Some of the most intimidating moments of parenthood are when we realize that our kids are looking to us to help them figure stuff out. Some of the most gratifying moments are when we realize how much fun it can be to make stuff up and string them along. Standing under the crescent moon and being asked, “Where did the rest of the moon go,” is the moment when you are invited to spin a tale about the giant intergalactic caterpillar with the voracious appetite. My own father and the dad from Calvin & Hobbes are my role models in this. Yet for everything there is a season. I am sure that, given the choice, we would all take more of these amusing moments and entirely skip the ones where our kids stand in real need but we are found at a real loss.
Grief is a universal human experience. Being born directly down the line from Adam and Eve means that through sin, death has spread to all of us (Rom 5:12-13). We live on a groaning planet and even we who are now children of God and heirs with Christ groan along with this world as we wait for the fullness of our adoption (Rom 8:15-25). Believing that this is true means knowing that, as families, we are going to face death for as long as we live. How can we help our kids ‘figure out’ grief?
These moments are more likely to be thrust upon us than chosen willingly. My wife Amy passed away after she was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with our third child. She lived to see his first birthday but died about a month later. Since then my kids have also had to grieve a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and an infant cousin. There is no reason to think that we are done.
How can we shepherd our families through death and grief? This is an especially apt question for those currently raising kids but almost all of us will at least have some influence with children. Whether our role is through family ties or friendships we can have a part to play. Let me be clear that I make no claim to expertise in this and am not trained in psychology or counselling. What follows is not meant to be a comprehensive statement that covers everything we need to know. What I am speaking from is a few things that have become clear to me from Scripture and from some good advice that my family has received.
The first and biggest thing to say is that we must face and utter our grief. God has made us to both feel and express, just as a teapot is made for tea to be both brewed and poured out. To know and sense and feel that God is glorious is not enough. Humankind must give voice to His praises. To feel love for someone that never finds its way to expression is to be heart-sick. Our Creator has made us to recognize and respond to our world and our circumstances. So when reality is swollen with woe, the right thing to do is grieve; that is, to feel sadness and to express it.
Scripture draws us to grieve through examples and direct calls. Remember that the Psalms are words that our God has given us to help us respond to the full spectrum of human experience. Among what we have been given are words like these:
I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. (Ps 6:6-7, ESV)
Jesus demonstrated such strong emotion himself at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11:28-37), as he looked over the stubborn city of Jerusalem (Mt 23:37-38), and in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46). When we are told in I Thessalonians 4:13 that we are not to “grieve as others who have no hope,” we are clearly being told to grieve but just in a particular manner. The command to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15) leaves no room for doubt. When you feel a reluctance to go into grief, for whatever reason, remember that our God is the One who is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18). In our grief, we will not be alone and we will not be crushed beyond the point where He can save us. The same stands ever true for our children.
The question is then: how we can do this as families? What follows are just a few points that have helped me and my family along.
- The kids are allowed to be upset whenever they happen to be upset. We say this out loud. It is a rule that we all follow. There is never a moment where they are not allowed to be sad, confused, angry, or whatever due of their grief. They can talk about their mom whenever they want but there are limitations to this. Circumstances and situations can place restraints on how this goes (for example, you can be sad but you still have to go to bed at a decent hour). Also, one person’s sadness is not allowed to dominate our total existence. There is a call to weep with the one weeping, but that one does not get to use their tears to bend the family to their own will. Expression does not equal unbridled explosion.
- If they are allowed to be upset, then so am I. The kids need to know that they do not need to hold it together all the time and there is probably not a better way to show this than by not holding it together all the time myself. Expressing my grief also gives than a model to follow and an opportunity for a release of their own as they join me. So I do not hide my grief or save all my tears for when the kids are not around. I tell them when I have been missing their mom and confess when I know that I have been ‘off’ with them because I have been upset.
- Draw them to face the loss. This is not about rubbing their nose in it or dragging them down. The point of this is be sure that your family members are facing reality as it is. Grief can build up, essentially undetected, until it bursts out fiercely. Especially close to the event, we need regular opportunities for appropriate release. There are lots of different ways to go about this but one of the advantages of ‘forcing’ these moments to happen is that they will happen when you are together. We must not leave our kids to mourn alone.
One way my family has done this is through somewhat regular visits to the cemetery. We picked a headstone that has two small stone planters so that we need to go regularly in the summer with water. In the interest of full disclosure, and to make sure you are not building up any false sentimental ideas, let me also say that we have never been able to keep the flowers alive through to the end of July! We also weigh down a large ziplock bag with some stones so the kids can leave cards and gifts made at school. We have a bin full of Amy’s things that the kids can get out and rifle through whenever they want. We had people write down memories of Amy on cards so that the kids could get an idea of what their mom was like to the many who loved her. If something reminds you of the person you miss, say it out loud. And do so every single time.
- Sadness is encouraged. If a fantastic joke is told we are supposed to laugh. If an atrocity is committed we are supposed to be appalled. So if something sad has happened, we are supposed to mourn. How this looks for us is that when the kids come to tell me that they are sad because they are thinking about their mom the first thing I always say is: “Good. I’m glad you are feeling sad because a very sad thing has happened.” The extent of their grief is due to the depth of love they shared with their mom. The loss itself is not good but as the event itself cannot be simply erased, so our very human responses must not be ignored or swept aside.
- Grief is not allowed to be supreme. The difficult things are never the only things that are happening and the ugly things are never the only things that are true. The kids are allowed to be sad but they are not to stay there. While it is true that we have an enormous gap because their mom is gone, it is also true that it is a beautiful day outside. So I encourage them to have a right decent cry, but then I send them to get on a bike and to pedal as hard as they can until they can feel the air whipping past their faces and drawing out wind-tears. If there is a time for everything, there is no one thing that gets to be for all times. I do not let my kids ignore the dark things but I do not let them ignore the light because they are sad either.
- Point to other people. Finding other families or people who have had similar losses will help to give your family perspective. It helps to know that you are not the only ones. Another possibility is pointing to people that your family ‘knows’ from fiction. You may be surprised when you start thinking through how many children’s books and movies have their main characters suffering the loss of very close loved ones. The point is not to say: “It worked out in the end for Nemo…so maybe it will for us too!” The point is that it is helpful and healthy to be able to relate our feelings with someone else. In fact, it has been good for my family to be reminded that it is only in a part of the world like Canada where young kids losing their mother to death can be looked at as such a surprising thing.
- Be limited. Especially if the grief is particularly overwhelming for yourself, realise that you likely need to call in some help. Maybe you will need help to face your own grief. It could be that you need help to deal with the levels and expressions of grief in your kids. It may also be that you just need help in getting through some day to day stuff. You need space to grieve but your kids will also need their lunches packed and their laundry done. Guiding your family through grief does not involve becoming anything other than the limited human you are. Refusing to be everything your kids need will remind them that they need to look to someone bigger than you. Letting yourself off the hook for being the all-in-all for your family will remind you that you need to look to this same God. Either you are God, or you are in need of God.
A young child may look up at the crescent in the night sky and wonder where the rest of the moon went. The knowing parent, who is out to actually answer the question, can explain that the entire moon is always there but that we cannot see the part which is in a shadow. The fact that we cannot always see the full shining glory of God does not mean that it has come untrue. What we are able to see is never the full measure of what is truly there. While in the grief, remind yourself and your family that sections of our path through this life are going to be in the shadow. Mourn for the darkness but point to the tiniest arc of silver, or even to the dimmest glow behind the clouds, for it stands as a testimony to a full and smiling sphere of light.