How We Explained Grief To Our Kids

There are times in fatherhood when you have to allow your children to feel the pain of circumstances and all you can do is try to walk them through as best you can. In these times, you cannot take away the pain. You cannot make things hurt less. You cannot remove the grief. And, as much as you wish you could, you cannot take the pain for them. The only thing you can do is hold on and brace yourself. Whether it is physical pain from a necessary medical procedure or emotional anguish of some deep offense from a friend or that first broken heart all the way up to the death of a family member, these are the times that solidify a dad’s place of prominence in the hearts of his children. We cannot afford to be absent in their pain.

This year, my daughters have lost two of their grandparents. My Father In Law passed away from Pancreatic Cancer in January and my own mother breathed her last a week ago after a Brain Cancer battle. Both dealt with extended progressive illnesses before our eyes and we watched Cancer do its work. We have known illness and worry and grief and remembrance. And we have witnessed faith and courage and strength. It has been a challenging year.

Throughout these illnesses, as they progressed and got worse and then eventually led to two different funerals, we have been accompanied by three little girls who are all experiencing these things that they have never experienced and that the majority of their peers cannot yet fathom. So, we’ve got questions being asked and explanations that need to be made. But, no one tells you how to do this. They don’t have a class in Dad School about grief. I’m sure there are experts who have weighed in on this at some point but this kind of thing doesn’t really sell parenting books. The reality here is that, ready or not, we are now walking our young children through some very complex territory and I think we have already learned some general guidelines or things to consider when you find yourself in a similar parenting situation. My hope is that you will never need to even read this. However, if you do, it is my hope that this is helpful to you and know that I deeply empathize with you in your time of loss.

1. Be Honest But Be Careful – My kids know when I’m BSing them and they know when I’m avoiding their questions. They seem to have a highly tuned truth-o-meter especially when it comes to times of intense emotion. They may not know exactly what is going on, but they can sense when I am holding information from them or not giving them the whole story. The girls are 8, 5, and 3 now. Throughout all of this, I wanted to give them complete information without burdening them with adult problems and themes. So, at each stage, we sat them down and we told them what was happening in broad general terms. Then we answered their questions. That was our process. Most of the time, it was like feeling our way down a dark hallway hoping at every moment not to step on any unseen Legos. My dear wife has been an absolute gift and she has guided many of these conversations. The afternoon Mom passed away, we sat the girls down in one of their bedrooms:

“Girls, you know Hunny has been sick and we knew she wasn’t going to get any better. She passed away this afternoon. It is okay to be sad. It is ok to be upset. It is ok to ask Mommy and Daddy questions.”

Then, we sat with them. We cried off and on for a while. We talked about how she was in Heaven and she didn’t feel sick anymore. We answered some stunningly specific questions about souls and bodies and whether or not Hunny was seeing PaPaw and whether we thought she could fly now because she was obviously an angel. We were honest with them. When we didn’t know the answer, we told them so, and we asked them what they thought. We were honest and they responded with unexpected maturity.
2. Be Patient With Emotions – I am the father of only daughters. And in my short time as a father of only daughters, the most surprising lesson I continually learn is that the emotional complexity in even the youngest of girls is overpowering. All of them feel things in far more depth than I can understand and each of them feels things and experiences emotions in different ways and at different times. Throughout these challenging months, I’m being taught so many things by them. Their grief shows up at unexpected times and manifests itself in unexpected ways. We have been awakened at 3 AM by a crying 5 year old saying she misses her grandfather. We have been told by our 8 year old that her stomach hurts whenever she starts to feel the emotional loss. We have listened to a specific song in the car when we are driving along and one of them asks “Can we listen to the song that reminds us of Papaw?” We look at pictures more. We focus on memories more. In these times, a Dad must be patient and understanding. Although everything in me wants to stiffen my lip and push through the pain, there is no healing for them there. Let them cry and grieve and let them see you cry and deal with grief. My five year old sat next to me at my mother’s funeral. She watched my tears and she matched them with her own. She will never forget it.
3. Be a Safety Net – One of the things a father can provide for his daughters is a haven from a pretty harsh world. An engaged father who wants to connect deeply with his children will make himself the most reliable place where his kids can shed their armor and know they will be protected. When the difficult times come, I want these girls to know that they can go to dad and he’ll be ok with their tears and their questions and their anger. I want to be the place where they know it is okay to be sad about the things life throws at them. When they have a safe place to go, the unsafe places aren’t so frightening.

So, as you walk this road:
· May you find peace and comfort for yourself
· May you find strength in guiding your family through these challenging times
· May you draw closer to your children during your/their grief
· May you build a legacy worth remembering

You’ve been great today. You can be great again tomorrow.

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