A Death in the Family

How do you explain death to a child?

My uncle recently passed away after his health had been declining for a while. He was a wonderful man, and an amazing uncle who was an important part of my life, but knowing that he is no longer in pain gives me some peace.

My boys had met and visited their great uncle a handful of times. Twice this past year. When I realized my uncle didn’t have long to live I let the boys know. My oldest said, “That’s sad.” My youngest had a much stronger reaction. “He’s going to die?” His eyes watered as he began to cry. After a few minutes he said, “I didn’t think I would experience death this early.” We talked about my uncle and I explained that it was okay to cry, normal to cry, but to remember the good life my uncle had had, and how lucky we were for knowing him. It seemed to ease my son’s pain, but I knew his tears were a combination of both my uncle’s passing and the realization that everyone will eventually die. It’s hard to come to terms with that when you’re young. I remember having a similar realization around his age and how sad, angry and scared it made me.

Death is hard to explain. Grieving is unique to the individual and situation. I hope my son doesn’t dwell on death, and his loved ones mortality, but do hope he’ll share how he’s experiencing and processing the loss of this loved family member so we can help him work through his grieving.

How have you helped your child work through the pain and emotions of losing a loved one?

Fireside Chat

Where do you have your best conversations with your child?

On a camping trip my husband and my older son decided they wanted to hike a trail not far from our camping site. We had just finished a different hike and my younger son and I were happy to sit by the fire and relax. After sitting by the fire for a few minutes, I could see my son was thinking about something. “What are you thinking about?” I asked. I thought he might reply, “nothing” or that he was reflecting on the day. Instead he said, “I’m thinking about life.” He paused, “And what the point of it is.”

Our earlier hike had taken us to a military cemetery where service and family members were buried. There was a large section of infants and young children in the cemetery and I had wondered, as we’d looked at some of the headstones, how the kids might be impacted by seeing so many lives lost so young. The experience reminded my son of two of his peers who have passed. A classmate from pre-school who died of cancer, and an elementary classmate who died from drowning. As a parent, both of these children’s deaths had shaken me to my core and reminded me how fragile life is. In both cases, I grieved desperately for the parents and what they must be going through, and was so grateful my boys were healthy and alive. I never knew if my son really grasped the finality of either death and the feelings that go along with it.

My son continued, “I think of my friends. They didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t understand why what happened to them had to happen to them.” He was tearing up. “They didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It’s one of the hardest things to understand in life — why bad things happen. Especially when it’s to good people or small children who haven’t had a chance to even truly experience life.” I paused. “You’ll never be able to make sense when these things happen. Life’s just that way. Sometimes bad things happen. I think their deaths are reminders of the gift we’ve been given — life. It’s a reminder to not take it for granted. To recognize the beauty around us, and to help others see it too.” I’d gotten his attention. “I miss them,” he said. “I know,” I said, “You’ll never forget them. They’ll always be with you. The hardest part is knowing they’re not here and that you won’t have new memories with them. But you can live for them and the lives they didn’t get to live. You just have to see what’s around you and appreciate it for however long you have on this Earth.” I knew what I was saying was a bit heavy, but he seemed to take it in and embrace it. Being in a nature setting while having this discussion really helped. I finished my thought with my son, “You know you show beauty often to others in how you treat them. You’re gift is kindness and happiness. You accept people as they are, where they are. That’s a gift. I hope you always remember that. Lots of people need people like you in their life. You might be the beauty in life they need to see.” He smiled. I used to smile too, when my father gave me insights about myself. There was something magical about being able to carry on the tradition with my son. “Life is hard sometimes. Life can be confusing and sometimes make you sad or angry, but the happiness will return. Just keep remembering to appreciate it, and treat it for what it is — a gift.”

My husband and older son walked into the campsite around this time. My younger son and I just sat there. “What have you been up to?” my husband asked. My younger son piped in, “We’ve been having a very important conversation. VERY IMPORTANT!” He gave me a knowing look. My husband caught my eye and I could almost read his mind — what exactly did you all talk about while we were away? In a way, I wish my husband had been there for the conversation, and my older son — it would have been a good conversation for us to have as a family — but if they had been there, maybe the conversation wouldn’t have happened, and I’m glad that it did.

Where do have your most meaningful conversations with your child?

 

Do Something

I am in disbelief that I blogged about gun violence only a month ago and we’ve already had another mass shooting. This has to end. As parents, we have to take a stand. We have to raise our voices. We have to protect our children. We have to do something.

Image result for gun statistics 2015

Join a community such as SandyHookPromise.org, or momsdemandaction.org, write to your senators and congressmen and women. Do something.

According to Everytownresearch.org at least 204 child shootings have occurred in 2015. More than two million American children live in homes with guns that are not stored safely and securely. The link to everytownresearch.org includes an interactive map that tracks every publicly reported incident in 2015 where a person age 17 or under unintentionally kills or injures someone with a gun.

Silence = Acceptance. We cannot accept this. For our own sakes, but more so our children’s and there’s to come.

I know you love your child as much as I do mine. Please join me and do something.

The End

We just finished reading the book My Dog Skip by Willie Morris. It is a touching story about a boy and his dog. I had seen the movie several years ago and thought our sons would enjoy it.

At the end of the book, the author speaks of Skip’s passing and how Skip is buried not under the elm tree, but in his heart. As I read the last two pages to my sons I reflected on pets I had had growing up, and one in particular that reminded me of Willie and his relationship with Skip. Socks was my cat of 18 years when she passed. I had had her since I was 11 years old. She was a member of the family, gave unconditional love, seemed to be attuned to my feelings (showing great empathy and sympathy), and has been solely missed since her passing.

As I read the last few pages of My Dog Skip, my voice cracked and tears came to my eyes. I tried to hold the tears back, taking deep breaths and pausing, but it didn’t work. I cried and my kids saw it.

My kids asked, “Are you crying?” to which I replied, “Yes, because it’s sad.” They both looked at me quizzically for a moment. It was the first time they had seen their mom cry openly in front of them, tears of sadness. Prior I had only shared tears of joy. I continued to read the last few sentences, trying but failing to hide my feelings. When I said “The End” my oldest son burst into tears, and continued crying. My husband and I tried to console him. At first I thought he was crying because I had been crying, but soon understood that he was crying because my crying confirmed what the book told us. Skip was dead.

I believe this is the first time my son grasped that things don’t live forever. It’s a hard concept to understand as a child. He started to understand that we all will die one day, even him. He was very upset that my husband and I would die one day. I know I felt the same way at the idea of losing my parents as a child, and still get teary-eyed thinking about that happening in the future. It’s inevitable, but I still doesn’t make it any easier.

What struck my husband and I about what occurred was how we handled the situation. First I attempted to talk to my son about death. I didn’t try to sugarcoat it or promise that it wouldn’t happen for a long time, but reminded him that life is a gift, that we need to take steps to try to live as long as possible eating healthy things, exercising and being safe, but we also need to figure out how to enjoy it while we’re here. I explained that we have to treasure the time we have together and work to make the most of it while we have it together. He seemed to understand all that I was saying, but it didn’t stop the crying. It was upsetting to see him this way, and a part of me wanted to say whatever was needed to get him back to a calm or happy state, but I recognized the importance of the discussion we were having.

At one point, my son got angry with himself for continuing to cry and said, “I can’t wait until I’m older and braver.” “Why do you say that?” I asked. “Because I’ll be braver, and won’t cry so easily.” I reminded him that Mom is much older and still cries. He seemed to think about this for a minute as if understanding it might be okay to feel his emotions as he grew older. What a great moment to be a part of.

My husband sat with my son following me and talked to my son about death. After a while, and seeing that continuing to talk about death was only going to lengthen the time our son was crying, he tried to turn the subject to happier things, upcoming trips we have planned, and making breakfast in the morning. While it didn’t completely work, we knew we needed to give our son some time to work through his newfound knowledge and feelings in his own way.

It wasn’t easy, but was necessary.

As a parent, we all want to make our child happy and hate to see them upset. A typical reaction is to help your child “get over” the negative feeling and push them back into a positive one, but that comes at an expense of your child missing the opportunity to gain a needed tool to deal with negative emotions as they get older. Being able to help your child feel the negative feeling and work through it is a powerful tool we can provide. It might not feel comfortable for us as parents, but many things about being a parent aren’t.

It’s good to cry, it’s good to show our kids we all experience feelings, even the hard ones as adults. It makes us vulnerable to each other. It makes our bonds stronger while we’re here on earth and beyond “The End.”

How do you help your child experience their emotions? How have you helped your child deal with the death of a loved one?