Grief that comes in childhood
When it comes to children’s safety, and not just their well-being, one of the greatest protections we can offer is our emotional availability.
As caregivers, we need to gain the ability to be emotionally present, as well as physically present.
We work to offer our attention with our energy, and our time.
Where then, does grief fit in?
On Sunday morning on my way to facilitate a parenting workshop, I was interrupted by a devastating text.
Something happened, and grieving started.
And children were impacted.
Not the first one this month, and yet no less shocking.
I write shock here, but I mean intensity.
The way when you get kicked in the chest it takes several seconds before you can gasp.
The connection I’m drawn to on this early morning bus ride is the one between children and caregivers.
Specifically, the factors that change how caregivers care, and how they become absent.
Because of one thing.
With and without explanation.
Mostly without preparation.
I’ve found myself reflecting on the impact my dad’s death had on my childhood.
I’ve found myself reflecting on the impact my sister’s death had on her children’s childhoods.
I’ve heard myself aware that children grieve for a unique change that they perceive before adults can — a loss of emotional availability.
Grief is a form of disruptive change.
Quiet with crescendo.
Shrill with segue.
Nothing you have words for.
Everything felt and sensed.
Permanent in some significant way.
When grief impacts us as caregivers, children grieve the loss we don’t openly acknowledge.
The distance left to make room for our very real grief takes space that would have been filled by them, and our hands must hold more now.
They may look like they’re holding less, but that’s just because some weights are invisible.
Think back to those soundless, winded seconds.
there is a collision,
then a curving in,
and a halting process,
generated by unanticipated,
forceful contact meeting our bodies.
Something hits you,
and then it stops,
and you can’t keep going.
The shared realization hits the audience before you’ve started to breathe again.
The picture is one we understand.
Witnesses carry that knowledge, whether or not what they’ve seen is revisited consciously.
And in that moment shifts occur.
Subtle or obvious ones.
When I think about lessons I try to embody in my interactions with children now, my best teacher is my child self.
Here are five possible actions that caregivers can take to support kids in dealing with grief and loss, especially when grief is acute or recent.
To the best of your ability, describe what’s happening. Work with your child to convert confusion and overwhelm into dialogue. Be mindful that children perceive and assign meaning to everything they’re observing.
Work to affirm that what children observe and feel is rooted in something real and valid. When you feel defensive and exhausted, and when they feel your reactions and mirror them, help each other to name the chain reactions.
3) Offer Alternatives
When what your child needs and what you can provide are not the same thing, try to move out of all or nothing solutions. Try to identify other ideas that are manageable for both of you.
4) Deflate your balloon
When stress is recent, it’s also constant, resting at a higher than average level that leads to blowing up and shutting down frequently. Don’t run from that reality, try to incorporate it by asking for help and finding little releases. Importantly, when your balloon “pops”, say so, and say so to your child when you’re able.
What and how you are grieving is different than what and how your child is grieving. Try to reflect that when you’re talking, and avoid we statements and global statements that speak for them. Give each other ownership of what you’re experiencing by allowing for distinction.
I grieve as a child and now as a caregiver a memory my body has internalized.
Children need adults who are available to them
things happen that make that impossible.
How can we work to make those losses in our emotional availability less devastating for the children who feel us changing?
How can we share in each other’s grief so that it doesn’t swallow or shrink us?
What happens between something hitting us, and something in us being able to breathe?
That I wonder, is where we can learn to attend.
The place where
lessons are being birthed,
alongside every shaped grief.