Helping Our Kids Name Grief and Gratitude

Written by Casey Sundstedt, host of The Relate Podcast

Chances are two months ago most of us would not have been interested in the topic of helping our kids name their grief. It might not have been something that caught our eye as parents. But, oh so much has changed in the last 6 weeks. We suddenly find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a new reality, one in which there is an abundance for each of us to grieve, both little and significant things. As I talk to more and more people about their experiences, another theme emerges next to grief: there is a lot of unexpected goodness coming from this season, poking its head up between the moments of hard. Grief AND Goodness.

As parents, we are carrying a lot right now. Our family’s needs have rapidly changed and morphed, and we now have the additional challenge added to our to-do list of figuring out how to help our kids understand and navigate all that they have lost because of the CoronaVirus. We wrestle with how to help them in their grief and wonder if we talk about it too much. Are we making them sadder by giving the grief to room to grow? The reality is the opposite is actually true:. when we stuff down our grief and ignore it, it grows exponentially in the hiding. But, when we give our kids space and opportunities to name their grief, it will help them overcome it.

If you’re anything like me, this is when you think of all the pushback or challenges that will come if you try to get your kids to talk about their feelings. But here’s the good news--YOU are the expert on YOUR kids. It isn’t helpful to prescribe ways for you to invite them into conversation because you know your kids best. You have a master’s degree in who your kids are and what they need. You’ve put in the hours of observation and study. Believe in your ability to meet them right where they are in a way in which they can engage. And the funniest part? If you have more than one kid, I bet they have different griefs and different needs when it comes to sharing them. Their differences are where their beauty lies, and as their parent, you are able to translate an invitation to name grief into their unique language. It’s one of your superpowers!

For me, I knew that if I sat my 12 year old daughter down and asked her about what she is missing and how it is making her feel, we would have a great conversation that lasted a while and went back and forth. We would even have time to enjoy a snack. And, I also knew that if I did that with my 14 year old son it would get met with a lot of silence and shoulder shrugs. So in helping him name his losses and things that needed to be grieved I had to keep it a lot more casual and even let him do it in his own timing. The need is the same--to help our kids name their grief--but the strategy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. As the expert on your kids use your detective skills to craft your invitation. You are the expert.

So what do we do once they name their grief? This is the easier part. They don’t need answers (which is good...because we don’t have a lot of those right now). All they need is to be met with empathy. Empathy is when we share how we imagine they might feel. We want to honor their experience and validate their reality. It could sound like, “that sounds hard.” Or “I imagine that makes you disappointed.” We do not need to fix their sadness, we are being asked to validate their reality and join them in it. We can do this!

One tendency we may have as we name our grief is to jump directly from sharing our experience to acknowledging that others might have it harder. And that is often true. Perhaps someone else does have it more difficult. Brene Brown tells us the good news that empathy is not a finite resource. There is enough empathy to go around! There is empathy for your daughter who misses her teacher AND for the frontline workers who are risking their lives caring for patients with Covid-19. There is empathy for your son who misses baseball season AND for the family who lost their source of income because of the changes in our ability to gather. Each of us have a need to be met with empathy, and there is enough for all of us. So as our kids name their grief, validate their experience with empathy. There is enough to go around.

Grief is a word that might intimidate us, but when you break it down as a need to name it and then greet it with empathy, not answers, we see that we really are able to care for our kids in their grief. We are uniquely gifted and situated to do just that as their parent. As the moments of goodness pop up and show themselves, let us name those, too. Celebrating the gratitude in the midst of the grief. Both. Just like life. You’ve got this.

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