When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
It was just before Christmas when I was with my wife and daughter in the car and I drove past the cemetery where my father has laid for the past 30 years. My wife asked me if I wanted to stop, and because we hadn’t planned on it and were leaving for vacation the next day, I replied “No.”
Suddenly a wave of guilt fell over me. I used to visit my dad all the time and lay a wreath on his grave every Christmas, and now I wasn’t even going to stop to see him? So I turned the car around and my wife and I briefly discussed the idea of bringing my daughter, who’s just three years old, to see her grandfather’s headstone. Ultimately, we decided to do it, and proceeded to the cemetery. When we got his his plot, I told her that this is where her grandpa was and she looked at the stone and innocently replied, “I thought he was a person?”
From there I explained that he was but that he had died, and that no, he couldn’t come back. We told her that the angels had needed his help and he had died when daddy was a little boy. She’s a sensitive kid, so she cried about it. I let her know that it was okay to be sad and that mommy and daddy will answer any questions she has.
In the weeks since, she’ll occasionally ask me questions about her grandpa, and sometimes about death. While I always make sure that I’m patient and as honest as I feel I can be without worrying her, a huge part of me feels like I made a mistake bringing her there, like I took a bit of her innocence away that I didn’t need to, especially since it’s not like someone she knows died.
While my wife and I acknowledged before we went to the grave that it might be a bit complicated, our daughter understood more than I think we anticipated. Since then it’s been hard to talk about, and I can only guess how much more difficult it would be had she lost someone she actually knew.
On a related note — and I seriously pray to God I never have this issue — I can’t even imagine trying to cope with the loss of my own child, or explaining such a loss to a child’s sibling. How would I ever deal with my own grief and hers at the same time?
Basically: How do I deal with grief when it comes to my kids?
The Expert Advice
Susan, a widow and a mother of two boys: My husband Hank passed away from cancer when my children were very young. One was three years old and the other was just a couple of months, so they both went through very different things.
For my three-year-old, after my husband died, I explained that daddy had to go away and that he went to heaven. Of course at that age, he didn’t really understand what I meant and I’d often find him in our trailer looking for his father and asking where he was. He was very sad, but it was more a feeling of confusion, like he knew something was missing. While I can’t remember him crying, he was very sad and very confused.
It wasn’t until he was a bit older that he really understood what it meant that daddy was in heaven. I still have an art project from when he was seven years old where his first grade teacher had assigned children to write down what their dream was, and my son wrote, “I wish my dad would come back.” He also had a feeling of responsibility after his father died, as, before he passed away, my husband told him that he was the man of the house now.
For my younger son, the greatest gift I ever got, or my husband ever got, was that my husband was able to deliver him before he passed away. He was already receiving chemotherapy at this time, and he’d gotten a treatment the morning that my water broke. To ensure none of those harmful chemicals affected the baby, he had to be covered head-to-toe in a gown. He would die just a few months later, but I’m so grateful that he got to be here for that.
Since he never really got to know his daddy, my younger son had a different experience. He really didn’t know anything was different about him until he went to school, and saw that all of his friends had dads and he was saddened by that.
All along though, I always made sure that their father was a presence in their lives. I always talked about how their father was in their heart and how he was always watching over them. When they were little, I used to take my sons outside at night and have them look for the brightest star, and I told them that that’s where their daddy was. And throughout everything and even today, I always let them know how proud their father is of them.
Veronica Acevedo, child therapist: The grief process is very unfamiliar for a child the first time they experience it, and it can be very scary. The idea that someone can disappear from their lives is very confusing to a young child, especially if they were close to them. The fact that they can no longer physically see them, hear them or touch them is a huge concept and it can be quite painful.
For a young child like a toddler, they may not understand these concepts, so they may continually ask where someone is or why they can’t see them, and they’ll do their best to make sense of things. For example, one young child I treated had a grandmother pass away, and she referred to her as “being in another country”; she believed that heaven was another physical place like any other. This kind of confusion is common, especially if this is the first time a child is being introduced to these spiritual elements like heaven, as well as the concept of death. It’s important to note, though, that even if a child doesn’t understand these concepts, they still understand the concept of loss and they will feel that loss.
No matter what the age is, it helps for a parent to be patient with their child and let them know the parent is there for them or to be sad with them or to answer questions for them. Let them know that you will help them and that it’s normal to feel whatever it is that they’re going to feel. It also helps a parent to know that there are stages to grief, but that those stages aren’t linear, so you likely won’t be able to predict how a child will feel. Each child will experience things in their own way and to their own developmental level, and so, I encourage a parent to be as loving, as patient and as understanding as they can possibly be. Sometimes kids will need to talk, or they’ll need to snuggle, or maybe they don’t want to talk about things — instead, they may want to draw or express themselves through play. Whatever they do, it helps them to have their parent normalize their feelings.
In that same vein, it can be healthy for a parent to express their own grief in front of a child to let them know that these feelings are normal, but it’s also important that a parent doesn’t completely fall apart in front of a child, as it’s still the parent’s job to protect their child, even from their own emotions. It’s also really important for a parent to remain present with their child, as a child can get lost in their grief. For teens, they may want to turn to dangerous things like drug use, so it’s imperative that the parent remain present and aware of what their child is experiencing.
While it’s important for a parent to be open and honest with a grieving child, it’s also important that things are geared for their level of development. So while you want to answer their questions, if a grieving toddler asks their father if the father is going to die, it’s okay for the parent to tell them that they shouldn’t worry about that and to not address the question directly. For a child who is that young, their attachments are so important, and they should be able to feel that their attachments are secure. The same goes for questions about a child’s own mortality.
Now, things are different for a preteen and a young teen, as they’ll understand a bit more and you can be more direct with them, but you don’t want to unnecessarily worry a child by introducing more than they need, given their age.
Amy Olshever, grief counselor: Grief is always a complicated process that’s going to be unique to each person. How they process the loss will depend on the individual and the relationship they had with the one who passed away. Our brains tend to categorize death into two separate categories: An in-sequence death and an out-of-sequence death. While an in-sequence death, like the loss of a grandparent or an older parent, can be complicated, an out-of-sequence death is something that our minds aren’t so equipped to handle, and that’s never more true than when a parent loses a child.
When this does occur, many times families struggle to find a way to make meaning out of their loss, and they want their child’s life to have had purpose. They also struggle with the very idea of being a parent, because they were a parent, but now that their child has died, they don’t know if they are anymore.
To cope with a tragedy like this, many parents take their loss and use that pain to energize themselves to do something that honors the memory of their child, honors the struggle their child experienced or in some way highlights that their child’s life had a purpose. Sometimes that involves parents setting up a foundation or a scholarship in memory of the child, or they dedicate themselves to a relevant cause. While their pain may be unimaginable, many parents are able to keep going after the death of a child with the idea that they’re living for their child — that the child wouldn’t want to be responsible for the mother or father falling apart, so the parent moves forward in honor of their child.
For fathers specifically, I often find that they’re the type to pour themselves back into work in the wake of their child’s death, while the mothers, generally speaking, tend to be the ones to collect pictures and things like that. While part of overwork may be to avoid their grief, it may also be a healthy break from it, as every corner of his home will be a reminder of who isn’t there. Of course, these are broad generalizations, and because everyone had a unique relationship with the one who passed, everyone is going to have a unique grieving process as well.
Families can also find a way to honor their child in simple, everyday ways, say, eating foods the child enjoyed or doing activities that the child liked. While there might be a feeling that these activities are bittersweet, this is a healthy way to remember their child and honor them. If this wasn’t their only child, this is a good way to keep the one they’ve lost as a presence in their remaining children’s lives.
For everyone concerned, it’s also important to understand that the grieving process will change over time. So as anniversaries and milestones occur, someone’s grief will change and new feelings will come up. For a sibling, if they were young when the death occurred, they may find themselves grieving again as they get older, as they can now better understand the loss and what their loved one has missed out on. Additionally, for many big occasions like weddings or graduations, the parents, and maybe the siblings too, will always have a feeling of bittersweetness, as they’ll be happy for the occasion, but saddened by the fact that their child isn’t there to experience it with them.
Larry Mergentime, board member of the COPE Foundation and a father who lost his three-year-old daughter: In 2009 my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter suddenly passed away from incredibly rare complications caused by pneumonia. For my wife and I, it was a shared loss. In the immediate aftermath of our daughter’s death, we had gone to meet with therapists, social workers and others in the mental health field, and while I’m not going to say it wasn’t helpful, we felt like no one else could possibly understand what we were going through and we felt very isolated. I think that’s why group therapy helped, as we were able to find support from others with a similar experience. For me, I never was the type who liked to sit and talk one-on-one with a therapist, so this was a more comfortable way to cope.
It took us a few months for us to find our way. There was several months of not talking and just sitting and listening to others speak. On one hand, it was the shock and grief of it all, and on the other, we were just trying to take it all in. Over time, I found myself becoming active in the group and in the COPE Foundation. Eventually I joined the board — I do fundraising, and I also help in other capacities that I find to be satisfying. It’s an important cause, to help people with their grief and to just be able to function. It all started, though, with finding other people who, in some way, understood the magnitude of our loss.
In addition to the group therapy and getting involved with COPE, I’d find myself getting support from all around me. I’ve the good fortune to have had the same work colleagues for more than 15 years, and they helped me through things. Additionally, I made connections with people I’d lost touch with via social media and other ways because those friends had something to offer me that others couldn’t. This was sometimes because of a shared loss, and other times it was just the good nature of people.
Grieving is a personal process that’s very much about survival, and for me, I found a lot of support by reaching out to people. While it’s difficult to talk about things sometimes and some people may disappoint you, I’d encourage people going through a loss to seek out others for comfort and open themselves up to that, because they may find it in unexpected places.