•On young children who witness pain:
Because of chronic abdominal pain, I often sat, read, watched TV or interacted with my children while using a heating pad. One day, the heating pad slipped off and my 3-year-old daughter immediately picked it up and placed it gingerly on the painful area. This has become a wonderful memory for both of us.
Today, that little girl is a wonderful, caring, nurturing, intuitive teacher. We all wish to shield our children, but they learn and grow from sharing in our lives as much as their age allows.
My mother had one surgery when I was 4 and another when I was 7. She slept a lot, too – but that was also when I learned to read. She had me sit on her bed and read to her, and she would help me sound out words.
She continued to have health problems, including a cancer diagnosis when I was 9, but we continued my reading to her when she was in bed, which was good for both of us, I think. I also took on more chores as I got older to compensate, and reading became my way of comforting myself.
Something I learned in training for my years as a hospice volunteer is that a child will keep processing grief for a loved one as s/he ages. It’s important for a surviving parent or caregiver to bring up the topic every year or so, without flogging the issue, to give the child a forum for voicing his loss as it currently affects him.
It’s easy to forget, as we try to move on from our own losses, that the little people in our lives are seeing life through different prisms as they age.
When my son was nearly 2, I had a baby who died in the hospital. My husband and I were devastated, of course. We held a funeral. Family came to visit. The house was full of flowers and donated meals, etc. None of this was hidden from my son.
My now-5-year-old son doesn’t seem to be damaged at all. In fact, he developed a keen sense of empathy, and has a special way of detecting when someone is distressed, and finding the right words to say. Maybe he had that ability before his brother died, but certainly the experience sharpened it.
I am sure that talking about the baby helps my son. (We still talk about him often, of course, we miss him every day.) We don’t give silly answers to deep questions, like: What happens when you die? We answer truthfully: I don’t know, but I think the baby is with the God who loves him.
Grief is complicated and powerful. You don’t screw around with it by lying.