It’s been a hard week.
We’ve never glossed over death with our children, especially with our almost-4-year-old, who asks about everything all the time. From bugs on the floor to a mouse fallen victim to our hunting kitty, our child has seen death. She doesn’t have a problem saying, “Lily killed a bird. It’s dead.” And maybe it’s because of this that her questions have probed deeper and she’s trying to understand the loss of our own pet, Willow.
My grief is indescribable. But if you’ve ever experienced grief, then you can imagine. Because I am a mom first and foremost, managing my grief has been challenging; fielding my child’s questions, painful.
So how do you deal with death and grief in a holistic way? As with all things, I try to approach this season with loving and noticing, awareness and honesty.
Loving. I love my children. I respect their feelings and I know they are sad, while lacking a full understanding of what has happened. I love my husband, who is my rock, even as he sheds his own tears quietly in order to be there for mine. I love myself for being able to love so fully and openly and for mourning the loss of my friend because I am capable of such big love.
Noticing. We all notice her absence. We all notice the sadness clinging to our day-to-day’s. Noticing is not judging it as good or bad. Noticing is just that: noticing. I notice that my patience is short and my energy is waning. I notice that tears appear on my cheeks without much provocation. I notice the sighs I breathe more often and I notice I’m tired. So tired.
Awareness. How is awareness different? Awareness is bringing those things we notice into the forefront of our minds and allowing them a right to be there. Awareness makes me capable of noticing my short patience and acknowledging its presence, while calming myself with a deep breath and addressing my children’s needs. Awareness gives me permission to take a nap because I noticed my energy was low and I want to be able to have more to give to all these people that I love. Awareness is how I can tell my toddlers, “Yes, Willow is gone. Yes, I know, I want her back too. Yes, I miss her and I see that you miss her too. Yes, we can trust that her spirit is freed from her body and we will always have her in our hearts.”
Honesty. Seems like this should be simple, but there are degrees of honesty. I’m not going to tell my children the step-by-step of how my beloved cat passed away. I am going to be honest and say she is gone from us, not “just sleeping”. I’m not going to tell them how broken-hearted I am or how much I’ve been crying, but I will say, “I am sad.” Honesty walks the spectrum with everything else: loving, noticing and being aware.
As my oldest asks, “What if I die? What if you die?” I take a deep breath. I love her curiosity. I love her intelligence. I notice her fear. I notice my resistance to the question. I notice my own fear. I’m aware of her need for reassurance and my need to shelter her. I honestly reply, “We pray that will not happen for a very long time.”
When I ask my youngest if she wants to say goodbye to Willow, she says, “Have a good nap, Willow!” She runs off giggling and playing with something. I love her innocence. I love her playfulness. I notice she doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I notice how sad I am that she’s too young for a proper goodbye. I am aware that she needs this freedom, innocence and playfulness. I am aware that I envy that in her and want to let her have it for as long as she can.
Still, the next day, this same playful youngest child spent the morning in tears. Over everything. EVERY THING. Dropped a drink. Dropped a stuffed animal. Wanted an apple. Begged for a show. Everything brought tears out of her eyes. Finally, after hours of this, I sat down in front of her and said, “Why are you so sad?” She didn’t say a word. She just stared at me, into me. I felt her love. I noticed her concern. I became aware of her sadness somehow being a reflection of mine, even though she didn’t know why. Looking at her and taking her hands, I said, “Mommy is okay.” Her eyes widened just a little and she smiled, “Oh! Okay. I fine then.” Perhaps I hadn’t noticed that she was aware of my pain even in the midst of her innocence.
There’s really no right or wrong, good or bad way to address death and grief with toddlers. There’s only the way that works for you and your family. There’s only honesty, wherever it falls on your spectrum of belief. There’s only awareness of each passing day, question, feeling, and expression. There’s only noticing each other, bringing awareness to everyone’s feelings and responding in love. There’s only love.