Loving Our Way Through Loss - navigating grief as a family
This summer our family experienced two hard losses. It got me thinking about the grieving process for everyone in the family. I’ve had many previous losses but not as a mum with all of us in it together. The children are 11 and 9, old enough to fully engage with the whole journey. My mother in law was 86 and very well up until the last few months of her life. She spent 6 weeks in a hospice before dying peacefully in July. My children were very sad to lose their granny. She was very special to them and it was their first time dealing with death and loss. It led to a lot of interesting conversations about dying which I encouraged. Don’t kids ask such great questions? I love hearing what they come out with!
“Where does your soul live in your body?’’
“How does she know exactly when she’s going to die?”
I was open and honest with them about her illness and we discussed what was going to happen as the end approached. She rallied for my son’s alternative communion day, held out for longer than we expected but finally the end came.
The kids were both sad and happy during the funeral days. They spent their time running around with their cousins pilfering the endless supplies of cake and fizzy drinks. This was important to me, they have good memories of that time, not just sad ones. My daughter had a couple of raging meltdowns during which I tried my best to practice patience and explained how our emotions come out in different ways for everyone (we might think it’s our brother driving us crazy when in fact it’s all the anger and sadness over losing someone special).
Two weeks after their granny died, we had another loss when my husbands best friend, close family friend with children of similar ages also died. In this case he had been ill for a year and we knew it was coming but the loss of a young man leaving a wife and young family was devastating. Our own kids didn’t come to this funeral but painted cards instead. This was partly due to logistics; it was not close to home but also because we needed time as adults to mourn without having to look after the children. And I felt they didn’t need to make that emotional journey as they were still dealing with the first loss.
During the run up to both these deaths, my husband spent a lot of time visiting his mum and his friend. They took trips together and fulfilled some last wishes he had before his death. What I noticed most with the children was how much they missed their Dad being around during this time. Even when he was there he was often emotionally absent as he had so much going on with two such special people dying at once. The children waited for him and refused treats like a trip to the cinema without him because they didn’t want him to miss out on the fun.
It’s a delicate balance finding time for everyone during these times. I felt our family unit was stretching like an elastic web to meet everyone’s needs in different ways. For us adults we needed time alone and time with each other to have some headspace and digest everything. The kids needed loving time with us to feel minded and safe while everything was in flux but also time away with friends playing and not being around us while we handled everything.
After the two funerals we carved out more time together as a family. Initially the kids went to their other granny for a few days so we could gather ourselves, and rest. Once we were back together we made the most of it and prioritized family fun. We spent a day in Clara Lara getting soaked and being silly together. I would say that day together was the beginning of our healing journey as a family. We had so much on, a backlog of jobs to catch up on but we took off into the wilds of Wicklow instead and we were all the better for it. My son had a weekend alone with his dad making a football pitch and playing games together, he was a happier child for it. We spent our evenings crammed in our bed together watching magic shows and epic fails on Netflix.
There were times when we as parents had to look closely at our own grief and how we were handling it, get the necessary support so we could be emotionally present at home. Times when one of us got mad and lost our temper - it wasn’t really about whatever silly fight was going on between the kids. So we apologized, explained to them that we were also sad but sometimes it came out as mad. We read the Sad Book together and discussed the strange ways that grief can come out.
It's the simple things that matter. All they want is closeness, connection, laughter, knowing that more important than anything else is our time with each other, telling jokes,playing cards, being held and feeling loved.
This has reminded me too that love really does heal. Slowly, gently and without fanfare, we find our way back to ourselves and as we become whole again our children do too.
Some helpful books:
The Sad Book – Michael Rosen
Tear Soup – Pat Schwiebert
When things fall apart – Pema Chodron
The year of magical thinking – Joan Didion