An older gentleman, a friend of the family, leaned down and patted my ten-year-old son on the shoulder. ‘It’s up to you to take care of your mother now,’ he said.
My son and I looked at each other- I shook my head slightly and gave him a little smile.
We had talked before the funeral about how well-meaning friends and family might say this to him, but I let him know that it wasn’t true.
‘I’m the mom,’ I told him. ‘It’s my job to take care of you and protect you. I promise I will do that and you are still a little boy who gets to be a little boy.’
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After a death or divorce, friends and family sometimes tell the oldest boy of the house, ‘You are the man of the house now.’ Although they have the best intentions, this isn’t what our little boys need to hear. It is important that we give them a sense of safety, and let them know that they don’t have to ‘be tough’ in that moment. They need to be able to grieve openly.
And how tragic would it be if, after losing a loved in death, or coping with a broken home, they lost their childhood as well?!
A childhood is something that can’t be replaced.
‘We don’t want our kids to become little therapists. They still need to be kids. The death or divorce will affect them enormously without the additional burden of growing up before their time.’ – John W. James and Russell Friedman, When Children Grieve
Here are just a few things that parents, friends, and family CAN do or say to help a child deal with either the death of a parent, or a separation/divorce:
Children need to be able to ask questions, so make sure you provide the opportunity for them to feel safe and comfortable asking anything. Don’t let the subject of death or divorce be off limits or taboo.
Be open about your own sadness. If we feel we need to grieve alone, they may think they need to grieve alone too. Be careful not to overwhelm them with your grief; as you express your anger and sadness, let them know that you will still take care of them.
‘We can survive this together. We are going to be okay.’
We want our children to grow up to be healthy, happy adults with good coping skills. Being honest is essential to that goal. Honesty is the foundation of trust. Our children need to be able to trust us completely.
“I’ve been thinking about Daddy a lot these days, and how he always used to make us laugh. I miss him, and I feel sad that he’s gone.”
A statement like this one accomplishes two things:
- It opens the way for the child to share his favorite memories.
- The adult mentioned how the loss makes her feel. By doing this, she shows the child that his emotions are okay to feel and share as well.
In the book quoted above, When Children Grieve, (which I highly recommend), there is a list of things not to say to the child. Here are two suggestions:
What not to say:
Don’t feel bad.
When we stub our toe, we shout Ow! (or maybe some other expletive). It is a completely natural and involuntary response. It wouldn’t help, or even make any sense for someone to say “Don’t feel bad!”
Grieving a loss of any kind makes us feel bad. It’s a natural and involuntary reaction. But telling a child ‘Don’t feel bad. Grandma is in a better place,’ or ‘Don’t feel bad. We will be okay without Daddy living here,’ tells a child that avoiding or bypassing negative feelings will have positive results.
“It is appropriate for (children) to have sad, painful, or negative reactions to sad, painful, or negative events. If you tell your children not to feel what they feel, you are inadvertently suggesting that they should be in conflict with the truth and at odds with their own nature.” – John James/Russel Friedman
‘Be strong. It’s up to you to be the man of the house now.’
The idea of being strong, used in this way, implies that your child shouldn’t demonstrate how they feel about the loss, or perhaps that it is manly not to cry.
But honestly, real strength is the ability to demonstrate our emotions, and communicate how we feel. It is not a super-human ability to bury our feelings somewhere deep inside.
Grief is a long process, and we wish we could protect our children from ever going through it. But when loss has touched your lives, the hardest conversations are when we, as grieving parents, try to be emotionally supportive and help our children cope.
We may make mistakes along the way, and sometimes we might say the wrong things. But be open, be honest, and let your children be children for as long as you can.
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