Just more than two years ago, my husband's uncle passed away. He was a full presence in my children's world, a bigger-than-life man who we visited for every major holiday and who was never short on a quick hair tousle or a good-natured tease. They didn't see him every weekend, but they saw him, they felt him. They knew him. His passing was a surprise and it left a void. That void still exists.
This was the first loss our family had experienced. As their mother, I felt ill-equipped to help them navigate what was sure to be a rocky road.
How was I to answer the questions, the whys, I still struggle with as an adult?
Why did this happen?
Is heaven for real?
This week my small people and I had a conversation about this very topic. Together we watched a movie with a similar title, Heaven Is For Real, just before it was released on DVD. (It is now out and one I recommend you see.) With the opportunity to see it as a preview, we snuggled on the couch and watched the true story of 4-year-old Colton Burpo, who claims to have visited heaven during a near-death experience. Colton shares his amazing journey first with his father Todd, a pastor, recounting details of things that happened before his birth, things he couldn't possibly have known. The story challenges not only this family, but their community, to think deeply about what they know of life and death.
As I sat, arms wrapped around my children, 8 and 10 years old, I couldn't help but think of what little they know of life and death... and how important it is that I, as a parent, am delicate with them in how I talk to them about it. It took me back two years, to our loss.
What did I do right? And what could I have done better?
As children sometimes do, they initially seemed perfectly fine, unmoved by the circumstances, even. We attended a memorial service for Uncle Denny. They shed no tears. They played with their cousins. They looked at pictures. They asked no questions there or on the way home.
But it all changed when we arrived home. As I walked in to their rooms individually to check on their PJ progress, I found them each on their floor in tears.
Is he in heaven?
I miss him.
I sat and held them. I know this was the right thing to do, but I know now there is more. And part of what I know came from talking to them after watching Heaven is for Real. Here are five ways you can talk to your kids about life and loss.
I didn't have the answers then and I don't have them now. Why do we lose the people we love? Why do some people recover and others don't? I can't tell you. I truly believe it is OK to let your children know you wish you knew why things happened as they do, but you don't. There is comfort in being "together" in the unknown sometimes.
Is your child sad? Mad? Scared? Let them tell you how they feel. Don't assume that they are experiencing one emotion over the other, or that they have entered a certain stage of grief. They need to trust that you will listen to how they feel and respond. It was important that I listened to my children at the memorial service; at that time, they didn't want to talk (or feel) about the loss. They needed to be with their cousins and act like kids. I can remember asking them repeatedly if they were OK... almost forcing the issue. They weren't ready. I needed to listen. They were telling me they weren't ready to talk.
This applies to both parent and child. Let them ask the questions they need to ask: Is their loved one coming back? Is he in heaven? Will I see him again? Is he hurting? And you do the same: How are you feeling? Do you want to talk? Are you sad? How can I help? More than anything, I want my kids to know I am there if they need me when they are hurting in any way.
My heart shattered into a million tiny pieces when I walked in to their rooms and found them curled up on their floors, crying. But I didn't try to stop them. Even now, two years later, my small dude will occasionally break down, crying for the uncle he misses. While I don't know what triggers it, I don't have to know. I do know I want him to feel safe enough around me to feel sad.
I could feel my son relaxing next to me as we watched Heaven is for Real. He was nervous, worried the movie would make him sad, but it portrays young Colton's experience in heaven as a beautiful, peaceful one and I know that Cooper (my son) found that calming. Being able to think of heaven as a welcoming place for the people we love is good for not only children, but for adults as well. Having a movie or book that can help to soften the experience can be invaluable.
What has been your experience in talking to children about life and loss? Do you have any additional tips to share?
Disclosure: This post is part of a collaboration with Sony and SheKnows.
Photo credit: sedmak/iStock/360/Getty Images
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