Thanksgiving used to be my favorite holiday. When my brother died seven years ago just one week before Thanksgiving, the holiday took on an entirely different meaning. I still pause and reflect on all that I am grateful for, but each year I am reminded of what I lost too. Jerry was my only sibling and when he died unexpectedly at 39-years-old, I was devastated. Dealing with my own grief was hard enough, but simultaneously trying to help my nine-year-old son cope with the loss of his uncle was a daunting task. I felt overwhelmed and I wasn’t sure what to do. Children experience loss and need our support. Grandparents die. Pets die. How can we help our children through these difficult times? In the end, I found that there were seven things that really helped my son. Here’s what I learned as I stumbled through the grief:
- Tell your child whatever he/she is feeling is okay. My son was in shock when I told him his uncle passed away. I explained to my son that he would feel lots of emotions and all of his feelings were okay. Shock, sadness, fear, and anger are all part of the grieving process. I told him there is no right way to feel.
- Tell your child that it may take adults longer to deal with the loss than children and that it is okay to feel better even when adults are still sad. It took me years to deal with my brother’s death. I didn’t want my son to feel sad for that length of time, nor did I want him to feel guilty about laughing or having fun during that time. We all grieve on our own timeline. Sometimes I welled up in tears in front of my son, but because I was able to take care of my family, home, and work responsibilities my son knew his mom was okay even if she was sad sometimes.
- Know your child. My son is sensitive and was young when his uncle died. He wanted to participate in the funeral services, but I knew if he attended an open casket wake it would have been too much for him. I didn’t want a lifeless body lying in a casket to be the last image he had of his uncle. Instead, he attended the memorial service at the church the next day. Some distant relatives criticized my decision, but I didn’t care. I knew my kid and I knew what was best for him. How (or if) a child participates in funeral services should be based on the individual child’s needs and development.
- Choose the right time to tell your child about the loss. I didn’t tell my son that his uncle passed away on the actual day he died. I was still in shock myself and it just didn’t feel right to tell him after school and send him off to bed a few hours later. I told him on Saturday morning a few days later once I felt more composed and had figured out what words to say. My son asked many questions and I had the whole weekend to be with him, answer his questions, hug him, and assure him that even if things seemed awful at the time that eventually they would get better.
- Give your child something special that belonged to the loved one. A t-shirt. A watch. A picture. Something personal. Something that has meaning. I wanted my son to know that even though his uncle was gone, his uncle’s love would always remain. My mother gave my son the leather vest his uncle wore in high school. My brother played guitar. My son plays guitar. For years my son wore his uncle’s leather vest when his band performed. I think it made him feel like his uncle was there watching over him.
- Keep life as normal as possible and give your child breaks from grieving. My son wanted to go to karate class a few hours after I told him his uncle died. I let him. He needed the distraction and a physical outlet for his emotions. We had pre-purchased tickets to a newly released Harry Potter movie that night. Even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, we still went to the movies. It’s not that his uncle’s death didn’t matter. My son was heart-broken, but asking a young child to deal with profound sadness around the clock for days, weeks, or months is just too much. My son needed breaks from grieving and I made sure he got them.
- Follow your child’s lead. I told my son it was okay to talk about his feelings and ask questions whenever he wanted to and then I followed his lead. When he learned I would be giving the funeral eulogy, my son asked if he could speak about his uncle too. There wasn’t a dry eye in the church when my sweet nine-year-old boy spoke. More importantly, my son felt like he had done something significant to honor his uncle. I’m not suggesting all children do this, but it was right for my son. All of us grieve in our own way. So do our children. Let your children know how important it is to tell you what they need and then follow their cues.
My son is resilient. He grieved in healthy ways, asked questions, and talked about his feelings. Years have passed and my son still enjoys hearing stories about his uncle and doing things to remember him. I’ve assured my son that his uncle’s love will always remain. My brother enjoyed riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle. He said it made him feel free. Recently, my son got his driver’s license and I gave him a bumper sticker that read “My Guardian Angel Rides a Harley.” It was something small to remind my son that his uncle is always with him—even after all these years.