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Resilient Doesn't Mean They're Fine

Photo by: iStock

I’m learning a lot about how (my) kids grieve and how very different and similar that can be compared to how I grieve as an adult. Truth is, their loss feels every bit as profound and traumatic to them, as it does to me, they just exhibit it so very differently sometimes. It’s important to understand this so we don’t sweep their grief under the rug, unintentionally dismissing their pain. We can’t assume they are fine because they look fine. We can’t watch them play or laugh and marvel at how “resilient kids are.” This isn’t fair and it isn’t accurate.

When my husband was battling cancer (when it rains, it pours), I read lots of books on how kids handle these situations. Thank God I read those books! Because that terrible night at the hospital when I had to tell my kids they had to say goodbye to their dad, they said some very shocking things. There were things said that most adults would find offensive or inappropriate at best. Thankfully, I knew better. Even in my shock, devastation and grief, I knew better. I’m so thankful I wasn’t blindsided by their responses.

What I’ve learned about my kids’ grief:

Sorrow is overwhelming for them too.

Grief overwhelms me and yet I have the advantage of a fully developed brain (most days), life experiences and wisdom to help me sort out complex emotions. The kids don’t have these advantages. They are working through very heavy stuff and they aren’t fully equipped physically or emotionally to do so. Grief is overwhelming for them too.

Sometimes they tell it like it is.

“Well at least now we can go places,” “Maybe you can find a new husband so we can be a normal family again,” “I know God could’ve snapped his fingers and Daddy would be ok, but he didn’t,” “I’m never wearing a suit again for at least a year,” and so on and so on. My kids aren’t trying to be insensitive, rude or inappropriate, they are just verbalizing what’s on their minds. They are working through their questions and fears and brainstorming solutions…out loud. Their candor doesn’t mean they didn’t love their Dad, it just means they are trying to understand their loss without the benefit of adult perspective and without a social acceptability filter. I sort of love and admire that about them. Wouldn’t that be so much healthier for adults if we did that too?

They will act out or behave like jerks sometimes (or maybe A LOT).

Even as an adult, I sometimes behave like a jerk and act out, so it’s no wonder this happens with my kids. Sometimes they can be brutally honest and verbalize their thoughts but other times they can’t and that grief has to get out somehow. At our house it comes out as temper tantrums, big-time sass, anxiety and overall ugly mean behaviors including, but not limited to, instigating, pinching, kicking and other forms of mild torturing of their siblings. It looks like disobeying rules, yelling and short fuses. Sure, some of that is just being a kid, but this has crossed the line into problematic. At my house, we talk about letting grief out. If we don’t let it out, there’s no room for joy. Also, if you don’t get it out, it will spill out on it’s own because grief needs an escape. We are still working on more appropriate ways to let it out. It’s going to take a while I think. It’s hard to know when to discipline and when to hug them tight. Currently, I’m doing both. Also, the adult version of this also looks like short fuses, impatience and yelling. Also, it looks like carb-loading. We’re all a work-in-progress.

They want to protect me.

My kids are so worried about me. When I’m sad, I don’t hide it from them. I think it’s important to be real with them. Real is how I roll, even with my kids. I don’t discuss adult things with them, but I do show my emotions and we talk about it. They are sad when I’m sad, just like I’m sad when they are sad. It’s inevitable. It’s compassionate of them, really. However, sometimes they don’t share their grief with me because they don’t want to worry me or make me cry. But here’s the thing. They need to share it with someone who cares about them and someone who understands. If not me, then a counselor, pastor, close family member – someone. We’re working on it. I don’t know if we’ve struck a healthy balance yet, but we’ll get there.

They sometimes think it’s their fault.

Moments after saying goodbye to his Dad, my son said he knew it was his fault and proceeded to name all of the things he’d ever done wrong. Sneaking more screen time, lying sometimes, etc. It was heart breaking but I’m so glad he shared that with me! With the help of Child Life specialists at the hospital, we all reassured him. I know he still thinks this sometimes though.

They feel guilty for having fun again.

As humans, we are wired for joy just as much as we are wired to endure and overcome pain and sorrow. When joy clamors for its rightful place in our lives again, it can throw us for an emotional loop because grief is still sitting at the head of our table. It somehow feels wrong to allow joy back in, and so there is guilt. I can’t stand guilt. Guilt is such an unproductive, useless emotion. I know it is unwarranted, and yet it’s there, cramping my style. My kids feel it too sometimes. We talked openly about it early on. We named the feeling and I gave us all permission to be happy sometimes…without guilt. Of course, Mark would want that, but so do we. We just needed to know we were all feeling it. We needed to name it, talk through it and then kick it to the curb.

They didn’t sleep well at first.

When your mind is swirling with questions, fears, guilt, anxiety, sadness, deep theological questions, etc. sleep can suffer. Luckily, this was an early-on and fairly short-lived issue for us. Had it not improved, I would have definitely sought help. Sleep is important.

They crave normalcy.

If kids are laughing, playing and running around like nothing has happened, that’s because that’s what kids do! My kids craved normalcy, so they did normal kid stuff, which gave them comfort and distraction. It doesn’t mean they are fine. It doesn’t mean they are “resilient” – it means they are coping differently than the adults in their life. And that’s ok. Let me say this again – resilient doesn’t mean “fine.” By definition, resilient means able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions. Working through grief takes time -lots of time. There’s no “recover quickly” happening with grief. In fact it takes way more time than we’ve given it so far. I would like to place a motion to dismiss the word resilient from all grief-related conversations today and for evermore. Do I have a second?

They have great big fears.

Their dad died. My kids have experienced something that thankfully, many kids don’t. They are now aware of the fragility of life. They have been forever changed by premature exposure to extremely hard things. Because of this, they now deal with fears most of their peers have never even considered. They worry about losing me, the only parent they have left. I can’t reassure them in the same ways now. I can’t promise nothing will ever happen to me. They now know that would be a lie. But I can reassure them that I’m healthy and working on being even healthier. I can reassure them where our hope lies, no matter what happens. We focus on our faith and the hope that brings us.

Sometimes they don’t want to talk about it.

I really should understand this one better, but I’m their Mom, so when they aren’t talking about things, I worry. The truth is, sometimes they don’t want to talk about their feelings. Maybe they just aren’t in the mood or maybe they can’t identify what it is they’re feeling. I probably need to respect this more and freak out less.

I guess my kids really aren’t all that different from me. At least not very different in what they are feeling. How they act out their grief is different though. (I’m not pinching or kicking anyone yet – although I was sort of close with that insurance lady).
Listen guys, I don’t have this all figured out. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned so far about myself, my kids and grieving. We are all in counseling. We are doing ok, learning lots of things about ourselves, each other and grief, but we need professional help. I’m not ashamed of that at all. We’re struggling with grief sometimes, so we go to a counselor trained in mental health and grieving. It doesn’t mean we’re crazy. It doesn’t mean we’re weak. It means we’re going through some terrible stuff right now and we need additional support.

Jodi Whitsitt is a recent widow and proud Mom of three ridiculously amazing and strong-willed children. She’s a full-time blogger and aspiring inspirational writer and speaker. It’s her mission to turn pain into purpose by sharing her journey of life after loss with her readers.

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