Friday, February 21, 2020

How to talk to your kids about loss and grief:



I've got a lot of questions about where I've been and why I haven't written for a while. Those on my very active Insta account are aware, but for the rest (and also for you because it leads into this article) --

It's been 32 weeks and 1 day since I lost the love of my life (or atleast that's how long it was when I started writing this article that I have had on my mind for about 30 weeks). That's 6 months and 27 days, during which I haven't been able to get him off my mind for a second.

Also, before you read further and think that this isn't relevant to you because the love of my life barked, unfortunately,  the sad reality of life is that this is relevant to all, and the tips below are applicable no matter what form of life you have lost - human or otherwise. 

Most people don't get it when I say that my baby, my first baby, had 4 legs and barked. Then the entire grief is dismissed like I'm a little looney for still being sad, and I should have expected it when I got attached, and I should have known that time runs out. But knowing it conceptually, and going through it are 2 very different things. And then there's going through it and grieving while you are a parent and have to explain not only your grief, but the loss too, to two very young and inquisitive children. 

It took about 3 months to be fully functional and get out of bed and get back to a normal work routine, and that's after 10 days that I ran away to be in New York away from my kids so that I get the chance to grieve without worrying about how I was impacting them when I didn't feel up to the mark to put on a happy face. I'm not a runner, but literally 36 hours later, I booked a flight and flew across the world with a small box of ashes in my bag. I literally fled. And while the distance didn't make the grief any easier (seems to be that only time dulls that a bit), it did give me space to think about how I had handled my grief and of course, the loss with my children, and also how I wanted to handle it going forward. I knew it would be a long road to some sense of normalcy. 

In hindsight, my kids have adjusted well. I still take it a minute at a time. Coco, for me, was everything. There's no other way to put it. I hugged him through the night from well before I met my husband, and even after we had children who would climb into our bed (without disturbing Coco, of course). He was my first love and the last being who will ever have my whole entire heart, undivided. I spent months - actually 19 months to be exact, running from doctor to doctor and doing everything I could to save him and prolong his quality of life. He fought and bounced back through every hurdle (just for me, and the fact that I wasn't ready to let go - I'm still not) until we had no choice - looking at him in pain, with failing organs, to put him to sleep. 10 years and 7 months old,  and the last thing I said to him was that I will learn to be fine, and to go in peace. And I'm still trying to be fine, one day at a time. I have as hard a time with the fact that the pain is fading (does that mean the memories will too?), than I did when it was at it's peak. I've read a few books on grief that have helped me to accept that the process is different for everyone, which encouraged me to take my time and heal, my favourite of these was "It's okay to not be okay." (for anyone in the same boat, do check it out). 



With regards to my children though, they now have memories that are happy, and look back very fondly. They discuss memories casually, and every time my daughter sees a star, she tells me Coco is watching us and thinks of him (yes, even at the age of 3). My son, is quiet, and doesn't express himself as easily, so I would encourage him (and he would remember on his own), to write Coco's name on our window with a star, using window markers. He did it on his own, and then did it again every single day, for 6 months. It was his way of paying tribute, and he stopped on his own a little past the 6 month mark.  It's the little things, that helped them adjust, so more on that below. 

How to prepare your kids to deal with grief and loss:

1. Give them a heads-up before it happens (if possible):
The last 72 hours, I spent running around headless, first wondering why he was low, then dealing with a cancer misdiagnosis (the third one in a year), then getting second and third opinions, realising it was yet another infection as he was severely immune compromised, and then trying to treat for it. the last 24 hours though were different, as it was evident that the antibiotic injections I was giving at home were not working, nor were the treatments the doctors were administering, and opinion number 4 also concurred with the previous 3 - that organs were starting to fail and that we could either wait and watch and let it happen, or help him through the pain. While I was leaning towards waiting and watching I was also afraid that if he passed while I was sleeping, and at that point was alone and in pain I would never forgive myself. So, yes, at some point I knew that it was our last day. And I explained it to my then 5 and a half year old. 


As simply as I could I said that tomorrow I have to take him to the doctor and he won't come back, he's in a lot of pain, and so he's going to go to sleep (permanently). I still can't get through these words even in my head without choking, but my son was amazing, he wanted to celebrate this last evening. He took out his polaroid camera and made us take a last ever fully family picture.  Something that I am now so incredibly grateful for, but couldn't think of in the moment. The next morning was more painful, as Coco also knew it was his last few hours (don't ask me how, but he did, he was gasping and in pain but woke up and limped to me and then I carried him to the house door when both kids left for school - each time separately).  So they got to say goodbye, so did each family member, and every member of 2 households that interacted with him. Every single person tried separately to feed him, and cried when they realised that his love affair with food had come to an end too. 

I believe it helped. He told his best friend in school that at 10 o clock today, Coco will die, and so even through my euphemisms he had gotten the point, and managed to gather a small support system too. 


2. You can sugar coat, but give them a version that's close to the truth if not the truth. 
Your kids also need a chance to grieve. So please - don't tell them that your pets are on a farm. Or that the elderly are in a home, when they are not. Seriously, I tried to find my rabbits that went to live on a farm for many many years, only to find out as an adult that they were buried in the lawn of our apartment building. 
This doesn't mean you say that they have gone in to the ground and are rotting, but at the same time you can decide what your child can handle and tell them as much of the truth accordingly.

My daughter still asks for Coco every day. She says why did you leave him at the doctor, can you bring him back, and so on. Endlessly. So she has a version where he went to the doctor wasn't well, and cannot come back. And now is watching us from far, and misses us.

My son, has seen the ashes, he's seen the bones, he's helped me bury them. With every question he asked, he got more information, because he needed it, and because I could tell that he could handle it. And yes, at some point, I showed him the bones too (because I had the bones by my bedside for over 3 months after I put the ashes in the Hudson River), and I felt he needed to understand the finality of the situation. And it helped - it helped him and it helped me. 


3. Let them see you at your worst, but also at your best
Like I said, I ran away 36 hours later. But that doesn't mean they didn't see me cry and howl and scream. They also saw me put myself together though and pretend to be okay, suck it up and feed them dinner, and tear up through bedtime stories. They saw me hold my husband and break down and they saw me pull it together when they needed me too. 


I still ran away, because I needed time to not have to pretend, and 10 days wasn't enough, but that's more than I could bear to be away from my kids. As much as I love New York, it's all studded with memories of Coco and I was ready to be back home in 3 days. Even after that, they often came home from school to seeing me still in bed (I would get them ready and go back to mope) , something that they have never seen and something I hope they don't have to witness again. I didn't have to say I was sad - it was understood, and on milestone days especially like my birthday and Coco's birthday, I was able to explain that to my kids too. I could talk about how I felt, and they have taken that in too, and definitely cuddled me a little extra. Even through the bad moments though, I hope they saw some strength and resilience, and I hope they someday understand just how much strength and purpose they gave me when I needed it most. 

4. Don't dismiss their questions
There will be a million questions. Many of them very difficult for you to answer. Go with the truth as much as you feel you can. You may not always be the only one they ask their questions too, and if you are honest and consistent it will be easier for them to digest it, than if they get different versions from other people. 

So decide what you're saying, and then you and your spouse, parents etc all need to be consistent, but do answer all their questions - all 1000000 of them, without breaking down (too often). 


5. Give them a way to pay tribute
Regardless of how much you choose to share with your kids, they will still feel the void. I felt it like a missing limb, literally there's a hole by the side of my hip in bed every night. But to them too, there's a family member missing, someone they saw and loved and were attached to and interacted with every day. 

Give them a way to pay tribute even if it's something as simple as letting them write the name in a corner with a star or a heart. Riaan truly believed that Coco could see it from the sky, and so he did it every day. 

He also helped me plant the bones in the ground, put a sapling on it, and he watered it. We've made pinwheels and put it around the ground there, and on Coco's birthday we decorated the sapling, made candles and lit them, and even cut a cake there and fed it to strays (and our 2 younger pups). Again, this helped him, but it also helped me, and it gave him an outlet to talk about it.



6. Talk about the memories
Don't be afraid to talk about memories. It's not easier to let them forget it. It's better for them to make their peace with it. Healthier for them and healthier for you too. So if something reminds you of the person you miss, share it. They will learn to share it back too and learn that it's okay to share (and that it won't hurt you when they do.) Eventually, these will make you as happy as it makes them. My kids love watching videos of when they were little and most of them feature Coco, and it's okay to let them be reminded of their past. We even blew up pictures and put them around the house. The kids asked for their pictures to be included too, and I have canvases now of all 4 of us with Coco, in different places around the house.


7. Show them that you can be happy again 
I'm not saying pretend all the time - I'm preaching the opposite. Kids are resilient and understanding and able to support you even though they should not have to. But life is up and down, and as parents we cannot always be a 100% happy, a million percent present and permanently on point. I wish for their sakes we could be, but it's not humanly possible, and it need not be - they are not going to grow up in a bubble, and seeing us going through our ups and downs will prepare them better to handle theirs too. However, it is as important for them to know that you - as their parent, and their primary source of security, are okay, and love them above all else. 


Common questions:

Why not just cover it up and say they went to a farm or moved away?
Because they are likely to learn the truth at some point, and it should come from you - they should always trust you the most, and know that you will tell them the truth, even when it's tough for you to say or explain. 

How much information is too much?
I wouldn't take my kids to the hospital or have them witness anything major, but apart from that, depending on their maturity and how you as a parent think they can handle it - feel free to say how much you think is right. 

At what age can you have honest conversations?
Any age! How much you share though is your call and depends on what you think your children can process healthily.

How do you let them see you grieving?
When you're really grieving, they will see it. They pick up on every single thing, so it's definitely better if you talk to them about it, explain how you feel, and offer them an outlet to share their feelings too, than hide it and run away. 


This has been the hardest thing I've ever written, and I'm quite relieved I made it through it intact. Apologies if I droned on too much about certain things (there's no way I'm editing this before posting). 

I do hope though that it hit the point - giving you relevant information to help your kids cope with almost anything.

I'll try not to fall off the face of the earth again ! 
More to come
-TKV



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