Families are changing. We’re combining existing families, adding more children to the mix, foster children, adopted children, step-children and biological children. When these families split up, these deep connections are often not recognized. I spoke to a woman last week who told me that she was not allowed family leave to go to her former step-mother’s funeral because she was no longer considered immediate family. Divorce between two adults doesn’t change the relationship between the step-parents and the children, or it shouldn’t. I’m still very close to my step-children. I will never lose that bond with them. Once I love someone, I love them forever, though that love may change some, and those family connections and history are important.
We often discount or trivialize the feelings of children. When my granddaughter was a year and a half, her mother died. She and her dad were living with us at the time, and she didn’t see her mother often due to the struggles her mom endured. The morning of her mother’s death, she woke up crying, and cried for a few hours. Nothing would soothe her, and we were confused and anxious. What could be wrong? Once we got the phone call about her mother, we understood. Somehow, on an organic level, this small child knew that her mother was gone. After that, she often played a game she called “dead mommy.” She would get her friends to pretend with her that their mom had died and they all went to live with their “Nana.” Her preschool called me, and I called a child psychologist friend to ask for advice. This professional told me that she works very hard to try to get children to play those games to assist in their healing process. Somehow, instinctively, my granddaughter knew how to heal herself.
It’s important to acknowledge the loss. It’s okay for them to see you cry, if you’re not out of control. Tears are important and are part of our healing process. Like the other things we model for our children, we need to model the healthy expression of emotions, too. We also need to talk about the person we’ve lost, the things we loved, the things we miss and even the annoying things. Those are all parts of our experience and shouldn’t be denied. Our children need our help in learning how to process loss. If we ignore it, it may come rushing back at some later time. You can encourage your children to draw pictures, tell stories and ask questions. I like to pull out photos of time together and ask, “Do you remember when we did this?” It often opens up a door to lots more memories.
Creating a memory book or box is a great place to start. I'll be doing this with my grandchildren to help them remember their grandfather.
Another important thing I have learned is that death and birth are very closely related in terms of the huge emotions and changes. People bring meals to new parents but not to grieving family members. A meal train for a family who has lost someone close to them is always a good idea. When I have lost people close to me, I've often forgotten to eat and, although friends asked to help out, I didn’t know what help I needed.