truth is, when you’re watching someone you love in the midst of grief, there really are no words that can bring total relief from the pain of loss.

Show up, bring your loving heart and sit in silence. Listen willingly for as long as they need your presence. Be ready to listen more than you speak. Join a support group to help those you love while they are healing from loss. Never underestimate the power of a loving companion for a grieving soul. 

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How To Get Through The Holidays While You Are Grieving

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The holidays can be an especially difficult time to navigate when you are grieving. Here are a few of my favorite ideas for creating peace and bringing comfort for this time.

Essential Advice:

BREATHE - wherever you are, whatever you are feeling or doing, take a moment to simply breathe. Be present to your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Encourage your breath to come slowly and deeply.

  • With each in-breath silently say the word Love and with each exhale silently say Peace.
  • When you feel especially stressed or overwhelmed by sorrow, practice the 4,7,8 breathing method. (breathe in to the count of 4, hold to the count of 7 and exhale to the count of 8). You can watch a tutorial of this method with Dr. Andrew Weil online.

10 Tips To Ease Grief During The Holidays 

  1. Keep it simple. If you regularly deck all the halls and host parties for the multitudes, this is a time to simplify. It is okay to cut back and give yourself permission to do only what feels the most meaningful.
  2. Practice self care every day. Take walks, exercise, eat well, indulge (mindfully), watch your favorite movies, take warm baths with epsom salts, splurge on new pajamas and comfy slippers. Giving to yourself is never selfish—it is vital to your ability to heal and be well.
  3. Communicate with your family and friends. Send a group email or letter letting everyone in your trusted circle know how they can help you. Maybe it is with decorating or cooking. Maybe you would like extra time in solitude or need their companionship each day. Maybe you need everyone to know and understand that this year you need to be able to change your mind about everything at the last minute. People in your life love you and want to support you. Communicating your needs and desires makes it easier for others to be there in a way that is actually helpful to you.
  4. Rest. Grief is exhausting work. Grief requires an enormous amount of emotional and physical energy. Honor your grief by resting as much as you need to, whenever you need to.
  5. Allow yourself your feelings, whether it is anger, sadness, intense grief, or laughter and mirth. Whatever you are feeling, it is okay—even if it doesn’t feel good. Allow the big grief waves to come and go. Remind yourself that all feelings are temporary. Allowing yourself to be present to your feelings helps your grief to move and transform.   
  6. Include those you are grieving in your celebrations. Set a place at the table for them with a candle and their picture. Donate to a cause they loved. Treat yourself to something they would have given you. Buy something for them that you would have bought them and donate it to a charity or give it to a friend. Set up an altar with their picture and sacred objects.
  7. Talk about your loved one. Your relationship with your loved one goes on. Talking about your memories of them is important. Find people who encourage you to share your memories and spend time with those folks.
  8. Surround yourself with the people who bring you peace: those that understand you, listen to you, and support you. You know who these people are because you feel uplifted and better after being in their presence. If you leave the company of others and feel extra exhausted and irritable, it may be a sign those are not the best people to spend your time with right now.
  9. Be in nature. Notice the trees, the water, the landscape around you and breathe in the fresh air. Being in nature can be a balm to the grieving heart. Allow the expansiveness of the sky to hold you and your hurts.
  10. Reach out for help if you are feeling overwhelmed. Find a grief counselor or join a support group that can help you as you are coping with the intensity of your feelings through this potent time.

I hope you find these ideas helpful. Please know I am here if you want to talk or would like my support as you move through this season.

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