Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Parenting Through Grief.

Most of our time as a parent is spent protecting our kids.  We protect them during their infancy by moving dangerous objects out of their reach, by purchasing car-seats and cribs that have been rigorously tested and are subject to recall at the slightest whisper of a defect, and by bundling their tiny bodies against the cold.  As they grow we try to protect them from strangers, inattentive drivers, bullies, drugs, alcohol, bad influences, and a host of other dangers too numerous to count.

Sometimes we find ourselves trying to protect our children from the grief that is felt at a tragedy.  One of the reasons that goldfish make such popular pets is that they all look the same, and because of this there are thousands of children out there who believe that their pet has the longevity of Methuselah.  As a parent the sheltering reaction is second-nature, and we give as little thought to it as we do the next breath we take.  If something is going to hurt my child, then I will do what I can to mitigate or prevent that pain.

Furthermore, we don't share our own grief with our children.  Has your child ever asked you, "What's wrong?" or "Why are you sad?"  Have you ever not answered "Daddy's fine" to those questions?  We prevent our children from seeing our anguish for the same reason that we make them wear a seat-belt.  We are trying to protect them from pain, preserve their innocence, give them just one less reason to be afraid of the dark.

It is here that we are doing our children a disservice.  Our sheltering hand is preventing our children from learning how to grieve.  We have one job, just one, as a parent and that is raising our children to be successful and happy adults.  There are so many situations that they will face in life where we as parents will have no influence.  It is foolish to beg off this perfect chance to teach them one of life's most valuable lessons.

Even worse is the fact that when we avoid and put off our children, we end up frightening and confusing them. I remember feeling that fear and confusion as a cold throbbing weight in the pit of my stomach.  I felt it during all those times of doubt and confusion during my childhood when my adults were hiding the emotions that were written across their faces plain as day.  Even recalling that sensation is enough to bring it back, and it is something I don't ever want my kids to experience.

It is hard because we don't want to damage our precious children.  How can we teach them without causing them undue stress?  How do we teach them to handle pain without overwhelming them?  The answer is by parenting through it.

Parenting through pain means answering our children when they ask "Why are you crying Mommy?".  It means giving them an answer and talking out how you are feeling and telling them why you feel that way in words and descriptions suitable to their age.  By putting your emotions in such terms, you will often find them easier for you to grasp as well.  It also means giving them some hope, and in doing so you give some to yourself.

I don't mean to brag, but I'm doing it right.  My daughter understands tragedy and she knows how to grieve.  We have achieved this by teaching her to recognize and accept her feelings.  My wife and I both have large extended families and as a result have attended several funerals over the years.  We've made it a point to allow Princess to attend the funerals, to say goodbye, and to take part in the togetherness shared by the family afterward.  The payoff has been a little girl who has never hidden her grief.  She knows that any questions she has about death will be answered, so she has never felt that frightened confusion many children feel when faced with questions of mortality.

Any teenager will tell you that parents want to know about their children's lives, every single detail.  So why do we teach them to hide when they are at their most vulnerable, their most influential?  One way or another, they are going to learn something by the way you handle your grief.  It is a matter of deciding whether you want to teach them to open up and talk about it, or to lock it away from themselves and everybody around them. 

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