I have been thinking about writing something around helping children with grief and the need was cemented for me when a mom reached out specifically asking about this subject. I think about it a lot – how to help Murray with his grief. It can be really tough to know what to do and how to assist him, especially when you are feeling depleted yourself, unable to actually even comprehend your own feelings.
In writing this I reached out to other moms who have lost children and asked them to share ideas in terms of how they have helped their other child/children in their grieving. So this is a joint effort. There isn’t a neat little handbook which lays things out specifically and its going to be very child dependent as well, but here are a few pointers which might come in useful at some stage. Also, all the advice here is geared towards smaller children, rather than teenagers.
Some of the specific things that have helped are:
- Play therapy, and me being included in some of the sessions so that we are all using the same language and approach. This space has been invaluable for all of us in helping Murray to work through his feelings, have a safe space to verbalise things, and for us to address things which he may find really difficult to comprehend. He sometimes finds the sessions very tiring and doesn’t like the part where we reflect on his feelings over the last few days but I have noticed a big difference in his ability to “name” his feelings, talk about them and better control them. It should be noted that generally children don’t start play therapy younger than 4 years of age.
- Murray loves to read so books have also been useful. Books like the Invisible String, Water Bugs and Dragon Flies and the Sad Book by Michael Rosen are just some of them. Kate Polley has also created an amazing personalized book following the loss of one of her twins Sam, and this can be viewed and ordered here. https://www.personalisedchildlossbook.com/
- Having the school and therapists etc all in touch and everybody fully up to speed/on the same page and communicating around this. This really helps to create a safe space for your child and this feedback from different areas is also very useful for you as a parent.
- All questions that Murray asks I try to answer as openly, simply and honestly as possible. I never lie to him. He knows that nothing is out of bounds and that he can talk about his siblings whenever he likes. I grew up being scared of asking about my mom because I didn’t want to upset anyone, and I don’t want that to be the case for him. When he does want to talk about them, look at pictures etc I grab onto that moment and let him express himself, even though for me it might be super hard
- We told him his brother and sister went to heaven which is an intangible thing for him (all of us really), so I have spent a lot of time helping him understand this and answering his questions which can be really tough. He wants to know what heaven is, how it looks, who goes there, where it is, why he cant go there etc. We have told him that he is connected to his brother and sister through his “invisible string” (from the book), and that he can talk to them any time, even though they cant answer him.
- “Grabbing the moments” – when they start a vulnerable conversation, make every effort to make the most of what they are offering! Even if you are busy with something else, grab that moment with both hands as they are so important and don’t come around all that often. Make them know they will feel better for talking to you about their sibling because nobody knows the pain like the 3 of you do. And try not to make it a space which is too heavy, where they feel they don’t want to go there. Make it a happy, honest, “light” space.
- Having a special place that you can go to to be with your lost loved one can also be helpful. A bench, graveyard etc. And not to make this a dreaded place, but rather a place where you can feel calm and closer to your loved one.
I think as parents (well me anyway) we often become so worried about helping them with books, play therapy etc that we forget about our most powerful tool – our own well being – to help our children. This hit home to me when I went to go and get some help from a child psychologist with Murray after he was having some pretty hectic meltdowns. One of her first questions to me was, “What are you doing to help you?” and I remember being quite irritated by this because I wasn’t there to discuss myself, I was there to help Murray. She reminded me about how intuitive children are, and how much they pick up on their parents mental state, their feelings and cues. She said to me that the most important thing I could do for Murray is make sure I was taking care of myself physically and emotionally and this would have the biggest positive impact on him, more so that anything else. And she is so so right!
The one thing I have learnt without a doubt is how intuitive these little souls are. Its quite unbelievable. I often think that as long as we don’t talk about it in front of Murray, don’t cry in front of him, it will be okay and he wont know how broken we are. I couldn’t be more wrong!! These little souls pick up on the most sensitive things and are so in tune with their moms and dads particularly. Never underestimate them and the impact that your mental and emotional health has on them. A good example of this, which brought it home to me once again, is how much more settled and content Murray seems since we have put the whole surrogacy thing to rest. Even though he knew nothing about what we were pursuing, he certainly picked up on the shift for all of us and how much more present we are now able to be.
Another thing that I was reminded about by the same psychologist was not to push/project my grief onto Murray and assume that every meltdown was linked to the fact that his siblings had died. Sometimes he was actually just a little 4 year old who was overtired and being badly behaved. It is very hard to get that balance right between being sensitive towards them and the fact that they might be having a hard time, but then also giving them the boundaries that they need to feel safe and secure. Now more than ever before, they need caring, loving, safe, strict boundaries. Everything else in their life seems all over the place and so the boundaries need to remain firm to give them a good solid grounding. This as a grieving parent can be really tough to do as it takes real energy and engagement which you just might not feel up to, but it really does help in the long term.
I am so sorry that you as a parent are having to deal with all of these challenges, but I sincerely hope that this helps to give some guidance and light in a time that can sometimes feel very dark, overwhelming and lonely.