Walking Through Grief With Kids: Tips from a Novice

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Over the last eight years, I have read a lot of parenting books. Before my girls were born, I read a lot about how to care for my body during pregnancy, how to feed and nurture my babies in the first weeks, and how to get through the first year with my sanity still intact. Most of the mom blogs I read and playgroups I joined centered on these same things, as well as navigating the adventure that is toddlerhood. There have only been a few curveballs so far, as I am not very far into this parenting journey. Most recently, I have learned firsthand how to walk my kids through grief and loss after the death of my grandmother. 

Sweet Last Moments

My kids and I have both been fortunate not to experience too much loss in our lives. My husband’s grandmother passed away before my oldest two could understand it. When my oldest was just a toddler, my grandfather passed away. We haven’t had to deal with much grief with kids. When my grandmother came to town for a family photoshoot a few months ago, we had a feeling it would be one of the last times we would see her.

While my kids haven’t spent a lot of time with her over the course of their short lives, I believe they could sense that her life was nearing its end. We spent a beautiful fall evening taking family pictures and having dinner in the backyard. My oldest never left her side. A few days later, we got the call that she didn’t have much time. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Do I tell my kids that the end is coming? Do I wait until it has happened? I had no idea.

Beginning the Conversation

When I found out that she didn’t have much time, I was visibly upset. While I cry occasionally in front of my kids, they knew this was different. I sat down with my kids and told them that Great Grandma was getting weaker. Then, I shared that she didn’t have much time left, and no one knew how long it would take. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my kids when I told them this and their reactions varied. Josie jumped in my lap and started weeping. Eliza fell silent, captured by emotion but unsure how to express it without the same outpouring of tears as her sister. Verona, with her two-year-old mind not fully understanding but trying to participate, said, “I’m sad Grandma is dead.” We burst out laughing. Grief is funny that way. 

An Unexpected Good-bye

The next day, I planned to take the girls to a friend’s house so that I could go say goodbye. I wasn’t sure whether to bring them with me and I decided I wanted them to remember their Great Grandmother the way they saw her last: smiling, happy, and full of life. Unfortunately, just as I was about to leave and drive to see my grandmother, I got the call that she had already passed. This compounded my grief and I felt guilty for not leaving sooner. As an adult, though, I knew there was nothing I could have done. Now I just had to break the news to my girls. 

Surprised by Grief

I decided to pick them up, get them home and fed, and break the news before they asked. Their reactions were similar to the first time—less shock but no less sadness. We explained that there would be a funeral and a burial. We talked about our understanding of heaven and assured them that Grandma was no longer in pain. Their processing of grief was as varied as those initial reactions. Josie cried, wrote, and talked to her friend. Eliza needed extra hugs and drew lots of pictures. Verona provided us all with comedic relief and we were all grateful for her innocence and naivete. 

The day of the funeral came and we made the decision to take the girls along. The service included a chance to visit with a closed casket. We felt it was appropriate for their ages and necessary for closure. It was about as stressful as you can imagine it would be with three kids age 8 and under in the middle of naptime, but we made it out and ultimately I was glad we took them.

The burial was the next day. It was a three-hour drive away, and my oldest insisted on joining. This part of the process is where I was most unsure. Was it appropriate to bring her to the burial? Could she handle it? Would it help or hurt? Sometimes in parenting, it feels like we are presented with a few options and then we just do our best to choose the one which causes the least harm. This felt like that kind of choice, and I opted to take her. 

A long story and a lot of traffic later, we never made it to the burial. An accident on the highway resulted in a closed interstate, hours and hours of traffic, and having to turn around and go home. When we realized we wouldn’t make it there, I pulled into a gas station and we both started sobbing. How could this happen? We got this far. We left on time. We’re not even that far away. Oh, and she’s really gone. 

Walking Through Grief With Kids

I gleaned some wisdom about how to walk kids through grief without burdening them. Here’s what I learned:

Include them in the process.
If they want to go to the funeral or burial and you aren’t sure if they are too young, have a conversation about it. If they are asking for it as part of their ability to understand what is happening, they most likely need it.

Let them be sad.
As parents, we are accustomed to our kids crying over not getting their way, being tired, or because we gave them exactly what they asked for and the tears are an absolute mystery. I was surprised, though, when my oldest had such a visceral reaction to my grandmother’s death. I wanted to comfort her but I didn’t know how long she would need and she wasn’t in a hurry. But who can rush grief? It is fleeting for some and all-encompassing for others and every response is warranted and welcomed.  

Leave room for laughter.
My two-year-old insisted on wearing a bright pink sequined dress to my grandmother’s funeral. I could not for the life of me get her out of that dress. She ended up matching all of the roses and everyone kept saying how sweet it was that she wore Grandma’s favorite color. Between that and telling the mailman and her dolls that Grandma was dead, she was a hit. Instead of stifling the joy brought by her ignorance, I chose to embrace it.

Finally, everyone grieves differently.

Expect your kids to surprise you. Expect to surprise yourself. May we welcome the opportunity to love our kids better and like all other parenting matters, spread the wisdom we glean along the way. Walking through grief with kids isn’t easy, but it’s something we can do.

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