October is Infant Loss Awareness Month. As we honor those children gone too soon, we often try to highlight these beautiful lives and remember them in a way that helps us shoulder some of the pain left behind. It’s a heavy burden to carry for any adult, but what about the smaller shoulders that try to carry the load? What about the siblings that live through the loss of a brother or sister? A mother or father? A grandparent or friend? A furry companion?
Loss is hard at any age and grief is not experienced the same in any two people. So how do we help our children gracefully navigate loss and disappointment?
How do we raise resilient children so that they may thrive even after the most heartbreaking of situations?
When our son passed away, we were forced to take on the responsibility of helping our children through their heartbreak while trying to deal with our own. We knew honesty and transparency were the best things we could offer them. We did not hide our grief, we answered questions bluntly and we didn’t judge each other’s ways of grieving. And when we hit rock bottom, we tried our best to laugh. Whether rock bottom was polishing off a pint with my new boyfriends, Ben & Jerry, or changing my daughters’ sheets every.single.night for months from bed-soaking night terrors, we tried to lighten the guilt and the shame in any way we could.
Because at the end of the day…there is no shame in grieving.
Though I pray that you don’t find yourself needing to employ any of the following, here are a few things that we have found to be very helpful in encouraging our kiddos to roll with some of the punches they’ve had to absorb.
Most children spend as many, if not more, hours at school as at home. It’s important to make connections with multiple people that have the best interest of your child at heart. We reached out to our school’s guidance counselor and teachers to ensure our girls had multiple people they knew cared about them and understood what they were going through. The simplest things; i.e. “How many siblings do you have?” now trigger panic. It ensured that our girls had a “safe spot” to give themselves a little space if they needed a minute to cry or take a break.
We used words that our girls understood without sugar-coating the hard parts. Though we discussed Heaven and angels and passing away, our 6-year-old needed to know that her brother died. He died. Period. He wasn’t “gone” or “sleeping.” He wouldn’t return to sleep in his crib ever again. Many articles and books about death gently discussed dying as “falling asleep forever.” This wording was confusing for our girls and they needed to know that when they went to bed at night, they didn’t have to fear that they wouldn’t wake up in the morning.
We didn’t keep secrets from our girls. If we got a bad diagnosis or report, they were the first ones we told. We were open with them that our newborn was fragile and could die at any moment. Catching a cold could kill him. However, as scary as that sounds, it actually comforted them. It reassured them that when we said it was okay for them to hold him; it really was. It certified that when we said he was breathing well; he really was. They knew when to be worried and when they could let that anxiety go. It gave them permission to relax and have fun and create lasting memories with their brother.
We were lucky enough to bring our baby home from the hospital, some aren’t that lucky. We were lucky enough to hold him, feed him, get to know him…these are huge blessings. I was lucky enough to carry him long enough that he could survive birth, while other mamas had to say goodbye to their babies before a viable birth date.
As much as it broke our hearts to lose him, we were sure to point out how the joy outweighed the pain. He changed our lives and with it, he changed our perspective. Positivity takes practice. We worked hard to help our children realize that sometimes we have to find joy, instead of waiting for it to find us.
Difficult issues and emotions become 12,000 lb. pachyderms when neglected and left to wander. We tried to help relieve the “elephant in the room” by communicating our needs. We helped our girls practice a simple line they could recite whenever they felt uncomfortable: “Thanks for your support, but I’d rather not talk about it right now.” This allowed the elephant to be addressed so that comfortable “normal” conversation could come back to their relationships.
Our family has a long way to go in the healing process, but we’ve learned to be compassionate with each other. When our youngest makes callous remarks, the rest of us understand her grief is different than ours. If our middle has a rough day, we understand that maybe she needs a little time alone to decompress. When our oldest tries to perfect everything she touches, we remind her that we are all a work in progress and that even in flaw there is great beauty.
We’ve become more forgiving of each other and compassionate towards each other’s needs. We’ve learned that we can [and will] get through anything life throws our way. We’ve realized that even with great loss, there is great gain: resilient strength.