Beneath the intensity of the fluorescent lights, the pediatric intensive care unit felt even more garish at 3 a.m. as I stood in the hallway with a patient’s dad who was tearful and afraid. His daughter’s nurse had called me to the room because the young girl’s health was declining and her dad needed emotional support.
When I arrived at the room, the patient’s dad rushed out into the hallway. He explained that he needed a few minutes outside the room because he didn’t want his daughter to see him cry. I peeked through the glass door and saw a little waif of a girl, too thin, hooked up to multiple supports.
Awake, the little girl’s eyes were focused on Elsa, who sang and danced on the TV screen above her bed. Ironic, as the one thing we could all agree on in that moment is that no one was ready to let it go. In the crook of her arm she clutched a monkey, its fur matted with love and life.
I shifted my eyes back to the girl’s dad and asked if he would like to take a short walk. As our steps joined in solidarity down the empty hallway, this burdened dad began opening up. He shared that it had always been just the two of them, and that he was the fun dad who made his daughter laugh on a daily basis.
We stopped walking and he looked at me with nervous eyes. “I don’t want her to see me cry. I know I need to be strong for her right now.” We sat in silence for a few minutes, his words settling between us. During my decade of hospital chaplaincy work, I have heard parents, adult children, siblings, grandparents, echo this man’s sentiment more times than I can count.
Our love often is translated as a fierce desire to protect the one we love from pain. One way we have been taught to do that is never to let them see us cry.
As we approach the two-year-anniversary of the pandemic, families all over the world are sitting down to dinner with an empty chair at the table. The number of people, actual people, who have died from this virus is so staggering that the global number doesn’t even feel real.
What is real are the moms who no longer are here to tuck their children into bed at night and the grandparents who no longer are here to FaceTime on Sunday afternoons. And grief isn’t limited to those who died of COVID. Infuriating and unfair as it is, these past two years also have borne sorrow and grief from cancer, accidents, mental illness, stillbirths — and the list goes on. In addition to these personal griefs, our children are now wrestling with the war they hear is happening in a place many have never heard of. There is so much to process.
“What is real are the moms who no longer are here to tuck their children into bed at night and the grandparents who no longer are here to FaceTime on Sunday afternoons.”
Our children know.
Our children know the past two years have not been normal. Life still isn’t normal and may never return to the way it once was. They can feel how heavy the air is around them.
Some of the babies in our midst are grieving the death of a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a sibling, a friend. Others are wrestling with their own health and try to smile beneath their sad eyes as they are admitted to the children’s hospital one more time. Some are hearing adults talking about war and wonder if that will happen here and feel anxious and unsafe.
We can’t protect our children, and many things in our world, their world, are out of our control. What we can do is teach them a healthy way to respond to their suffering.
As the silence settled between that dad and me, I gently asked: “What do you think would happen if your daughter saw you cry? What might you teach her by letting her see your sadness?”
That little girl’s dad began to weep in earnest, and as he mopped his face with tissues, he met my eyes and said one of the bravest statements I know: “I think maybe if she sees me cry she will know it’s OK for her to cry too.”
“That little girl’s dad began to weep in earnest, and as he mopped his face with tissues, he met my eyes and said one of the bravest statements I know: ‘I think maybe if she sees me cry she will know it’s OK for her to cry too.’”
Many adults were not taught how to grieve well or how to process through difficult emotions. We shop, we eat, we binge Netflix, we do whatever we can to stay as numb as possible to the pain because when it surfaces, we don’t know what to do with it.
Most of us never were taught how to talk about death or suffering. We have an opportunity right now to learn alongside our children and practice a different way of processing grief. This work will teach our children resilience and will increase our resilience as well.
Part of my role as pediatric hospital chaplain is to talk with parents after their child dies about how to share the news with their other children. The practices I share with these parents are relevant for children experiencing any type of death or loss.
First, use the word, “death.” If the grief you are addressing is due to the death of someone they love, children will best be able to understand what you are telling them if you use the actual word. Phrases like “he went to sleep” can create extreme anxiety in a child about falling asleep, and if we “lose” someone why can’t we just go find them? The common phrase “pass away” also is not clear and will not make sense to your child, Despite our culture’s discomfort with this word, “death” is not a bad word, and when talking with children it is the best word to use.
Second, validate your child’s feelings. As a parent, I know how easy it is when one of my children is crying to say, “It’s OK.” This does nothing to help the hurting child and can be damaging because everything they are communicating to you in that moment is that things are not OK. When you share sad news with your child, they may respond with anger, sadness, even laughter. However their response presents itself, our role as adults is to honor their feelings. “It looks like you’re feeling really angry about the news that grandma is sick.” “I see your tears and can tell you are sad.” “I remember that funny story about mommy too and it makes me smile to think about it.”
“Do your best not to drag your child to look at the bright side.”
Third, don’t try to “fix” things. As people who love the children in our lives, we work hard to keep them safe. It’s no wonder this translates into trying to fix things when we witness our children suffering. Despite our good intentions, however, this attempt to fix causes more harm. Do your best not to drag your child to look at the bright side (At least we had that many years with grandpa!). Resist the urge to repeat the saying embedded within many of us, “I know just how you feel.” Instead, ask open-ended questions. When your child presents the problem back to you, “My teacher died,” respond with an opportunity for them to share more with you, such as, “What is that like for you?” or, “How are you feeling about that?” This deepens your child’s understanding that this is a safe space to share their feelings, which will build their resilience.
Fourth, share your grief with your child. There are limits to this, but allowing your child to see you grieve models for them a healthy response to sad news. If you feel you need time to punch a wall, break a glass or scream, these responses would best be done when you are alone or with another adult. When you are with your child, let them see you cry. Tell them you are sad and that you miss daddy too. When they see you grieve, they will know they can grieve too. When they hear you talk about the person who is no longer at the dinner table, they will know that they, too, can talk about that person, say their name and share their memories. Expressing your feelings encourages your child to express theirs and not bottle them up and create a situation where they will come out in unhealthy ways.
Fifth, be gentle in your words about God’s role in the situation. If you are someone who believes in God, be thoughtful about how you present God’s role in the death or tragedy that is occurring. Well-intentioned phrases like, “God needed another angel,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” can be confusing for your child and also can foster anger toward God or the Divine at taking the person they love away from them. Instead, try, “I don’t understand why Grandma died, but I know she is loved by God, just like you are,” or, “God is here with us now, grieving alongside us. It helps me remember we are not alone in our sadness.”
Death, dying, war and tragedy are difficult situations for all of us. Having open conversations with your child and modeling for them what authentic grief looks like will build a foundation of resilience for them that will help them process and grow in both the joyful and sorrowful seasons of their lives.
Christy Edwards is a board-certified pediatric hospital chaplain who lives in Liberty, Mo., with her husband, Jason, and their three children.
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