How do I honor the child for whom memories are all I have and love well the children with whom I am still making memories?
That’s a question I ask myself often.
And it is especially difficult to answer for celebrations and holidays, special events and birthdays.
I’ve probably had it a bit easier than many bereaved parents.
My children were all adults when Dominic left us for Heaven.
We have strong relationships and a track record of talking things through. So I can ask them about what is helpful to them and tell them what is hard for me. We all acknowledge that we are finding our way in the dark and that changing circumstances make it important to keep the lines of communication open.
We are experiencing our ninth set of holidays this year and have yet to establish a pattern or routine that works every time.
But here are some things we are learning together-some things my children are teaching me about surviving siblings and Christmas:
- Parents shouldn’t try to hide their grief. This one is hard. As moms and dads we want so badly to create a safe world for our children-even our adult children! Yet we know by painful experience that it is impossible. When I try to hide my grief (which I cannot do successfully) I’m adding stress to an already stress-filled situation. That grief is going to escape somewhere-if not in tears, then in raised voices, impatient looks and short tempers. Children (even very young children) know that you are sad. Let them know by your example that it’s OK to be sad. Share your heart (in age-appropriate ways) and by doing so, give them permission to grieve as well.
- Don’t force your child to grieve the same way you do. Some children find it easier to be open about emotions than others. The outward emotional expression of grief is different in each person. For some it looks like what we expect: tears, sadness, sorrow. For others it may look like anger or denial or an unwavering commitment to “keep everything the same”. Some children become very anxious about the safety of other family members. Some may remain stoic-don’t force emotional responses. Do some reading/research on grief in children and be prepared for the different ways a child may express their pain.
- Ask you child(ren) how they feel about certain events/traditions/remembrance ideas. Even young children may have strong opinions about what feels good and what feels awful. It’s tough to find a balance among competing needs but at least knowing how different family members are experiencing the holiday gives parents an idea of how it might be accomplished. Sometimes surviving siblings can help parents find a creative solution to the quandary of how to honor the missing child and how to bless surviving children.
- Don’t require that your child(ren) participate in every event or gathering. This is especially helpful for older children-but parents should be sensitive to the young ones as well. Give your child(ren) permission to say, “no” if they don’t want to be part of a particular event. Some parents want to do balloon releases or light candles at a special service for their missing child. What’s healing for the parent may not be healing for a surviving sibling. That’s OK. Do the same for family gatherings. Don’t force a sibling to contribute a “favorite memory” or “story” during a family memorial time.
- Grant space and remain flexible. Things that sound like a good idea while still far off on the calendar can feel overwhelming as the day approaches. Sometimes no matter how much I WANT to do something, I. just. can’t. It’s the same for surviving siblings. Be gracious and allow for changing feelings/circumstances. They may truly wish they could commit or participate but realize that when the day is here, they just don’t have the emotional energy to do it.
- On the other hand, be alert if a child withdraws completely. Withdrawal may be a silent scream for help. The pain may have become too great to process but the child doesn’t know how to ask for help. You are the parent. You can’t “fix” your child. But you can take him or her by the hand and lead them to someone who can discern the best way to give them the skills to cope with the loss of their sibling.
- Affirm your living child(ren). Let them know that you love them in ways that are most meaningful to them. Every person has a unique “love language”-a preferred way to be loved. Learning what speaks to your child(ren)’s heart helps to ensure that they don’t feel forgotten or overlooked even as you grieve the child that is missing from your family circle.
- Express appreciation for your child(ren)’s continued support for your own grief. My kids are a vital part of my grief support system-just as I am for them. We all love Dominic and our hearts all hurt and miss him. I am thankful every minute of every day that they listen to me, let me cry and love me through hard moments.
- Understand that sometimes your surviving child(ren) might need to leave the missing sibling behind or set him or her aside for an event or celebration. It’s hard to remain in the shadow of “the one gone before”. They may not want that special day to be referenced as “so many days/months/years since we lost ______”. Of course our mama or daddy hearts can’t help but think of it that way! BUT-this is THEIR day, THEIR moment. Let them have it. It takes nothing away from your love for the missing child to affirm and lavish love on the child you can still hold.
- Remember, that just like for you-each year may be different. What works one time may not work this time. Extend, and be willing to receive, grace
I am trying hard to love and honor and support the children still with me and also make room for Dominic, who lives in our hearts.
It’s a delicate balancing act on a spiderweb of intersecting strings-I’m still learning and it’s hard.
But love is ALWAYS worth the cost.