Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 66, titled, “Our Forgotten Grievers.”
This week, we’re going to chat about how easily children are overlooked as grievers who need support and insight. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had the honor of helping a child move through loss. It’s truly a place of humility because kids will teach you more about grief than you ever thought possible. I can’t wait to dive in and help you learn a little more about how to care for those littlest grievers among us, because they need just as much support as anyone else.
As parents, grandparents, or even friends, we tend to see children as resilient. Because they’re not necessarily expressing the heaviness of grief all the time, we assume we can care for ourselves and trust that they will internalize the things we express that help our grief. But resilience is an easily misunderstood characteristic. We don’t want to deny resilience as a meaningful characteristic, because it is. But we also don’t want to glorify it as some kind of proof that someone has healed and no longer requires support.
When we recognize resilience in our kids, we fail to recognize that our own ability to think, emote, and feel through grief is a skill we’ve developed over time. Our kids have far less awareness of what they are thinking and feeling insofar as putting those thoughts or feelings into a language. And as a former teacher, I think children are brilliant so don’t hear me saying otherwise. But the way they acknowledge and understand loss is going to be significantly different than how we move through it as adults. Their emotional intelligence is simply and factually less developed than the average adult.
One thing kids do have going for them as grievers is their ability to compartmentalize. They’re still learning about the world and their thoughts jump from concept to concept without warning. Have you ever tried to talk loss with a child? They’re listening, but they’re also quick to move onto another topic. It’s not a lack of empathy, compassion, or understanding – nor is it a lack of interest. This is all something completely new in their lives, and they’re not processing the same way we are as adults.
We have a lot of ideas about how to teach or even protect our kids from the experience of loss and grief might look like. Trust me – I’m a parent and a grief educator. There are times I’ve wondered if my child knows too much about loss. She’s experienced it herself, and she knows the weight of it on her parents.
But part of our work is kindly inviting our kids into the process and understanding without expecting them to express their grief in a way that makes us feel comfortable. Kids are like all grievers in that respect, right? No one wants to make the pain feel heavier, or deal with the discomfort of tears you can’t control.
The way a kid may demonstrate their grief is a little like jumping through puddles. Maybe the first puddle is griefy, deep, and difficult to move from. But the second might be light and playful; splashy and fun. And maybe the next puddle is interesting and muddy.
Because we see the resistance to a grief conversation, or maybe the perceived lack of interest, we may avoid the topic altogether and chalk it up to resilience. This is where we can misstep, allowing our children to simply compartmentalize for life on this loss, rather than build some skills to integrate their experience and understanding into daily lives. Basically, your kids will tell you when they’re ready to talk about loss, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions and try to start the conversation.
Think about the type of grief a child may encounter. Yes, physical death of a family member is prominent, but so too are the deaths of a pet, the loss of a classmate to a move, a divorce, or even a friendship falling apart. These are all valid, easily disenfranchised grief events that you can use as a parent or support role to engage the difficult work of learning to pursue healing.
But as we do so, we have to be clear and honest about the process of loss and grieving. We cannot rely on euphemisms, metaphors, or religious language that explains away the practical reality of death, disconnection, or grief. It may be that someday, a metaphor about the life cycle of a star helps your child understand the way your religious beliefs impact your personal experience of grief. Today, however, the child needs to know facts.
A child’s brain is full of beautiful imagination. If you, like me, are only given part of the story – no matter what the story is – your childlike imagination (or anxiety, however you want to address it) may try to fill in the unknowns with worst case scenarios. If ever you’ve waited for a phone call, day after day, you know the anxious imaginary storylines I’m talking about.
So saying to a child that their pet is in a better place upstate, happily running around with other bunnies, is inappropriate at best. Are you prepared for the questions as to why you can’t go see the bunny for a visit? Are you ready to explain why no one got to say goodbye? Our self-preservation minds think little white lies like these are a stroke of brilliance in the moment, but long term, they’re not only unsustainable, but they teach our kids that we aren’t capable of being honest about really hard things. It breaks connection.
I’ll give you a little bit of context. We actually owned very large, black Velveteen Rex bunny. He lived with us before our daughter came along, but when we moved into our new house, we found a new family for him to live with as well. It was a source of grief, and we had a whole day of teaching our daughter how to say goodbye.
A few years later, the family who adopted the bunny let us know that over time, he had lost his vision, grown tired and old, and eventually died. Because the bunny wasn’t a daily topic of conversation, we had the ability to wait a year or so until our child was older to learn about the death of our bunny.
When she finally asked, I told her directly that the bunny was happy and healthy until about a year earlier, when he died of old age. I explained that the family he lived with took very good care of our bunny, burying him in a place where no other animals would dig him up. I let her ask any questions she might have had, and we cried for a bit together. She asked about bunnies in heaven, which is a lovely thought. But I had to be honest and tell her that as much as I would love to guarantee an afterlife, no one has any real answers and that’s part of what makes grieving or death and dying such a difficult idea to confront.
But by the end of the conversation, our child felt seen. She and I were able to talk a little more about the death of my mom as well, which happened before our child was even two years old. Loss is an inevitable part of our human experience, but the conversations around death, dying, and grief do not have to be the elephant in the room we avoid out of fear.
I want to address one last thing here that is easily controversial, so I’d love to hear your thoughts. When it comes to funerals, wakes, caskets, cremation, and all the other processes and ceremonies we experience during after a death, I want you to consider including your children. This goes again back to their understanding of the world and imagination to fill in the blanks. All these things are their first encounters. They’re learning about life for the first time through us and the way we approach each situation. If a child wants to see the casket, I am a big fan of including them in all the steps. Will there be questions you can’t answer? One hundred percent, yes. But that’s true of all situations, and this is one that can affect your child’s ability to navigate death and dying with emotional maturity and honesty.
The same is true of children attending a funeral, experiencing sadness, needing mental health support – our kids deserve information because they’re human, just like adults. Inviting them transparently and in an age-appropriate way into the process is an important step to help our kids learn to grieve as they grow. Because our kids are grieving – no question. They may not know how to say it, but their lack of language is not evidence for a lack of grief. So as you process and work through your own grieving, consider allowing your children to ask questions. To see you experiencing loss and tears. Not in a way that puts the responsibility for healing on their shoulders, but in a way that allows them to see you as human, in need of compassion and support.
Thank you for listening to episode 66 of Restorative Grief. Death and dying are topics the entire Western culture is uncomfortable with discussing, and a lot of good that avoidance has done for us! We’re sicker and sadder as a nation today than we’ve ever been. This is our chance to start releasing some healing into the next generation but allowing them to engage their whole selves in ways we’ve never been allowed to do for ourselves. What would shift for your child’s understanding (and yours) if you started getting honest with your kids about loss? I know in our house, it’s been a difficult and ongoing conversation, but it’s made all of us healthier and more connected to one another both in the good times and the hard. I think kids everywhere deserve a little more credit about what they can handle and understand because seriously – they’re always listening and learning. Let’s teach each other to be honest with them, too.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, I want to thank you for choosing such a touchy topic to start. This really is a show about grief literacy at it’s core, which means nothing if our generation catches on but does nothing to pass it along to the next. Please be sure to subscribe, leave a glowing five star review, and share this episode with a parent or guardian in your life. They might need to hear this right now! Thanks again for everyone who supports the show financially – Patrons, you’re absolute knockouts. I mean it. Just beautiful people. If you’re interested in becoming a Patron and gaining access to bonus episodes and live monthly chats, check out the link in the show notes.
And as always, one last thing: Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
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