Understanding Your Kids When Someone Close Passes On
A few weeks ago my Father, aka Big Daddy, “graduated from the school of life with honors”, as I refer to it. He was quietly a remarkable man who raised four successful kids, surviving the death of his oldest son 36 years ago, and continuing to live with honor, dignity and integrity. After living with Cancer for 13 years and having a few health scares over that time, my family and I were somewhat prepared for his mortality, and when his body was too tired from his long and graceful fight, we knew it was time for him to go.
We each will experience our grieving process, as adults, but what about our kids? While there are certain expected phases to the grieving process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, not everyone will go through this process the same way, and the duration of this process will vary. Kids also experience grief, however, the way they experience emotions will likely not be the same way you do.
Acknowledging the Truth
My daughter is a precocious five year-old in some ways and in other ways all of five years old. When I knew I had to leave to try to see my Dad before he “graduated from life” I told my daughter, with tears in my eyes, that Bid Daddy was sick and may not live through this, knowing that she would not fully understand. When I was trying to tell her about “Big Daddy”, she understood that something not good was going on, and she was trying to change the subject, kept turning away, and then grabbed my face to try to make me laugh. It was clear that she was feeling upset, and my daughter does not like to cry. Instead, she will do things to distract, be funny, change the subject… It is very important to know how your child responds to emotions and to not expect them to behave like you do.
After my Dad’s death, I had hoped to be able to come home from Tucson and talk with her together with my wife about what happened, but because of some family events that occurred my wife had to tell her. That was okay with me, as life often happens when you are making plans, and my wife did a masterful job with this discussion. Sometimes in life, things don’t happen as we want them to and you may have to make do with what you have. Don’t expect to be able to control what happens or to control how your child behaves, especially when it comes to the death of loved one.
When I came back home, we talked. I asked her how she was feeling and she said she felt sad, she then asked, “What happened?” I told her that Big Daddy had been sick for a while, and his body was tired and it wore out. He lived a long life and we would always have our memories. I said that Mommy and I were not sick and expected to be here for her through the years, but I stopped short of making promises I know I couldn’t keep. Over the past few weeks, we continue to ask how she is feeling about Big Daddy about every third day, and she often says she feels sad, and I let her know that whatever she is feeling is okay. I want her to know it is okay to talk about the situation and her emotions.
Celebrating A Life
A few days after my Dad died, we, as a family, got together on Skype (for those who could not be there), ate pizza together and told funny and heart-warming stories about my Dad. My daughter was part of that. I wanted her to tell stories about the things that they did and see that when someone moves on in life, we can celebrate their life and each determine how they are remembered. We all laughed together and celebrated his life and our lives with him, instead of his death. One can argue that this was easy for us, because my Dad lived a long full life, but I can also say that when I was eight and my brother died, we all did the same thing with his friends, which made some very difficult days easier to handle. For me, no matter how long or short a life is, I feel blessed to have been graced with that person’s presence. I want my daughter to also be exposed to that view, as well as honoring the views of others.
What I also told her is that Big Daddy will always be around us and in our hearts and memories. We won’t have to use the phone to talk to him either. We may not be able to hear his answers, but know that he is listening to us. My daughter also never ceases to amaze me. The other day we were talking to my Mom on the phone, and Grace was there and says to my Mom, “Mumsy I’m sorry that Big Daddy died. We miss him a lot. He was a very, very special special man to your son.” My wife and I looked at each other and picked each other’s jaws off the floor and saw even deeper into her brilliant little soul. And last night at dinner she commented in her dinner prayer about Big Daddy. Sometimes your kids will have some of the most profound words of wisdom. Listen and acknowledge them. Don’t dismiss these moments.
The Emotional Roller Coaster
In the last week, many of those who care for our daughter have noticed her behavior being more distracted and escalating lately. Kids (and adults) often regress emotionally and behaviorally when under stress. This type of behavior is not uncommon, but often when parents are in the middle of their own grief, they miss their child’s behaviors as a symptom of grief as to why their child is misbehaving and punish them, sometimes further squashing their child’s processing of grief.
When we realized this behavioral trend in the last few days, I took another opportunity to ask her how she felt about Big Daddy and if she knew why she was making the choices she was making. She said, once again that she felt sad that Big Daddy died and that was why she was behaving like she was. Almost just as quickly, she changed the subject and wanted to talk about something else. But even then a few minutes later, she wanted my wife to get her dressed for school, seeming to push me away. I still got her dressed, because it was my day to do that, and just as quickly, she moved through that and was off and running. If your kids need to tell you a thousand times that they feel sad, let that be okay. However, if it their behavior continues to get more disruptive and complicated, ask for help from a professional.
The Tip Sheet
- It is important after a death to re-establish structure and stability. Kids respond much better to this. If everyone’s world falls apart and there is no structure, this can feel scary to kids and they may act up even more.
- Know that your children’s reactions are often not because of you. You are still responsible for your actions. Don’t blame your and their actions on others, but help them understand that grief may be a reason for their behaviors.
- If you do “lose your cool” with your kids regardless of their behavior, take responsibility for it and make efforts to change it.
- When you talk to your kids about their emotions, especially around death, don’t expect them to answer you when you want or how you want.
- Know that your kids are having a hard time understanding their emotions and what death means to them and others.
- Know that your grief is not their grief.
- I feel glad that my daughter saw my tears and knew that I felt sad and felt loss. This is part of being human, but don’t lean on them for emotional support. While it is important that they know how you are feeling, they shouldn’t be expected to take care of you.
- While it is important to keep the memories of that person alive, don’t use that person who has passed as someone who is going to know everything they do and think poorly of them if they misbehave.
- Most importantly, be aware to give your kids and yourself time to process their grief, their way and you your way.
There is an unspoken wisdom to grief. It is a process that allows us to work through transitions in life, and the emotions that we experience are necessary and vital to this process, however we may experience them. My daughter will continue to work through this change in her relationship with her Big Daddy, and I look forward to being there to help her with it. She has already been a great help to me.
Through the grieving process, keep in mind that your child’s soul may be much older and wiser than you think… Listen carefully. I love you Grace. You inspire me.
Erik Fisher is a licensed psychologist, author, and contributing correspondent on The Better Show. Dr. E has also been featured NBC, CBS and FOX, and is a regular expert on CNN. Visit him at www.DrEPresents.com.