A few months ago my thirty-nine year old health food eating, wilderness expert, herbalist, martial arts loving partner (otherwise known as The Man) had a heart attack. Needless to say, it blew us out of the water. We were far from expecting that. Fortunately he’s made a steady recovery and just recently (four months later!) went back to work.
In this instance we didn’t have to deal with his unexpected death, however, we did have to adjust to not having him in the house and then respecting his reduced tolerance for emotional and physical stress. This was a big adjustment for The Toddler. Being just three years old she had no idea of what was going on and was frightened by the ambulance taking Daddy away and was later overwhelmed by the huge echoyness of the hospital and cowed by the unwanted attention from the nurses. Her greatest adjustment in the beginning was having to sleep without Daddy next to her. (That was mine too.) We did it, but we didn’t do it well.
When he came home The Toddler had to get used to Daddy saying no, he couldn’t play. He’d never turned her down before. He couldn’t pick her up anymore. All The Toddler knew was that something happened to Daddy. She wasn’t sure what and she wasn’t totally convinced it wasn’t something she had done.
How do you handle that unexpected emergency? What do you say to the small child at your side who is asking questions you may not have the strength to answer? How do you find the strength to inform, support and love them through a crisis when you’re struggling yourself?
Speak to your child at his level. You may want to over-explain to prevent your child from hurting, but it doesn’t work that way. Start with the basics, “Grandma was very, very sick.”
In case of death what you tell your child regarding “Where is Grandma now?” is up to you and whatever your family believes about such things. However, keep in mind your child won’t totally grasp the idea. If you tell him Grandma “went” somewhere he may think she’ll be back. Like when she goes to the store, or when she goes home from visiting him. If you tell him Grandma is “gone” he’ll want to know where and why she isn’t coming back. He may wonder what he did that made her want to go away and not see him anymore. He may be frightened thinking that Grandma is in a place where she’s not allowed to see him anymore. He may think Grandma is trapped somewhere and feel helpless that he can’t help her escape.
After you’ve given your child a very basic rundown of the situation allow him to ask you some questions. This ensures two things. One, that you address his concerns and two, that he understands what he needs to at this moment to get through the situation.
When very young children experience tragedy they do so at whatever level they’re at at the time. You may nurse him through Grandma’s death and funeral and think life returned to normal when ten months later he’s in tears and has more questions. This is normal. He’s showing you he’s grown a bit and has a bigger understanding of life and needs you to help him fill in the blanks when what he used to know doesn’t fill in all the spaces in his heart where Grandma used to be.
It may take years before your child fully gets over his loss, but that’s okay. If you meet him at each step with the love and care he needs he’ll be just fine. If he’s having a hard time look into some books for his age group and read it to him. The book will help him sort things out a bit and you’ll both get some extra cuddles while reading it. After a month or so if you’re still concerned about your child it may do you both some good to locate a child psychologist for him to speak with. Your child may be holding back from you because he’s afraid to upset you. Think of the psychologist as “back up” for you. A couple weeks of counseling may be all your child needs to help him tame his grief.
The most important thing you can do for your grieving toddler is to make sure you are taken care of. If you need counseling, seek it. If you need a weekend away with your best friend to cry on her shoulder and toast to your Mom, then go. If you need to, take your child with you. Your friend’s kids can distract him while your friend helps you adjust.
What does not help your child is seeing you distraught and sobbing at inopportune moments. It is not your child’s responsibility to comfort you. (Although hugs are always welcome!) You are the parent. You need to lead. And don’t worry about “how well” you handle this. The important thing is that your child will learn what to do himself when he’s on his own. And if he sees you cry now and then? Let him know you’re all right, you just miss Grandma. He’ll learn empathy, compassion and more importantly, that Mommy and Daddy have feelings too.
Finally, be a little kinder to one another, spend a little more time together and you’ll find that not only have you reached the other side of this particular valley, you’re also a little closer to one another and understand one another a bit more.
About the Author: Elisa Ashley
Elisa writes a personal blog (ElisaAshley.wordpress.com) in return for Ho-ho's and Banana Colada Fuze, ghostwrites for her daughter Abigail at The Abby Gales (www.abbyrory.blogspot.com) and also played the part of Ginger on Whisk-ers In Kitchens (www.whiskersinkitchens.wordpress.com). She is currently a full-time mom, part-time student, and part-time photographer. She resides reluctantly in Alabama with her invisible friends and itchy shutter release finger.