Supporting grief for children, my own children, siblings of my beautiful Matthew, is very difficult when also facing your own massive pain and grief.
Writing this, I may well cry through most of it.
I am naturally empathetic, and often reflect on how I would feel if I was to experience something someone else is going to through.
It goes doubly for my children.
Children See Death Differently
Children see death different from adults, depending on their age, they may think it’s temporary or like a holiday.
It took our 3 year old Mackenzie a few days, even weeks to understand that Matthew wasn’t coming back.
The first moment she realised he was leaving us was over 12 hours after he had passed away.
She believed he was sleeping.
Mackenzie and I stayed in the room with Matthew overnight.
So she went to bed and when we woke up in the morning she looked at him and said to me.
“Matthew is sleeping.”
Be Clear & Talk About It
In that moment I had to step up and explain to Mackenzie:
Matthew wasn’t there anymore.
“Mackenzie, Matthew isn’t sleeping, he is in heaven now.”
It was clear she didn’t immediately understand what that meant.
Shane was 7 at the time.
The conversations we had before Matthew’s death made this time easier to understand.
At some point between Matthew’s final MRI, the conversation we had about stopping nutrition to Matthew, and his death we had asked our palliative care team:
‘What do we tell the kids?’
They gently suggested that we first ask Shane what he already knew about Matthew’s condition.
During the conversation, to ask questions like;
‘Do you think Matthew will always get better?’
It gives you an opportunity to understand where they are at and unfortunately in this case, for us to confirm something that had already occurred to Shane.
We also used books, in the weeks leading up to Matthew’s death, to introduce the topic of death.
For children lots of resources refer to the loss of a grandparent or a pet.
Which is not quite the same, but it all helps both them and us to understand grief for children.
One of the books we picked up was from the Royal Children’s Hospital Auxiliary store.
Another aid we found helpful, which was provided to us by Very Special Kids, was an emotions chart.
One of those with cartoon characters with different faces and body language.
While Shane seemed to understand what had happened much easier than Mackenzie, he had a hard time expressing his emotions.
One night we were sitting at the table and he was refusing to eat a meal that he was normally fine with.
The chart was on the table, so we whipped it out and he pointed out angry and sad.
He ended up having a huge cry and felt much better afterwards.
I don’t remember if he ate his dinner though!
Before Matthew passed away, when we were considering what books and aids to get for the kids, that was the moment when you decide what you’re going to tell them about the afterlife.
For me, I believe in heaven.
So I felt that making it clear to Shane and Mackenzie what heaven was and what it would be like there for Matthew, would be of great comfort.
One day I got Luke to take me to a specifically Christian bookstore to find resources designed for kids that would talk about heaven. Anything to help with grief for children.
Finding the right time and place to discuss these things, and read those books was HARD.
It would upset me and the kids, so treading gently was required at all times.
Cuddles and Comfort Items
Lots of cuddles are important, both in the lead up and afterwards.
Shane bought Matthew a soft toy for his birthday (just 11 days before he passed away), which he quickly adopted as his own after Matthew was gone.
(Part of me wonders when Shane picked his favourite cartoon character as a gift for Matthew, if he didn’t already assume he would just get it back.)
The soft toy collection in his bed grew a lot in that time – toys he couldn’t do without.
Later Mackenzie and I, with the help of our VSK support worker put together a ‘Matty box’.
We included family photo, decorated the box, Mac found a toy to put in it and VSK provided these little soft stuffed hearts.
These could be cuddled whenever she needed.
Or Mummy could cuddle them and she could put them in her pocket and take it with her when she eventually went back to daycare.
Or anywhere she need to go without us.
We only kept Shane home from school for a short period of time.
I had thought he wouldn’t to go for sometime or that we wouldn’t want to be separated but children thrive on routine, and he loved spending time with his friends.
Something he often missed out on the rest of the time with everything else going on.
For Mackenzie it was a bit more difficult.
While she went back to daycare fairly soon after, Mackenzie had increasingly experienced separation anxiety when I dropped her off.
Which of course got worse after Matty passed away.
It happened most places but especially daycare, thought she didn’t do it for anyone accept mum of course.
We also struggled with loss of good sleep habits.
Needing a thousand drinks or just waking up crying, nothing we could do, wanting to sleep with us.
When you’re already exhausted from grieving yourself, it takes a toll. So it’s something to get on top of early if you can.
All of these ‘regression’ signs are normal in grief for a child.
Other signs, which I don’t remember them experiencing:
- Needing to be fed or refusing to eat age appropriate food.
- toileting problems, bed wetting, & accidents
- fearfulness, anxiety
- fretful, distressed
- irritable, more tantrums
- returning to crawling
Encourage them to express themselves
Throughout all of it we tried to create space so the kids could share what they were feeling.
For Mackenzie quite often that wasn’t words but actions.
We try always to stop and acknowledge them.
Don’t ignore your own grief
I have often heard the phrase ‘I have to be strong in front of the children.’
This isn’t really true, as far as crying and not being okay.
It helps our children to understand their own huge emotions to feel normal.
Showing them that holding it is isn’t the way to process emotions.
It’s okay to not be okay.
It’s okay to cry and needs naps.
To not feel like facing cooking or housework.
Or gatherings with others from time to time.
If you’re really struggling with grief that is out of the ordinary, or complex grief as the experts call it, then seek help.
All of that is showing our kids the best way to look after ourselves and what they will model.
If they are frightened:
With funerals children should be included as much as they are able.
I think this helps them recognise this is different to anything else they have experience.
We took the kids to our meeting at the funeral home. They didn’t visit his body.
We asked Luke’s mum to be there to distract them if and when necessary.
Never any force involved.
Nothing they didn’t want to be involved in. Nothing that they were frightened of, but having them there to participate in what they wanted.
Also acknowledging the huge emotions that would make this all a difficult process.
Shane and Mackenzie painted the outside of the coffin, and helped dad pick the cars for the drive to and from the funeral.
Display feelings on and off for long periods of time
These huge emotions don’t have an end date.
Not for you and not for them.
I will say as time goes on Matthew is daily on lips, but always on our thoughts. Not necessarily something that causes tears.
But what is funny:
When Mackenzie comes up and says;
‘Mummy, I’m sad…I miss Matthew…’
Which always earns her an extra squishy cuddle, followed up by;
‘Can I have a chocolate?’
How do you say no to that?!
Kids learn quick, bedtime or snack time are excellent times to talk about Matthew.
It is possible though my children have not experience it, for some to suffer adjustment disorder.
Just like complex grief for adults, sometimes grief for children can get stuck, and they may need some extra help along the journey.
- Depression or extended loss of interest in daily activities or events
- Unmanageable or longer term loss of sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Regression that lasts a long time
- Believing that they are seeing or talking to the person who passed away for an extended amount of time
- Repeated statements of wanting to join them
- Withdrawal from friends
- Drop in school performance or school refusal, for extended periods
Symptoms like these are only an issue most of the time if they are seen over long periods. They should be addressed with professionals with experience in grief for children.
Shane and Mackenzie were mostly back to themselves about 6 months after his passing. Though it is something that I am sure they think about and affects them daily.