Parenting Gently Through Grief and Loss

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

On the 12th of March, our life was forever changed with the birth of our eighth child who, tragically, only lived for thirteen hours. We have been parenting gently for the past eleven years, but it has been a real struggle to parent gently through my and the children’s grief. Our five-year-old seems to be struggling the most. She hits, bites, pushes, and yells at her sibling and at my husband and me. I know she is hurting, and she cannot understand why her little sister had to die. In the early days after Serenity’s death, she talked a lot about dying herself so she could be with Serenity.

Our eight-year-old is very sullen and I have not gotten her to share what or how she is feeling. The others (fourteen, twelve, eleven, and three) are displaying other symptoms of grief, like sudden outbursts of anger, being on edge, and being ready to explode, if slightly provoked.

We also have a nineteen-month-old who is a treasure! Well, they are all treasures. He is just too young to express his grief through unacceptable behavior. He is very “clingy” now though, but I do not mind that.

I guess my question is how do I best address the negative behaviors while still allowing them to grieve? I have not found any resources specific to parenting a grieving child gently.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amy: My condolences are with you and your family. There are no words to fully express what a family experiences in the loss of a loved one. It is a very unique experience to heal through.

I can definitely relate to the desire to parent with sensitivity while wanting to also address behaviors that you do not want to continue. It sounds like you already understand that grief is a process and that the behaviors are related. There are a few points that come to mind as I consider your question. Maybe these will help you in moments of question or indecision.

Grief is messy. You know this because you are living it. Give yourself and your family permission to be messy and emotional for a while. Find ways to trust that it will get better. Having that outlook helps you slow down and appreciate the soft times, even when they are few and far between. Some ideas to assist here may be to seek outside help with household stuff, so you can just be with your kids, to allow extra time around scheduled activities for emotional release, and to create a welcome space for everyone to feel what they feel. Talk to everyone about their experiences, let them know that all emotions are welcome, that you will let them know what they cannot do when they are upset, and that you are working through this together. For the little one who is making comments about wanting to die and be with the baby, a simple reflection of her feelings may help. For example, you could say,”I hear you and it sounds like you are feeling so sad.” She can correct you if you are wrong. Of course, you know her best, and she may benefit from talking with a trusted friend as well.

You are the leader. Being that you are the person who literally lost who and what you were dreaming about for nine months, you are likely having a very intense experience. Cry. Feel. Breathe. Write. Listen. Breathe. Read. Take a walk. Join a support group, or talk to other people who you can relate to, if that is helpful for you. Take care of you, moment by moment. As you give your family permission to accept whatever emotions arise, do this for yourself also. We cannot give what we do not have for ourselves. Let everything drop if you need to cry or work through emotions, or at least acknowledge the feelings you feel and intend to honor them later in private. Scale down your responsibilities and accept help. When you do get time to yourself, breathe deeply through your body and listen for any emotions that may need to surface. Breathe as you feel them and honor any signals that are present. If you become comfortable with whatever you feel, your kids will notice and begin to feel like it is safe to feel what they are feeling.

Clarify boundaries. It can be a challenge to separate emotion from behavior. Parents who are frustrated often become harsh. The same goes for children. When you are feeling calm and have some time to yourself, possibly at bedtime or in the morning before everyone is up, write down the behaviors that you do not want on one side of a piece of paper and on the other side write those that you do want. For example, “I do not want hitting” will turn into “I do want the kids to work out problems constructively” or “I do not want yelling” will turn into “I do want talking about how we feel in a respectful or regular tone of voice.” Use your own words and find what you do want to focus on. Then think about how you can demonstrate and how you can guide them to the outcome you want. You may simply say, “Hitting doesn’t work here. Talking through problems does. Let’s talk this through.”

Trust. Modeling, consistency, and trust go hand in hand when we are working to eliminate unwanted behaviors and are working to experience emotions in a way that honors their purpose. Sometimes we can get caught up thinking we have to model happiness 24/7. That is not realistic, and it is dangerous. It is just as valuable to genuinely feel sadness, breathe through it, cry, or talk about it, as it is to be consistent with directing the kids to appropriate behavior. We are human; we feel. If there is one thing you take away from this, trust that this experience has the potential to bring you all closer as you grieve together and that the children will come around in time, with love.

Erica: First, I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to you and your family on the loss of your daughter, Serenity. This is such an overwhelming time because parents not only need to deal with their own grief, but also with the grief of their children.

I lost my sixteen-month-old, Bella, four years ago. My oldest daughter, who was five at the time of her sister’s death, immediately started to show signs of anxiety, as well as obsessive-compulsive behaviors. She would also use play to work through dealing with all of the issues her sister faced. Unlike her peers, her dolls were tube fed and on oxygen. This was a way for her to bring those processes into her reality. If you are invited into their play, this is an excellent way to get insight into their world and emotions.

Be reassured your children’s actions are part of normal grieving. These behaviors show that a child is struggling to deal with their feelings. By trying to understand your child’s feelings of guilt and anger, you are in a better position to support them through this difficult time. Focusing on the issues and feelings behind the behaviors can help solve problems with aggression and limit the need for your children to act out.

I highly recommend Empty Cradle, Broken Heart by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. It has a wonderful chapter focusing on the family and how children in the family may respond to the death of a sibling. It even breaks down the feelings and thoughts that a child may be dealing with according to their age and maturity.

As you are aware, this is not an easy or short process. We still have certain behaviors in my oldest daughter that directly relate to the loss of her sister. Allowing her to talk freely and openly about her sister and her feelings seems to help. We frequently open Bella’s box of mementos and talk about the memories we shared as a family. She has enjoyed writing letters and drawing pictures about her sister. As a parent we often feel like we want to fix everything, and we may find ourselves telling them that “everything is ok,” but it certainly is not! Whatever emotion our child may be feeling, we should encourage it. Sharing your own emotions with your child over your loss will help your children feel more comfortable over their own loss. If you feel like crying, let your children see it. Are you angry? Show your children a safe way that you deal with your anger (i.e. screaming into a pillow).

Lastly, I would suggest finding other families that have dealt with death or find stories of death and grief to read together. This helps everyone see how others deal with all of their feelings and emotions in a healthy, less aggressive way. As the children mature, they will continue to deal with the death of their sister. We’ll still need to be there to provide support and nurture them with love every step of the way. In many ways this provides a healing to us as well.

Sarah: I want to say that I am so sorry for your loss. Your entire family is grieving. How difficult, yet, also how beautiful that you have each other during this difficult time.

First and foremost, I suggest that you get support for yourself and your partner. You should be able to locate a grief and loss or bereavement group thorough your local hospital or social service agency. This is important because your own mourning process may be getting truncated by the responsibility of having a large family. You need to invest in some time and space for your own processing.

Once you have some support for yourself, find support for your children. You can check with The National Alliance for Grieving Children to find programs that are designed just for children. Some immediate advice is to speak openly with your children about what happened. Answer all of their questions as honestly as possible, but use language that is age-appropriate. This may mean having additional conversations with your older children. Remember that “I don’t know,” is sometimes the truest answer. It certainly applies to your daughter asking, “Why did Serenity have to die?” It is always a good idea to remind children that it is not their fault when something as tragic as this occurs. Keep in mind the self-centeredness of young children. Additionally, Dr. Laura Markham has some wonderful suggestions for helping kids with grief, loss, and death. At the end of her article, “Helping Kids with Grief, Loss, and Death,” there is an exhaustive list of resource books for children. Reading books with children, and using the content as a jumping off place for discussion, is a way to frame difficult subjects such as this one.

Also, ask for help. Enlist friends and trusted community members to provide meals and childcare, so you are better able to spend some one-on-one time with your children. I imagine it is a bit overwhelming to meet the individual needs of each of your kids, all of whom are directly affected.

As for addressing negative behaviors, it is vital that you view outbursts, especially the aggressive ones from your five-year-old, as a cry for help. Any child who bites, hits, pushes, and yells is actually experiencing intense fear. Behavior this extreme requires us to step back and say to ourselves, “My child must be deeply frightened about something and she is signaling her distress to me in the only way she can manage at this time.” Patty Wipfler’s article, “Helping Children Conquer Their Fears” certainly applies to this situation. Experiencing death so personally at a young age can only be terrifying for a small, powerless child.

Again, I wish you and your family healing and solace during this time of grief.

Photo Credit: Shannon Pifko

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