“Do I make you happy, Mama?” my three-year-old asked me, as we crossed the cemetery yard. “I am happy to be with you, Bingham,” I said. “It’s sad for me to be here sometimes because I miss your daddy. But I am thankful that you’re here.” A concerned look furrowed his brow and he stepped away from me for a second. Looking up into my eyes, he said, “I want you to be happy, Mama.” I smiled at him, and thanked him for loving me so well. Sensing there was more to his questioning, I knelt down and matched his eye contact. Then I told him something that I believe with all of my heart and knew he needed to hear: “Bingham, I want you to know that even though you usually do make me happy, it is not your job to make me happy. I will have sad days, and I will have good days, and I am in charge of my own happiness. You are an amazing son, but no matter what you do or how I feel, I will love you forever and always no matter what. You will be doing your job to just be my son.”
Grieving with children is a complicated thing. It involves both mourning with children present, and helping them through their own experience of loss. I want to be genuine with my young boys about sadness and the freedom to feel and express emotion, but I also want to keep unnecessary burdens off of their shoulders. I want to help them grieve in their own ways and in their own timing, but I also want them to be able to be just happy sometimes. My strategy for how to grieve with children is as young as those children and it grows and develops with them. What I do with my kids may not work for someone else, just as someone else’s way may be unhelpful for my family.
Intentionally most of the time and subconsciously others, I try to abide by these things when discussing death or grieving my children’s father.
1. Be open about your own grief and sadness
Sadness is a fact of life in this world. If they only see me model happy emotions, they will be less prepared to deal with less than ideal feelings themselves. When they ask me why I am sad, I don’t tell them it’s the onions. Instead, I’m honest with them that I miss their dad. Usually they respond, “I miss dad too.” Sometimes my sadness is especially acute because I see that my kids don’t have a father and I wish that they did. At the right time, and especially when we can pray about it together, I tell them that I am sorry their dad is not here.
There is a season for everything, including a time to cry with my children and a time to distract or redirect them. It’s not the best time at the grocery store check out counter, or in heavy traffic, or during a friend’s birthday party, to talk about our grief. At home in the quietness, though, it’s absolutely the right place. Also, my children are naturally fixers; they feel burdened to relieve me from sadness. I want them to know that although I can be sad, I also have hope. I can usually find a silver-lining or an “at least this good thing” to say, so I make sure to tell them that too so we can smile and hope together. One of my favorite things to say is, “I am sad right now, but I am happy that Daddy is in heaven with Jesus. God is taking good care of him up there, and he takes such good care of us down here.”
2. Tell the truth
Daddy did not leave us, he didn’t go on vacation, he died. It was not daddy’s choice to leave, but he’s also not missing us. When someone dies, they do not just go to sleep. That would be confusing, because we all go to sleep at night and then we wake up in the morning… but dead people don’t wake up.
The truth also includes what I believe about the afterlife, so I share that with my children. Daddy’s body broke and it was buried in the ground where we placed his headstone. But, because Jesus loved him, and Daddy chose to accept that love, God took Daddy’s spirit to heaven and gave him a brand new body that has to stay in heaven.
The specifics are tricky, the theology could get cloudy. I’m trusting that as I respond to tender questions (being honest with my kids when I don’t know) that God will guide my words (Luke 12) and steer my kids to the truth if I misspeak. For now, we handle it one question at a time. As more intense questions come, we will discuss, pray about, and research them together.
3. Don’t ignore “I miss…”
My kids know me pretty well. There are few things they can say or do that will get me to stop whatever it is I’m working on than telling me that they’re missing their dad. In heartbreaking reality, they probably don’t remember him by primary experiences – William was only 9 months old and Bingham was not yet 28 months when Daddy died. Yet, sometimes they really are missing what little they do remember of him, or what they’ve been told he was like, or even just soaking in the sadness they have over the absence of a father in their lives. When one of my kids tells me that they miss their dad it’s sometimes a ploy for attention or to get something else, but it’s usually a conversation starter – and my kids ask great questions. It’s almost always an opportunity to talk about the gospel with them. It’s almost always another time to teach them what grieving well looks like.
Yesterday, Bingham (now 4.5 years old) pulled out a special coloring book. The pages of this book are specifically designed for 3-5 year olds to color when they are grieving. He and I doodled together for a bit and talked about Daddy until Bingham told me he was ready to go play with something else.
On the occasions that I can tell they simply want attention, I give them the attention but try to follow their statement with a memory that will make them smile. Remembering Daddy doesn’t always have to be a sad thing. Also, sometimes expressing that they miss one parent is really an attempt to connect with the other parent. Whether or not there is a father in their lives, I want them to know that their mother loves them more than anything else in the whole world! I can cry with them, but I also love to smile, laugh, cuddle, and have fun with them.
4. Tell them about the person who died.
My boys love to hear about their Daddy. In fact, if you’re reading this and know my kids, would you please tell them a story about Eric next time you see them? They may not naturally remember him, but I want my kids to think well of the other person who gave them life: they will look at themselves similarly. They frequently ask, “do I look like Daddy? Would Daddy do it this way? Do you think Daddy would be proud of me?” Especially as boys who want to know if they’re like their dad, my impressionable children need to know that he was a man of integrity and laughter, who aimed to glorify God in everything he did.
But appropriate honesty is key with this. We tend to idealize people after they die. We strip them of any flaws and try to cover over hurts they might have caused simply because they are no longer with us. But Eric was not perfect. By no means do I want to dwell on his faults, but I don’t want to give my boys the impression that it is possible to live a sinless life. Without the tragedy of our sin, we would have no need for the healing rescue of Jesus. Daddy needed Jesus, and so do we.
5. Guide them in interactions with others.
One night in our small group, the parents stayed upstairs while the kids went downstairs. We were just getting to know each other at that point. I noticed a tendency of my oldest (just less than 3 years old at the time) to tell every new person that, “my dad died.” It was primary information for him, and he thought everyone should know it. Unfortunately, his friends did not know how to handle it. Several of them ran upstairs to their daddies immediately, wondering if their dads were also going to die.
On some level, it’s a good thing for kids to get an idea that life as they know it could change because sometimes it does (have you noticed lately how many orphans are featured in Disney movies?) Yet, it has been a good thing also for Bingham to learn about how to be sensitive to others in the room. If we are meeting someone in a waiting room, it’s generally not necessary for them to know about Bingham’s Daddy’s death. It is ok and good, though, to talk about it with people who also knew Eric or who are important people in Bingham’s life. Because Bingham is making these choices for himself, with guidance, I am more confident that he will be able to handle sensitive conversations as he gets older and experiences more personal and second hand turmoil.
6. Recognize that kids will go through stages of grief as well as new levels of awareness, just like adults do.
It shocked me to learn, when I began the process of mourning my kids’ father with them, that their grief changes just as mine does. It’s different as they learn and grow, and also on a daily basis. Recently, William – now 3 years old – began a new stage of awareness about his surroundings. At first, it was like reverting – he’s been potty trained for almost a year, but for a couple weeks he made a mess in every single pair of pants. Honestly, I was very frustrated at first. But when I realized that he wasn’t missing on purpose and somehow reverting to when he didn’t know how to use the toilet, I thought that something might be up. Bingham went through this reverting as well. There isn’t a hard fast rule book, but I do see a pattern.
Any parent of a young child may recognize this behavior. What set it apart as a grief-related situation was a pattern: sudden, uncharacteristic and extravagant meltdowns and the words, “I miss my dad.” Right now Billy is newly aware of why he doesn’t have what many of his friends do, and coming into a different understanding about death. Of course he doesn’t understand any of it fully – but do any of us understand it fully? What Billy needs right now is lots of cuddles, reassurances that Daddy loved him, that Mama is here now, and that he can talk to Jesus about his sadness no matter what.
At the cemetery, my kids like to run around. The last time we were there, they ate little lunches and told stories. For them it is not a sad place, but a lovely space where we get to be close to Daddy. On the morning that Bingham asked me if I was happy, he was assured enough of my love that he felt satisfied to release my hand. Up to Daddy’s grave, around the tombstones, down to the dirt pile and back to me, he bounded all around that grassy yard. The birds were chirping, and the warm sun was shining brightly on our heads. After a while, he asked me to walk with him on the “bridges” made by spaces between puddles on the road and we came to an overhang where we could see a beautiful valley. Leaning into me, he said, “Mama, I am happy. I like to be here with you.”
I’m still learning through all of this. I’m thankful for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as I navigate these tricky waters, and I expect my boys to continue teaching me as they grow older. In researching about grieving with children, I read that the process essentially starts over for each kid every time they hit a new stage. I have found that to be true with my young kids, and will continue to love them through it. I am hopeful to see what the Lord does through two incredible boys who are learning how to grieve well themselves and be compassionate for others, before they even know how to read.