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When I learned that my wife Leslie was dying of complications due to metastatic cancer, one of the first things that went through my mind was, “How am I going to tell the kids?”
Something I remember feeling incredibly blessed by was the opportunity to discuss it with my wife as a couple before she actually passed. I know not everyone gets that chance. It’s nothing anybody ever wants to discuss as a couple, let alone with their children.
And I Googled it, of course. Neither my wife nor I were psychologists, and I know every time we’d had to break bad news to the kids prior I kept worrying I’d somehow screw them up permanently. I didn’t want to do it wrong. Kids are strong and resilient, and kids will surprise you, but still …
Everything I found and read was very general: Be honest. Approach it with love. That sort of thing. And that helped. Sort of. Those things are really important, I just think what I was expecting to find was some sort of step-by-step, doctor-approved method for talking to my kids about death. I’m just not sure something like that can exist, because every kid is so different.
I think there are some slightly less general, hopefully more helpful bits of advice to help you through the process. These are the things that I did when I spoke to my kids about their mom, but really it could apply to any loved one. Whether it’s a parent, a friend, or a goldfish … grief isn’t a competition. If you’ve loved and lost, it all hurts.
So I think the first thing that I’d tell you is: Know your child. I mean that in the way that people advise comedians or public speakers to “know your audience.”
Nobody can tell you the exact right thing to say (the way I hoped they could) because nobody knows your child like you know your child. Your approach to the same message may be completely different with each different child. It certainly was with me and mine. Tailor that message to the child.
My oldest, Emma (13), seems very worldly. She’s sarcastic and sharp-witted, but simultaneously so sensitive. The sarcasm is a mask she wears to look like her father, but the sensitivity is the person she hides under the mask. My message to her was more complicated: a little inspiration, a little blunt truth, and even a little humor. I know it probably sounds weird, but you’d have to know Emma, I guess.
I was expecting to find was some sort of step-by-step, doctor-approved method for talking to my kids about death.
My youngest, Lily (9), is autistic and seems so innocent. My ability to understand what she knows is limited by my inability to effectively communicate with her. My approach to talking to Lily was very different than my approach with Emma. I kept the language simple. I kept the message direct. I tried to steer clear of metaphors that I thought would just confuse her.
Now comes the harder part: knowing how you intend to talk to your child.
With Emma particularly, there were a lot of things we wanted to say to her about her mom passing. And one of the most important things to her mother was that Emma not be angry with God. God was very important to my wife.
She leaned very heavily on religion in the end, and felt strongly that it was only because of God’s steadying influence that she was able to make it as far as she had. I needed Emma to know that. I needed Emma to know how important it was to her mother.
In the end, I had notes for my talk with Emma. I literally rehearsed them…not because I planned on giving her a rehearsed spiel, but because there were 4 or 5 points that Leslie and I had agreed we needed her to understand, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget any of them.
These were things that were important to Leslie and me, things that she needed Emma to know:
- I never stopped fighting.
- We didn’t know this was terminal. We never hid the truth from you.
- God helped me through this, I love God and He has helped stay me strong. I want you to love Him too so that He can help you through this, the way He has helped me.
- My love, spirit, and memory will always be with you. They will never be gone from your life, even though my body is.
- We need to love each other and be strong for each other as a family. This will not break us.
I know the message will change from person-to-person, from parent (or guardian) to child, but having a clear idea of what I planned to say helped keep me from babbling endlessly, trying to soothe away feelings with the sheer volume of my words.
Because that’s what happens. Or at least it happened to me. I found myself trying to explain it until the hurt went away, and you just … can’t.
I remember also how the priest came in and said words over Leslie, and despite not being particularly religious myself, I found myself comforted that here, at least, was someone who “knew what to do.” And I think that’s why knowing your message is so important. If nothing else, it’s reassuring that despite the loss, it seems like you know what to do next.
I found myself trying to explain it until the hurt went away, and you just … can’t.
You can’t talk the sad away, but you can at least control the message.
You can at least make it “not worse.” I think it’s understood that you can’t make the loss of a loved one any better by explaining it away, yet I found myself trying anyway. I was trying so hard to just keep talking until my kids could see that everything was going to be alright, and trying to make them not be so sad.
And when I realized I was doing that, I checked myself. No matter how amazing your message is, no matter how well-attuned you are to your child’s needs, the end result requires a lot of time and a lot of processing. You can’t make it better, but you can at least make sure that your child understands they are not in this alone and that it won’t break your family.
Talk about everything. Be open. Cry.
I thought a lot about the sort of person I wanted my kids to see grieving for their mother, because I think people, maybe men in particular, feel like they need to present a strong exterior. And I don’t know that that’s necessarily right.
I wanted my kids to know that our family was strong, but I also wanted them to know how much I loved their mother. I wanted them to know how much I would miss her. I wanted them to know that the things they were feeling I was also feeling. I wanted them not to see sorrow as weakness. I wanted them to see it as the natural result of loss. I didn’t want them ever to think it didn’t hurt me. I didn’t ever want them to think I didn’t care. I wanted them to know I loved their mother and I loved them. I wanted them to know it was okay to cry. That that’s what you do when someone you love passes.
These are all things that I did leading up to Leslie’s death, and when she died. But I feel like they are sort of half the story. Other things are just things that you have to keep up with. Maintenance. They aren’t easier, although I think with time and practice they can be. But I think they’re as important, if not more so, than that initial discussion.
At bedtime I would ask Emma how she was. I’m sure she got bored or irritated with it. But more than that, I would tell her how I was.
There were a lot of things about grieving that surprised me. For example, sometimes I found that when I was very sad, I felt good about it. Like feeling sad meant I was grieving “right.”
Conversely, I found that when I had a good day, I felt guilty about it. Like I was forgetting, or over it. I talked to Emma about this. I asked her if she’d noticed that. By first opening up to her about these weird feelings, I think it helped her respond with her own.
I found that when I was very sad, I felt good about it. Like feeling sad meant I was grieving “right.”
And I would pick and choose the moments. Some days I wanted to get a feel for how the kids were doing. But if they were having a fun day, I wouldn’t want to switch to that particular gear. Again, you know your child. I think the important thing is that by opening up about how you’re feeling, you make it more likely that your child will open up with you about what they are feeling.
I find I’m at my saddest when I imagine all of the parts of our daughters’ lives that Leslie will never get to see.
The first dates, the graduation ceremonies, the weddings — when I think of those missed opportunities it just seems so unfair. And so sad. And there’s really no silver lining to that sort of thinking.
When I think instead about the happy memories I had with Leslie, I’m still sad, but it’s a sweet sort of sadness. It doesn’t feel self-pitying. It allows me to remember Leslie and mourn her loss, but still feel blessed to have had the chance to know her.
That’s what I tell my kids to focus on. I never censor their grief. I never tell them not to think about the things that are making them sad, but I do offer them the alternative: When you think about Mommy, try to focus less on what she missed or will miss, and think more about all the good stuff that you got to share with her.
When I talked to the funeral director, she said, “You need to do what feels right for you,” with regard to grieving.
Many times during this process I’ve thought, “There’s no playbook for this.” I listened to my heart. I made decisions based on what felt right for me and for my family.
So many things will come up that you’re just not thinking about and that nothing has really prepared you for. Do we take our yearly family vacation? What do we do for Mother’s Day? How do we celebrate her birthday?
Talk about them with your children. See what they want. Decide what you want. Does it feel right? Does it feel healthy? Respectful? Therapeutic?
While it’s not “therapy” per se, we’re going to start attending a support group at the end of this month. Some things are too big or too scary or sad to handle on your own. Recognize when it’s time to ask for help, or seek it out.
We want to think we can do it all on our own. But there’s no shame in seeking help. And this sort of thing transcends pride.
You know your child, and if you’re keeping an open dialogue, you may get to the point where you recognize, “I just can’t help them with this. I need help.” Whether it’s talking to clergy or a psychologist, or just attending group support, there are grief camps and lots of other tools to assist you with this ongoing process. Use your resources.
Leslie used to tell me this: Reach out to teachers and caregivers and ask them for their observations.
When Leslie died, I reached out to Emma’s teachers. I asked for help. I explained the situation. I wanted them to keep an eye on her. And I got feedback. I heard about the times when Emma seemed to be somewhere else, or when she seemed more gloomy than usual.
Her dance teacher sent me an email just suggesting I check up on her because she seemed off, within the context of how she’d been handling things to that point. That information allowed me to see how Emma was doing when she wasn’t putting on a brave face for me.
Use those sorts of resources to determine whether you need more help. Asking for help is often hard for people. We want to think we can do it all on our own. But there’s no shame in seeking help. And this sort of thing transcends pride.
With me, and probably most people, the child isn’t the only one grieving, so talking to your child about death while you’re dealing with your own feelings is really hard. But in a way it can be a strange sort of advantage, because you’re speaking from the heart and a place of knowledge.
You “get it” in a way that nobody else can, at least at first. You’ll sidestep sensitive issues that nobody else will know to dodge. You can do it because you have to do it, and you’ll do it better than anyone else can, because you love your children.
Jim is a widowed father of 2 daughters, one autistic (9), one not (13). He writes about parenting, autism, grief, and a hectic but loving family life at Just A Lil Blog when his hectic but loving family life allows.