This was not my experience-all my children were adults when Dominic ran ahead to Heaven-but so many grieving parents want to know: Should I let my younger children see me cry?
How much is too much for them to witness, process and hear?
Do I need to shield them from the awful truth of how much this hurts? CAN I shield them?
May I first say that there is NO way to shield even an infant from the overflowing emotions, stress and strain of child loss in his or her family. If we stop and think about it, we know this. And older children may look like they aren’t paying attention, but they are.
So the question is not really, “Can I shield them” but is instead, “How do I help them understand what’s happening”?
Grief in this life is inevitable.
Allowing our children to watch us grieve helps them understand how it’s done. When we share openly, we give them tools and models for sharing too.
I think it’s important to be honest with even the youngest among us.
When a parent speaks of the deep pain of loss, expresses love for the missing ones and looks longingly at photos and mementos, he or she is saying to the watching child: “Love lives. Love is important. Love lasts even when our bodies don’t. I will always love you just like I love your brother (or sister).”
Young children will create their own script if adults don’t help them write one.
Because their minds are not fully developed, they will often connect odd bits into an unhealthy whole. Just as some children decide they are responsible for their parents’ divorce, some surviving siblings think that a random act of disobedience resulted in the death of a sister or brother.
And if a parent is modeling secrecy or a stiff upper lip, that child may never reveal her dark and weighty secret.
We can help our children by providing a safe space where they can express themselves freely without fear of correction or being silenced. It might get ugly. Our grief gets ugly. It’s part of the process.
But children should never become the burden bearers for adults.
Crying in front of your child is OK. Screaming, yelling, blaming and violence is not.
No child should feel threatened or unsafe in his own home. If you are out of control, THAT is the time to go to a room and close the door. Or call a friend to come get the kids so you have a few hours alone. Or send them outside to play. It is NOT the time to unload on your surviving child(ren).
I wish that grief was not part of life.
But it is.
How I deal with it, what I say about it, when and how I express it will impact my children for good or ill.
I want to offer them tools they can use and build resilience for what they may face in the future.
Letting them see me-especially the grieving me-is an important part of that process.