I'm sure we can all look back at our childhood and remember our first experience with death. Mine happened when I was in the first grade. My family had four or five cats at the time, but Princess was my favorite. She was a bright orange calico with little white stripes, like a tiger. When she was hit by a car one night, I was devastated. We buried her in our backyard. I even made her a headstone from a cardboard box.
As a 7-year-old girl, my world was shattered. "What do you mean she's never coming back?" I asked. My innocent little mind couldn't understand what death actually meant. I lost more pets over the years, and each time, it broke my heart. But they all started to help me understand death better and prepare me for the real losses I would experience later in my life.
Losing pets, or even grandparents, is a fairly normal occurrence for kids and is how the majority of children will first encounter death. My son Jax, on the other hand, falls into the minority. He witnessed his father's death when he was only 3 days old. It's beyond tragic that he will never have any of his own memories of his father, but I am thankful he won't have any of that day. It breaks my heart to think about the children out there who will remember their parent and the day they lost them forever.
My son is 3 years old now, and he still doesn't understand what death is or how much it has affected his life already. He loves watching videos of his father and snuggling up with his t-shirt quilt. "Get daddy's blanket, Mama," he says. He loves to kiss the tattoo of my husband Justin on my back and says, "That's Daddy." But I know it's only a matter of time before he understands everything. When that day comes, I want to be prepared so I can handle the situation in the best way possible.
I constantly worry about a few things, and if you've ever had to navigate supporting your child through a loss, these have probably crossed your mind too:
How can I best support him when I have no clue what he's going through?
Justin was the love of my life, and I will never fully recover from his death. But I had both of my parents growing up, so I could never relate to Jax's loss.
How much do I share?
Each widow or widower has their own story of how their spouse passed away, and your child will naturally be curious. But what amount is acceptable to share? I don't want to lie to my son, but I also don't want to scare him or scar him for life.
How will this affect him growing up?
I do worry that Jax might end up with a chip on his shoulder. I want him to be able to mourn his father, but in a healthy way. I never want him to think he can use what happened as an excuse to act out or get his way. This could be a sticky situation.
I've been seeing a grief counselor off and on since Justin died, and I recently sought him out for some advice on my questions. He shared some useful tips and recommended a few different sources to check out on the subject. Here's what I found most helpful.
Create a secure environment
When a child loses a parent, they no longer feel safe. The loving pair of arms that held them when they were hurt or scared is gone. Ask them what they need to feel secure again. It might be hanging a photo of the deceased parent by their bed or keeping a piece of the parent's clothing with them. Whatever it may be, try to keep an open mind.
Open your home to extended family
Aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, siblings, and certainly grandparents are your best friends right now. Not only do you need extra hands (you just lost your partner), but your child also needs extra love. Having extended family around will also help your child find that sense of security. The more love they get, the less they feel scared and alone.
Keep as much normalcy as you can
Even though your life will be anything but normal, your child doesn't need to know that. They need to believe that their life is still the same. Stick to family dinners, typical bedtimes, and a regular school schedule, and even consider taking a vacation. Children thrive on structure and routine, so doing storytime before bed might be the only thing that helps them feel normal. Maintaining some sense of normalcy might help you as well.
No question is off limits
It's important to be open with your child about what happened. Setting boundaries on their curious little minds will likely not serve either of you well. You must make your own choice about how you want to answer tough questions, but bear in mind that if you lie to them, there may be repercussions down the road.
Remember that your spouse is gone, but not forgotten
When Justin died, I wanted to make sure Jax grew up knowing who his father was. My way of doing that was by getting a badass tattoo: a portrait of Justin on my back. Jax sees the tattoo every day, but I don't have to; sometimes it's easier for me that way. However you decide to keep your partner's memory alive, it's one of the most important things you can do for your child. Talk about them, keep photos out, share stories, and certainly remember special occasions like birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.
Therapy or play therapy might be necessary
Jax is still too young for any form of therapy, but when he's ready, I will definitely try to take him. Therapy is good for any human being, and I wouldn't be the healthy person I am today if I hadn't gone to therapy. For younger kids, consider play therapy, a form of counseling that uses play to help children with psychological issues.
Love a little deeper
No matter how sad you are, remember that your child is too, and you both need affection and connection. Give them extra hugs, kisses, and snuggles. Tell them how brave they are, show them how proud you are of them, and never stop telling them how much they were and are still loved.
For more child-specific grief-coping strategies, also check out When Something Terrible Happens by Marge Heegaard. The book was written for children ages 6 to 12, and it helps them cope with their pain and loss by drawing images in their heads and color coding specific feelings.