We were sitting in a church pew as I watched my five year old draw a picture. He was drawing our family. He looked at me and smiled as he drew each member. This is daddy, this is you, this is me, this is A, and this is Tristan. As he drew Tristan he started scribbling him out. I asked him why and his response sent a raging arrow of pain down to my heart. “I am not scribbling him out. That’s dirt. I am putting dirt on him because he is in the ground.” I had to fight back tears and forced a smile.
Our reality sucks.
My five year old talks about his brother often. It is almost a daily occurrence to hear him talk to him. Yes, I mean full on conversations with his brother, while he leans his sweet face towards the sky. He will then inform me what his brother’s answers are to his questions. It is nothing unusual to look back in my rear view and see tears streaming down my little man’s face, only for him to say, “Mama, I miss Tristan. I miss my brother.” Death is something he has known for half his life. It is something that has been a part of his life for as long as it wasn’t a part of his life. With all the sad moments and tears, come joy in my heart that my son remembers his brother. So how do we handle grief with our children?
1. Be honest
From day one, we have been honest with E about his brother. I will never forget after getting the official word from the specialist that Tristan would not live outside my womb, watching Rod tell E. My niece blissfully unaware of the pain that was accumulating in the air continued to jump on my sisters bed, as Rod placed E into his lap and told him his brother was going to go to heaven. The tears streamed from my husband’s eyes as he told our two year old his brother was going to die. We never hid the truth from him. His brother died. His brother had a big boo boo on his head. His brother’s body is in the ground. His brother’s spirit is in heaven. His brother’s boo boo is all better. We always told the truth, but would explain as simply as possible.
2. Keep it simple
I always think of those Keep it Simple Stupid books, when I think about how I have to talk about grief. But on the contrary there are no K.I.S.S. books to give you step by step instructions on how to deal with grief with kids, and even if there were, it would not be helpful because grief is so different for everyone. It helped a lot that we were both teachers and I had been an elementary teacher. I have the understanding of how child development works and the different stages of my son’s cognitive development. I took that into consideration as we have explained things to him. We kept all our words simple and straight to the point. We didn’t say, Tristan went to sleep. We told him he died. We explained what death was. How our bodies go into the ground and our spirit goes to heaven. Simple.
3. It is OKAY to cry
I have never hidden my tears from my son. I remember collapsing in an overwhelming wave of grief in the middle of the kitchen one evening while I was cooking. I buried my head into my knees and cried. As I drowned into my grief, my sweet little boy came walking over, wrapped his arms around me, patted my head and said, “It’s okay mommy.” The wave of grief receded as I looked up into his innocent little eyes. Often he would come and hold me. I did not rely on him, but I know God placed that little boy in my life so I could make it through this new normal. He still
comforts me in my time of pain, and often makes me burst into laughter when he informs me to not cry like a baby. It isn’t uncommon for me to comfort his grief, which will then bring me to tears, only for him to tell me, stop crying mom. I will not hide my tears from my son, because he needs to know it is okay to cry.
4. Allow them to play
We decorate Tristan’s grave every holiday and we visit often. E helps pick out the toys we place on his grave, and helps us clean up the cemetery while we are there. He has his own tools that he uses to help his daddy clean up. He will then take his brother’s toys and play in the dirt “with him”. This is how my children play with their brother.
5. Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid of messing up your kid. How you approach grief with your children is up to you. Every family is different. What you choose is what is best for your family. I know my husband and I asked each other, are we doing this right? We love our children. ALL of our children, and Tristan’s short life is just as important as E’s life. I always remind myself of a colleague back in our old town. She told me, that after she had become an adult her parents had told her about a sibling she had that had died at birth. She said she wished she would have known. My son remembers his brother. He talks with him, plays with him, and hurts for him.
Our way of life may be different, but it’s how we battle each day of grief.