Advice from a therapist who lost her own father at a young age
When a child loses their father, it’s impossible to grasp the enormity of their heartache. The weight is both unbearable and unfair; after all, death is very much an adult issue. Plus, asking a child to manage the dark and challenging emotions associated with it is well, preposterous. But sadly, each year thousands of children are trying to make sense of and process grief.
Several decades ago, I was one of them. The very first funeral I attended was that of my father in 1979. when I was just two weeks shy of turning five. He died from cancer.
As someone who has lived more years without their father than with him, I can tell you not one Father’s Day holiday goes by without a lump in my throat, and tears in my eyes. At times, it felt like my connection to him was fragile, since I only have a handful of memories to recall. Other years, I found it nearly impossible to transmute my loss experience into form.
In my book, A Widow’s Guide to Healing — I also lost my husband when I was 33 to cancer — I dedicate a chapter to helping solo mothers. In doing research for this chapter and as a licensed therapist, I spent hundreds of hours listening and learning from solo mothers about their own processes for helping their children cope with loss.
Here are seven things (in no particular order) to keep in mind when it comes to helping your children manage their grief:
Keep it simple
For children, grief often unfurls in a non-logical manner. The very architecture of loss is complex for adults, and for children the grief lexicon is challenging to understand. Keeping the vocabulary simple isn’t minimizing the child’s pain — it can help them to better identify their feelings.
It is important to know that children may express their fears and questions in play, movement, dreams, or art, for example, and not in a conversation or even in replying to your questions. The words children use to describe their loss may change from moment to moment. Being open and receptive to this instead of being frightened by it will help them feel at ease.
Children often live in the present tense
Typically, young children live in the present tense, and are more apt to be focused on their current desires rather than living in a feedback loop of their loss. If they aren’t actively engaging in a conversation about their dad this Sunday, it doesn’t mean they don’t think about him or miss him. For children, what’s on their minds is often something that will occur that day. It isn’t easy or instinctual for them to think about “the big picture.”
Helping children know their current needs are being met or going to be met sooner rather than later will give them a sense of security. When children feel secure and loved unconditionally, they are more likely to open up about their feelings.
Each child’s grief experience is unique
While two children in the same family may both endure the same loss, the way they experience and express it may appear entirely different. What one child focuses on may not be a focal point for another child. For example, a daddy-daughter dance may create emotional turmoil for one child, whereas another child seems indifferent.
Each child has their own point of view — not only of their father, but also to that of holidays, like Father’s Day, and other tangible items. One child may not want to give away anything that belonged to their father, while another child may hold onto an item. Each child will likely assign their own value to various objects.
When you’re fueled with acceptance and love of your child’s opinions, it will show them you’re interested in their perception of loss.
A child’s silence doesn’t mean they’re stuck
If a child doesn’t speak about their father, it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in his life or missing him or stuck in some unhealthy mindset —or even that you’re doing something wrong. The child may not be intentionally concealing their sadness. The interpretation of a child’s silence needs to be done with an abundance of caution and care, and often with the guidance of a licensed professional. You aren’t expected to be a grief master. The grief professional can help you navigate how to best help your child with their loss.
A child’s perception of loss changes
If this isn’t your child’s first Father’s Day without their dad, you may be reflecting back to other years. And if your child’s level of interest in honoring their father seems to have shifted from last year— or even last week —it may be best to change your approach to how you’re handling the day.
Children are apt to change their minds about the holiday without communicating anything to any adult, which creates confusion. The child may lack insight into their actions and feelings resulting in more emotional chaos. Remember, their intent is generally to feel peaceful and calm, but because they are children they might lack the ability to articulate this.
Consider a private moment
A holiday solely focused on fathers can be intimidating to handle. And thanks to the internet, there is an entire universe of father images for them to view. Image management is deeply embedded in our culture and producing the right one in a visual and/ or written form can be highly stressful for a child.
So, the idea doing something private where only you and your children can observe the holiday might be easier for them to handle. You can also help them with a response should their friends ask why they didn’t share anything online. Offering to help your children create a new way to honor their father and manage nosy friends can decrease the intensity of their stress related to the day.
Healing is a strategy
Creating an environment of openness this weekend will help your child learn to express what they’re thinking about and feeling. Stay as open as possible with your children so that all that remains unresolved for them will come in the form of questions to you.
Don’t ever stop listening and learning from your child when it comes to their grief because this will help you integrate a healing that is unique to their needs. Teaching a child that in the pursuit of their own healing lies the discovery of their strengths is one of the greatest gifts a parent can offer their child.
There isn’t one-size-fits-all method on how to traverse the grief plane this Father’s Day weekend, so knowing that grief is asymmetrical for children and giving them an abundance of tenderness and compassion will help them connect healing with love.