Confession time: I am 36 years old, and I still struggle with the “appropriate” way to grieve.
How can I expect to teach my children how to grieve, if I’m not even sure myself? Whether faced with the death of a loved one, a difficult diagnosis or even moving away, we all deal with loss and so do our kids. In the past, I have been filled with questions when facing death, illness or loss, trying desperately to protect my kids from the pain:
- Are they too little to grieve?
- Is this too hard for them?
- How do I protect them?
- Should I lie?
- What if it hurts too much?
- What if I cry?
- What if they see me cry?
- What if I can’t stop?
- What if they can’t stop?
As parents, most of us have run into this conundrum, and there are tomes of information dedicated to this very topic. I know because I have searched for answers, desperate to find a step-by-step guide or YouTube instructional video. Through everything that I have read, Alan Wolfelt (1991) summed it up best…
“Anyone old enough to love, is old enough to grieve.”
Part of my desire in teaching my children to grieve is that I feel like I was never taught how to grieve. I never learned how to deal with my grief and as a result am still reeling from losses throughout my life. I don’t fault my parents for not teaching me, because I think most adults struggle with the same issue. We are a product of our culture. American culture values a “stiff upper lip” and “stay strong” mentality that stands in the way of actually feeling our feelings. Across cultures and time there are accounts of chest pounding, tearing of clothes and hair and other healing rituals of grief expression, but not us Americans. We are tough. We are pulled together. We are “strong.” Is this really an exercise in strength? Who are we being “strong” for?
Recently, we lost our pet, Guinness after 13 years.
We had to time to prepare our kids, and ourselves as he slowly deteriorated over 6-8 weeks and we finally had to make the decision to say goodbye to our dog a few weeks ago. In talking to them about it, for the first time I didn’t try to stifle my feelings, I cried openly and told them how sad I felt. I also encouraged them to have whatever feelings they were feeling, I gave them the wheel in our grief journey. I held them when they cried, never uttering, “don’t cry,” or “don’t be sad,” but also played and was silly with them even though something sad was happening. We talked about suffering and euthanasia and I tried to answer all of their questions (there were lots!) with direct age-appropriate answers. When the day arrived for the vet to come and put Guinness down, their grief and process guided the day. We bought a tree to put over his grave, we lay with him in the grass and took photos with him, we played Yahtzee. As the time approached, they were looking for an outlet to share stories and memories of Guinness. We made a muslin shroud to wrap him in for burial so that he would be surrounded with memories and well wishes on his journey over the rainbow bridge. I followed their lead and the catharsis was unreal. Before the vet arrived, the kids each took turns saying goodbye and then went on a bike ride (they are middle-schoolers), we agreed that watching the euthanasia was not something they needed or wanted to see. By the time they returned from their bike ride, we had already buried Guinness and planted his tree over his grave. When they rode down the driveway, and saw the erected tree, their emotions took over. In the absence of stigma or social norms, they cried and screamed, and threw themselves on the ground in grief, and we rubbed backs, hugged and cried with them, reaffirming their feelings.
“I know, this is so sad. We loved him and he was a part of our family. Even though it was the right thing to do, it is so hard. Its ok to not be ok.”
Once they gained some composure, the kids conducted a funeral. We all stood around the tree and shared stories and messages to our beloved Guinness. We laughed, cried, hugged, and left dog cookies and flowers at the base of our special “Guinness tree.” When the funeral was over, we all felt a bit restless, a “now what?” kind of feeling. My husband suggested we take our other two dogs for a nice walk and get creemees, and that somehow was the perfect ending to a very tough day. Since then, there have been occasional questions or tears, but instead of dwelling in a sad space where it seems like grief is lurking and waiting to rear its ugly head, I feel like we travelled through that grief and now are in a place of peace and remembrance. Though grief is not new to me, this “peace” is totally foreign, and amazing. Once again, in an effort to teach my children something, I have learned far more.
This was our story, but grief is a very personal.
In my quest to find and teach my kids “the right way” to grieve, I have discovered that there is no “right way.” Successful grieving is primal and personal and can’t be planned, dictated, or taught. We can’t teach our children to grieve, but we can provide the safe space and time to feel feelings and allow grief to manifest in whatever way it needs to in order to heal and honor the pain associated with loss. It’s about allowing our kids and ourselves to not “be ok,” and realizing that had feeling will dissipate and we will “be ok” eventually. Shakespeare said, ““Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it . . . break.” As usual, Bill was right.
Wolfelt, A. (1991). A Child’s View of Grief (video). Fort Collins: Center for Loss and Life Transition.