Parenting

How to Talk to Your Children About Grief, Loss, and Death

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My husband died when my children were three and five years old. I realize that’s a sudden and abrupt way to start, but it happened to us very suddenly and abruptly, and I’ve rarely found a way to ease into that introduction.

Death came to our home in only twelve hours. Emergency room doctors diagnosed the flu, but it masked an infection in Robb’s blood stream. My husband was 35 and healthy, so very much here, and he died the next morning in our bedroom, two days before Christmas, 2010. My children slept in their beds while my husband’s spirit slipped through my fingers. I became a widowed single mom, 31 years old, with two children not yet in kindergarten. It has been as bad as it sounds.

Nearly five years later, my guys are now eight and ten years old. I have dated but I haven’t remarried, so we’ve become a rock-solid trio in a lifeboat big enough for three. We’ve been putting our pieces together, building a life out of meals and days and conversations, and sometimes the things we talk about are among the truest, most honest and raw topics and questions. Because that’s the way of death. It is true, honest, and raw, and I have learned that I must teach my children to talk about it if they will someday grow into men who can tell their own stories.

Here are a few things I know about talking to your children about grief, loss, and death:

They can handle the conversation. You can trust a human being with conversations about death, even small children who shouldn’t have to understand what it is. Let them talk, let them ask their questions, and allow them to say what they need to say. Healing comes in telling the stories a thousand times.

Let them process differently. When my boys were very small, their understanding of our family’s heartbreak came out in their play. My son lined up his matchbox cars on the kitchen floor, pairing them off as little married matchbox-car-couples, except for one little red car who parked alone “because her husband died.” For a long time, while other children played House or School, my children played a game called Daddy is Dying. A child’s work is his play. Children will put together the pieces of their world, broken or whole, when we let them work it out with their hands, words, and imaginations.

Be ready to talk. For us, the most potent and poignant conversations tend to happen in fleeting moments I wouldn’t have chosen. They ask me questions when we’re in the produce section at the grocery store, in the car on the way to school, and during commercial breaks when we’re watching TV. It’s very intermittent. I have learned to be ready to pick up the baton of conversation when my son hands it to me, but I must also be willing to set it down just as quickly when he’s finished.

You don’t have to know the answers. There is an unspeakable trust and intimacy between my boys and me, and I think it is in part due to the vulnerability I’ve been willing to show them. If I made up answers to the hard questions they have about the life we wanted but we don’t have with the man we miss every single day, they would only realize I’m bluffing, and they would ultimately stop trusting me and stop talking to me. I have been honest when I don’t know the answers, when the theology of loss is too much to wrap my mind around, when my heart hurts too much to make sense of any of this. You can teach your child a whole lot about maturity and honesty when you can openly say, “I wish I knew the answer, my love. I really wish I did. But I’m so proud of you for asking big and important things. Your thoughts show me how brave you are.”

Reassure them. “Mommy, who will take care of us when you die?” For months, my children asked me this question every single night at bedtime. Their dad died while they were sleeping, so they approached bedtime with a real fear that I would die. Each night, we talked through the plan. I promised them I planned to sleep well and wake up in the morning, and then together we listed grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who would take care of them in case anything happened to me. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “You’re safe,” and sometimes it’s good to say, “Here’s what we’ll do so that you always are safe.” Reassurance is everything, and even a plan for the worst can help everybody sleep better at night.

Talk to your children about what they’ve lost. They’re waiting to hear your voice.

I’ve lived the widowed life on the pages of my blog and two memoirs I’ve written — And Life Comes Back: A Wife’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope Reclaimed, and Let’s Pretend We’re Normal: Adventures in Rediscovering How To Be A Family. I’d love to share our story with you, that you may find courage to do the next thing on the path in front of you. Because that’s the only thing you ever must do: this very next thing.