Almost three months ago, my two older sons were in the car with me when I got the call from my mom that my dad had died.
It was a call I had always feared but had worried it was coming in the weeks before I got it. My dad had had some complications and had been in the hospital for a few weeks with a few worrisome days here and there. I had prepared myself in the event that he might die and we had talked to the kids about him being sick but nothing at all can truly prepare you for the loss of a loved one. We navigated the grief blindly and tried to guide our children through it as well.
It’s so hard-children live in the here and now, so the idea of being permanently gone is foreign to them. It’s shocking and scary and just like everything else in their lives, they will look to you for guidance.
Answer Questions They Have
My son had a lot of questions when we sat down to talk about Pop Pop. In our situation, we had already had a few chats about my dad being in the hospital and he had asked about death so our conversation was less about death and more about the specifics. I answered all of his questions briefly-staying honest with him but sparing him the details that a 7 year old just doesn’t need. He wanted to know what would happen to Grandma, if there’s a way we could still visit Pop Pop and the age old question of where you go when you die. Answer to the best of your ability, in basic terms. If you don’t know the answer to something, it’s ok to say that you don’t know.
Be Open About Your Own Grief
The best thing you can do when you and your child are both grieving is to let your feelings out as they come. Don’t try to be strong for your child’s sake, they are looking to you to see how to deal with their own grief.
Let Them Say Goodbye
At my dad’s funeral, my aunt (by marriage) told me a story that broke my heart and pushed me to make sure my son felt the closure he needed. She said that her mother had died when she was little and that her family didn’t tell her for a long time. She told me that it still bothers her today that they didn’t bring her to her mother’s funeral and let her have the closure she needed. That struck a chord in me. We brought all three of our kids to the funeral but I made sure to ask my oldest son if he needed his own way to say goodbye. He thought it might be nice to have something in our home that he could look at when he felt sad, and so we made a wooden sign with a quote from my dad for just that reason.
Reassure Them When They’re Scared
I have had many conversations with my son about death since we lost my dad. He has a lot of questions about it but one fear has come up in each conversation: his own death. He was scared because he didn’t want to die like his Pop Pop did. Some kids become scared of ghosts or just the insecurity of not having that person around. Reassure them that they’re ok. I told my son that we all die eventually but that he is still young and should enjoy each day.
Share Favorite Memories
One of the best ways to handle grief is to remember happy times with the person you are missing. Tell your child stories they may not know about the person they are grieving. For me, I love to tell my kids stories of when I was a little girl growing up with my dad. I love to tell my boys about how outrageously proud my dad was of being a Pop Pop. The moment my dad first met my oldest and looked at me to say “This is so cool”. The smile on my son’s face when I told him that story was priceless. Talk about your grief but also talk about happiness, funny stories and memories to remember.
Hugs really can help. Quiet hugs, crying hugs, laughing hugs. And if all else fails, go out for ice cream too.