Children and Grief

Dad_Abigail

Granddaddy and Munchkin

Munchkin was not yet 4 when my father died.  J and I knew that having her living in the same house where my father was in his last days was going to be difficult, confusing, and heartbreaking for her.  But, we saw no other choice.  Like many situations, there were just no good solutions.

In the days leading up to his death we talked with her a lot about Granddaddy going to heaven.  We tried our best to help a 3.5 year old understand the permanency of death and what was going to happen.  We didn’t believe in telling her half truths about what was going to happen.  She was going to see the full depths of my grief in the days, weeks, months to come and so we needed to try to prepare her for all that would entail.

Of course, initially we saw actions that we simply expected to see.  She acted out.  She regressed in her potty training.  She needed her Mommy and Daddy even more.  When my Dad passed, she parroted what we had told her about death.  We knew she understood pieces of it, but had many long conversations between ourselves about how much she was understanding and how she might really be dealing with it.  But, overall she seemed to do really well.  She liked to talk about Granddaddy and hear stories.  She would hug me and tell me she knew I missed him a lot.  She would also remind me that he was looking down on us.  We’ve bee in that pattern for the year and a half since my Dad passed.

Then, last night happened.

It was a regular, rambunctious bedtime.  We did teeth, potty and stories.  Up highs, down lows, in the middles, hugs, kisses and tickles.  J and I shut the light off and walked out.  About 15 minutes later she came out of her room and sought me out with just the biggest tears rolling down her little face.  She said,

“Mama, I miss Granddaddy.  I can’t remember him.  I can’t remember his face.  Our family is not the same anymore, is it Mama?  Granddaddy really isn’t coming back, is he?”

She worked herself up to the point where she was sobbing and having trouble breathing.  It broke my heart into a million pieces.  Of course, I wondered where this was coming from.  We are a year and a half from his passing.

Naturally, when I do not understand I head to the literature.  I spent time this morning reading about preschoolers and grief.  According to the article I found on helping children through grief from the National Association of School Psychologists, “Young children may deny death as a formal event and may see death as reversible.  They may interpret death as a separation, not a permanent condition.”  It hit me at that moment.  Her little mind was just now comprehending that Granddaddy was never coming back.

They gave some very important advice that we will take to heart and help our Munchkin as she is just now really taking in the events of the last year and a half.  First, the article notes that young children do not grieve in orderly and predictable ways.  This really explained the seemingly delayed response to Dad’s death.  As an adult I quickly understood the reality of death.  I don’t know why it never dawned on me that it would take her longer to process the reality of loss.  The article also suggests to allow Munchkin to teach us about her grief experience.  Allow her to tell her story and for us to be listeners.  This morning she told me she wanted to make a special frame for her favorite picture of her and my Dad.  Tonight we went to Michaels and I let her pick out whatever she wanted for this special project.  While we worked on the project she told me her favorite things about Dad.  She remembers a lot more than I thought she would.

I was 16 before I lost someone close to me.  J was in his 30’s.  Munchkin lived in a home where she experienced death first hand.  One day Granddaddy was in his room and the next day he was not.  Now that she is processing his death at a different level we begin a whole new phase of the grief process.

What happened last night was a shock to us all.  Mom was upset.  J was not only upset about Abigail, but also concerned with how it was affecting me.  We’ve entered into a new phase of handling grief.  The literature notes the importance of allowing Munchkin to talk to us, being good listeners, and being as open and honest as we can about death.

It Can’t Happen to Me…

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Why is it that we never believe the worst can happen to us? We see other friends, families, or communities struggle with problems like addiction, death, racism, and sudden tragic events yet still think, “That will never happen here.”  Or, “That will never happen to ME.” Why the feelings of exceptionalism? Not one of us is exempt from tragedy. It can happen to any one of us, but we still make the assertion not in my backyard. Better yet, when we see our fellow man struggling, needing that hand up, that moment of compassion we look away and say, “not my problem.”

The real and stark truth of the matter is “it” can quickly be any one of us. It can be any one of our families. It can be any one of our communities. A family member you never dreamed would have a drug problem dies from an overdose. An accident at work can leave you in poverty. The death of a loved one can come swift or you can have many months to ponder the impending death and wonder why?  Or, it can suddenly be your friends that are locked down on a college campus in an unimaginable situation while you can only follow social media, news networks, and intermittent texts.  “It” suddenly hits home.

In my line of work where I study and teach difficult social problems, my students often start to feel like nothing we can do can make a difference in these really complex problems  They want to know what one person can do.  Hell, those of us in the field often feel the same way.  We have our moments where we wonder whether our research, community work and teaching really matter.  Are we REALLY making a difference?

In order for my reality to turn, I have to say, “yes.”  I have to say that even in the midst of tragedy we must all find hope for a better future.  We must all find our compassion to reach out and help our fellow community members and stop brushing off “those people.” We have to communicate when we know something is amiss with family or friends.  We have to bridge the divide and let people know they matter and we love them.  

Hope…

Empathy…

Compassion…

That is what keeps me going as I remember “it” can happen to me and when it does I pray I’m circled by people who will help provide this for me.  And, I pray I always remember to extend the three to those around me.

I’m praying for my Delta State University friends and colleagues tonight as “it” has happened to them. And, I’m seeing how in the midst of tragedy they are showing each other hope, empathy and compassion.