When Mark died, Ben was only 8 years old. They were best friends and buddies, and he was Mark’s little shadow. And, he didn’t cry. We were worried. I sought advice from a counselor, researched a little on the internet, and then followed my mom instincts.
“If I had been sleeping on the couch, I could have stopped him. It’s my fault!”, he exclaimed. In his little 8 year old brain, he had made up an alternate ending to the story and taken responsibility for Mark’s suicide. Oh, my heart broke for him. It’s been a long road towards healing from losing our brother and son, but once we started talking and working through those big feelings and alternate endings, we all felt better.
Fast forward nearly 8 years. It’s been two weeks since my Dad passed away and it took us back to those same feelings of grief and loss as when Mark passed away. The kids LOVE their Grandpa — his funny wit, his texts to the teenagers, and his presence is missed greatly by each of them individually. It’s been a long two weeks but we are slowly healing and allowing ourselves to grieve.
When Mark passed away, I learned a lot about grief and helping my children cope with the loss of their brother. Some of it was trial by error, some of it was based on books I read, and some of it I learned in counseling. As I sit her tonight, tears streaming down my face because I miss my dad and a prayer in my heart that I will be able to help my kiddos cope with their loss, I made a list of all of the things I needed to remember as we go through this together. Perhaps these will help your family, too, if your loved one is called home.
- TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. I learned this lesson the hard way. I crashed and burned several weeks after Mark passed because I had been so busy taking care of everyone else. Sure, I was a parent and a wife and I wanted to take care of my family. But what I neglected was myself. I didn’t sleep or eat right. I “held it together” for everyone, when deep down my heart was in a million pieces. Since my dad has passed, I see my mom doing the same thing. If you don’t care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. This might mean getting help around the house, having meals brought in by friends, and taking time off of work or other obligations. That is OK and people will understand. You won’t be able to take care of others, if you crash and burn.
- BE HONEST: This is perhaps the hardest. Sometimes the circumstances surrounding a loved one’s death or the questions your children ask you, might be uncomfortable. Often in our efforts to “protect” them, we eliminate certain details or cushion the facts. The problem is, just like little Ben, they have already made up an alternative ending or imagined bits and pieces to fill in gaps that they don’t understand. Not being truthful doesn’t help them construct a better framework with which to grieve. Now, I’m not suggesting graphic detail but being as honest as possible is best. When Mark committed suicide, one of the questions little Ben asked was why the doctor’s didn’t help him at the hospital. What he didn’t understand, until we were able to talk about it, was that Mark had been dead for 6 days before he was found. Using simple science and compassion, we were able to explain it to him. Yes, it was uncomfortable for us, but it allowed him to close some of the open questions he had and move forward.
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP: I sat on the edge of the table at the doctors office and told him I thought I was depressed. I cried…big ugly sobs filled with incoherent words that I’m pretty sure he couldn’t understand. And with all the gentleness in the world, he placed his hand on my shoulders and told me I was going to be okay. He told me about how grief is like a roller coaster and some days you’ll be up and some days you’ll be down. The key to healing is to find ways to make sure that slowly you start to have more up days than you have down. He told me I was normal (phew!) and suggested I talk with someone. Best decision I ever made related to the grief I was feeling was getting counseling (and eating a lot of chocolate ice cream). It really helped me process my feelings, gain valuable coping skills, and sometimes just to be real with someone other than my spouse or close friends. Getting help from a professional — doctor, counselor, therapist — doesn’t mean you are a failure. It means you are normal and you are going to be okay.
- CHECK IN WITH YOUR KIDS (or Spouse or Friend) OFTEN: Remember that roller coaster. Well, not everyone’s coaster is going to be on the same track at the same time. Meaning you will experience different up days and down days. Checking in with your kids (or your spouse or your friend) about how they are doing and being available when they need you is vital to their healing, too. Verbalizing feelings to each other, without judgement, can be very therapeutic. It can help you answer questions and fill in gaps that may have developed, open opportunities to give lots of hugs (especially if you have a prickly teenager), and just being able to express your love and concern for them can be helpful.
- PRAY AND READ YOUR SCRIPTURES: Honestly, sometimes we don’t want to pray. Sometimes we don’t want to read our scriptures, especially if we are angry about our loss. We have all of the “Sunday School” answers, but when life truly sucks, it is hard to put those habits in to practice. Confusion will give way to clarity, anger will give way to peace, and broken hearts heal when we rely on our Savior to carry us through the darkness and in to the light. Some of the most incredibly spiritual growth I have had, came during the saddest of times. He loves us and we are not alone in our grief. I know His promise is true, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
- REMEMBER YOUR LOVED ONE: I had the opportunity to write my Dad’s life sketch and put together a slide show of his life through photos. I heard many stories from my Mom…stories I had never heard before that painted a picture of the kind, generous man that he was. When Mark passed, some of his dearest friends put together a video slide show for our family. Their pictures hang in our home and we talk openly about them. Helping little children (and big people, too) remember stories and share them, is important. They were a piece in your life puzzle and you can’t simply erase the piece. Find ways to remember them — frame a picture and put it next to their bed; Create a scrapbook; let balloons go on their birthday; celebrate your angel’s birthday with angel food cake; talk about them and fun or important memories you had together; create a journal to keep your thoughts and feelings in. This can be especially helpful for young children.
- BE PATIENT: Again, referring to the roller coaster analogy from earlier. Some coasters will move faster than others and some may even go backwards a bit. Be patient with yourself, your spouse, your children. There is no set timeline for one to grieve so it may take a little longer for others to get back to their new normal than it does for others.
I am certainly not an expert in grief, in the clinical sense of the word. I’m just a mom, daughter, granddaughter and friend who has said goodbye to someone I love dearly. I have found each of these steps incredibly helpful as I have walked through the stages of grief and loss and helped my children do the same. And while we certainly haven’t been perfect at it, these things have helped us through that loss.
From the land of chaos,