I Cannot Heal My Children’s Grief, but I Can Help Them Name It

By Miranda Featherstone

In September, on one of the first days that felt like fall, we drove from our house in Rhode Island to my father’s house in Massachusetts to spend the weekend. It is still hard for me to write or say “my father’s house.” Until recently, it was “my parents’ house,” but my mother died in June after a short illness, and her simple gray purse no longer sits on the hall table.

From the moment we arrived, my 8-year-old seemed out of sorts: Everything we asked of her was a burden, every pleasant activity somehow disappointing. Children don’t generally tell us that they are grieving or worried. They often simply behave disagreeably to communicate discomfort or sorrow. (Adults are not always so different.)

That night I tucked her in. “It feels lonely without Grandmummy,” she finally confessed. “And I can’t stop thinking about death. About other people dying. Like Granddaddy.” What could I say? Same, baby. Same.

We are not religious, so I have nothing to offer my daughter by way of an afterlife, but even if I did, the reality is that her grandmother has left our world; she will never again read to my daughter on the sunny end of the couch. Death and loss are the great unfixable things: They must simply be endured.

I can offer my children kindness — and limits — when they are disagreeable. I can empathize and offer them language for their pain. But I cannot make death go away; I cannot heal their grief.

Over the coming weeks, families will gather to celebrate the holidays, and many of us will feel acutely the absence of a beloved face or voice. Crowded kitchens that once evoked comfort — or even a kind of comfortable strife — may become stark reminders of loss.

As we stumble through nostalgic rituals made strange by months and months of separation, caution, illness and death, grief may bubble to the surface. Despite our attempts to protect them, children are not immune to these pangs of sadness and longing — far from it. Their grief will rise alongside our own, and we must be prepared to help them make sense of it.

We ought to name — first for ourselves and then our children — the enduring shock of grief, without grasping for silver linings or platitudes. As parents, we must become more comfortable with the language of death. As researchers who study sex ed remind us of that subject, it shouldn’t be “the talk” but rather a series of small conversations woven into the fabric of family life. Death is not so different.

I see a dead blue jay on the sidewalk — pitiful and luminous — and my instinct is to avert my gaze and hurry my preschooler along. But really, the tiny corpse provides a relatively neutral opportunity to explain to him — gently, honestly — that all things die, that bodies can become so hurt or sick that they simply stop working and life ends.

The psychologist J. William Worden, critical of the popular five stages of grief theory, gives the bereaved four tasks instead: The first three are to accept the reality of the loss, experience the pain of grief and adjust to an environment without the person. The last task is to find an “enduring connection” with the dead, perhaps by answering the question: What did the person give you?

I have suggested this project to my daughter, but it feels facile next to the relentless permanence of death. What if the fourth task takes you years? A lifetime? There is nothing straightforward about love whose object has been removed.

As Anastasia Higginbotham suggests in her wonderful picture book “Death Is Stupid,” another approach is to connect to the granular details of loved ones’ lives: “Wear what they wore. Play what they played. Read what they read. Make what they made.” It is excellent advice, but all the same, it will never be enough.

We talk of my mother often. We remind ourselves of her practical wisdom. (“Never pass up a bathroom!” “Where there is no solution, there is no problem!”) We consume books and movies — both ones that are funny and distracting and ones that mirror our loss, make us feel less alone.

I answer my 3-year-old’s incessant questions with friendly, age-appropriate frankness. “She died. We’ll never see her again.”

“Her body stopped working, and we had it cremated. That means it was put somewhere very hot and turned into ashes. She couldn’t feel anything. You can’t feel anything when you’re dead.”

“Mostly, people die when they are old. She was very sick, but it’s not like when you are sick with a cold. You get better.”

And, perhaps most important, “I miss her.”

Caregivers should initiate such direct conversations throughout the process of loss and grief. When a loved one becomes ill, we must speak to kids frankly about what to expect. Disfigurement from illness, perhaps. The person’s confusion or silence. And then death and its accompanying rituals of mourning. “We will all sing her favorite songs together. Some people will read poems, and some people will talk about Grandmummy. Then we’ll have snacks she liked. She won’t be there, but we’ll all be remembering her and celebrating her life together. It might feel sad, and it might feel nice, too.

It’s OK, as the adult, to shed tears through these conversations. It can help to spell out that sadness is universal and survivable: “It might seem scary or strange to see me cry. But everyone cries sometimes, and crying can even help us feel better. I promise I won’t cry all day. A cookie and a hug from Papa will help.”

As holidays loom, we might suggest to children, gently, that Thanksgiving without a beloved family member may feel strange and sad. With such foresight, they are better equipped than they might have been, certainly. But doing and saying the right things will not make the death of a loved one painless. Grief will be unimpressed by our developmentally appropriate phrasing. It will still hurt, and that’s OK. Parenthood, after all, is a series of repeated exercises in learning when to step in and when to sit back. When to problem-solve or protect and when to say, “This stinks.”

My daughter doesn’t expect me to fix her grief — she is not fully acclimated to our cultural habit of smoothing over misery — but, oh, how I wish I could. Instead, I can tell her that I am hurting, too. That pasta with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese is still delicious and our kayak still cuts beautifully through the cold autumnal water. That I love her and that we will both always love my mother. That sorrows cannot always be escaped but they can be named and endured. That I will always listen to her woes and that saying them aloud sometimes helps — but that sometimes it doesn’t. That fearing the death of loved ones is a deeply human pastime. And that longing for someone gone is perhaps one of the hardest parts of being a person.

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