My husband has recently passed away and – while I’m obviously struggling on my own – I’m more concerned about my 8-year-old son. He was very close to his father and I can’t imagine how he is processing this whole situation — especially at his young age. They spent so much time together playing soccer in the backyard every weekend and even had storytime every night before bed. I’ll be trying my best to fill these roles, but I already know it won’t be the same.
I have helped friends and family members cope with loss in the past, but I’ve never dealt with a child in that regard. I’m worried about getting so wrapped up in my own grief that I’m not paying enough attention to him, or the reverse where I’m so focused on my son that I forget to take care of myself. Do you have any advice on how I can help my son during this time while also addressing my own needs?
Dear Overwhelmed Mother,
Thank you for reaching out. Please know your concern for your son is valid, but try to remember that caring for yourself is not selfish. When you’re experiencing a loss like this, it’s important to prioritize yourself. While you are making sure your son is okay, be sure to stop and check on yourself along the way. If you’ve ever flown in an airplane, you’ll remember that they instruct you to help yourself before helping others. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to give your son the care he needs.
While it is good that you are prepared to help your son, it’s important to note that children are much more resilient than we think they are. If given a safe space to discuss their feelings without judgement, they will often share their feelings openly and ask questions about the loved one they lost. Most children are naturally very good at grieving.
You may find yourself concerned when you believe your son is “not grieving” due to his normal, playful demeanor. Try to remember that children need to have their breaks to run around and just be kids. Just because you see them smiling and laughing does not mean they’re completely fine. Allow your son to process his grief in his own time. Often, children grieve in spurts.
When he asks questions about his father, be prepared to give concrete answers. Don’t tell him that he has “gone on vacation” or “gone to a better place” — and don’t be afraid to use words like “death.” It’s understandable that you want to protect your child from emotional pain, but they don’t need confusion on top of what they’re already trying to process. When the death is close enough to the child (like losing a father) it can be a good time to talk to them about how all living things eventually die.
Another good way to help your son process this loss is to talk to him about happy moments he once shared with his father. You mentioned that they loved to share soccer games and storytime, so encourage him to talk about those things and help him turn these anecdotes into long-lasting memories. Give him the opportunity to express his feelings and emotions in relation to these memories whether they’re positive or negative.
If you’re looking for extra support, grieving centers are a great resource and can be found all across the country for children and families alike. They encourage children to participate in hands-on activities that help them express themselves and cope with their feelings while their parents can separately receive support as an adult.
In the meantime, keep your nutrition in check, stick to a healthy sleep schedule, and continue to share your loss with a support network to process your grief. Remember, you won’t be able to help your son if you don’t help yourself first. You two will get through this difficult time together by caring for one another and taking time for yourselves.
Crossroads Hospice & Palliative Care
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