Children & Grief – my journey as a wife, mother & counsellor
Catherine Nabbs is an experienced counsellor with a particular interest in how our past experiences affect our present. Catherine’s husband died a year ago, and in this blog she shares her grief journey as a wife, mother and counsellor.
I knew for over three years that I would one day, while they were still children, have to tell my boys that their dad had died. When that time came however, nothing could really have prepared me for it, or them for hearing it. I knew as I anxiously waited for them to come home from school, that what I was going to have to tell them would shake their trust in the world and bring a pain that I would have done anything for them not to have to feel. And yet, that time as we cried together, talked together and laughed together with him, as he lay dead in the hospital bed in our bedroom, was one of the most intimate and connected experiences we have ever shared. That for me has been the contradictory, rollercoaster nature of grief. Even as I have felt at my lowest ebb, I have known that this feeling is transient, that shortly I will feel something different – life will move on and there will be dinner to make, washing to bring in, a client to respond to, and my feeling state will shift to something else.
When my husband was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in March 2016, my children were 3 and 5, so one of the interesting things for me to observe as a counsellor has been how their understanding has shifted over the course of those 3 years, and how I have had to adapt my expectations of their understanding and the way I communicate. Two things have remained consistent through that time though: I have always been as honest with them as possible (using age appropriate language) and have always allowed them to see how I am feeling and name the emotion for them. This has not always been easy; as parents we have a primal urge to shield our children from the difficult, distressing and messy parts of life, but I strongly believe the more children know and are invited to ask questions, the less opportunity there is for misunderstanding, fear and guilt.
I thought it might be helpful at this point to take a look at the general understanding there is around how children grieve or think about death at different ages:
Birth to six months: Babies don’t have the cognition to understand death, but can understand that a person is missing. Particularly if this is someone close to them, they can experience a feeling of abandonment and separation. It’s also important to note, that if the mother is grieving the baby can pick up on her feelings.
Six months to two years: It’s at this stage that babies form an internal image of a primary caregiver. They may cry loudly and angrily at their primary caregiver not being there, or start to become withdrawn. Toddlers may begin to actively seek the person who has died, by perhaps looking for them in places in the house they would normally be found.
Two to five years: Children in this age range typically don’t understand the permanence of death. They may also get caught up in “magical thinking” – where they believe that they are in some way responsible for their loved one’s illness or death. It’s vital at this stage that the bereaved child is told unambiguously that events are not their fault.
Five to ten years: Children in this developmental stage usually have a wider understanding about death and permanence. At around 7 children start to understand that everyone dies eventually, however with this understanding may come increased anxiety about other people dying. Clear explanations, a willingness to answer questions, reassurance and permission to show feelings are paramount at this age.
One of the important things to understand here is that although a child may be a certain age at the actual bereavement, as they get older and at different developmental stages, they have the potential to reintegrate their grief as their understanding and life experiences allow them to process their emotions in new ways. Just like adults, all children respond to bereavement differently – as with adults, children have different temperaments, personalities and relationships – which will all inform their way of grieving.
Adults in a bereaved child’s life need to be aware that children will need help and permission to grieve at every stage of their development, and probably well into adulthood. There needs to be an understanding that grief is not something to be “fixed” or to “get over”, but that support in understanding their emotions, validating their feelings, encouraging continuing bonds with the loved one that has died, and an open communication are all crucial to the child’s resilience and mental health as they get older.
You can see from this, that my children during the 3 years between their dad’s diagnosis and death shifted between stages, but I think the consistent messaging that the adults in their life communicated helped them to assimilate the information they were getting from us. Avoiding the use of euphemisms is helpful too – it can be very confusing for a young child if adults refer to someone who has died as “lost” or “asleep”; as difficult as it may feel, it is so important to used “dead” and “dying” so that there can be no misunderstanding.
At every step of the way I tried to let them know what I was feeling and why I was feeling it, and reassure them that it was normal for me to feel that way, and that in no way was it ever their fault.
This was exhausting; and while I feel fairly confident that I did the best for them that I possibly could, I’m not entirely sure I can say the same about myself. Anticipatory grief as an adult is a difficult process to navigate.
Grief is often something we think about as only happening after death, but it often begins long before – it can start as soon as we realise that death is a possibility. The feelings are often very similar to those after an actual bereavement, but they are further complicated by exhaustion, stress, dread and processing the losses that each stage of an illness presents: a loss of physical ability, a loss of cognition, a loss of hope or of future dreams.
I think if I had that time again, I would be kinder to myself. I felt like I needed to do it all, and looking back I wish I had asked for more help, and said no to more commitments. For anyone else in this position I would like them to know these key points:
- It’s normal to feel angry that your future may look very different to the one you had anticipated. Try to find an outlet for that anger – whether it’s something physical like exercise or more contemplative like journaling. Play around with what works for you.
- It’s OK to ask for help. Letting someone else take over some practical tasks so that you can rest is important – you will need your physical and mental energy for the journey ahead, so accept help where you can. This doesn’t mean you love the person you are caring for any less.
- Lean on the people who love you… they most likely love the person who is dying too, and there is a great comfort in being able to share your pain.
- Your children will need other people in their lives – allow other people to help you with them now – this will help with consistency and continuity when your loved one dies, and give them the security of knowing that there are other adults in their life who care about them. It can also give you some much needed space.
- Talk about how you are feeling. If you don’t get this opportunity feelings may build up until you are overwhelmed, or they get displaced and you may act in ways you regret towards other people. Do consider counselling if you don’t feel you can talk about it with anyone else.
My husband died a year ago, so what have I learned over the past year? In some ways life has been easier without the seemingly never ending medical appointments to organise and attend; and in the later stages wonderful carers, district nurses and hospice nurses to coordinate and arrange. The boys are more settled – I am always here for them, rather than taking Daddy to appointments or visiting him in hospital. And yet the worst has happened, and the sheer overwhelming fact of that is inescapable. Most days now I can anticipate the future with a hazy optimism; although I still feel angry, I still wonder if I am enough for my children and I still miss him, and I have yet to replace “our” hopes and dreams with “my” hopes and dreams for the future.
We talk about my husband all the time, and I think this has helped the boys to weave him into their lives and establish those continuing bonds that integrate him into their present; even though he is not physically here he will always be an important part of their lives. I have noticed that they are typical children in their reaction to grief. They will want to talk about him, share memories, look at photos and then quickly switch to something else. This is often called “puddle jumping”; while adults can hold their grief with them and still go about their everyday lives, children splash in and out of their grief. This can be bewildering for adults, but it is important to recognise that this is very normal and to follow their lead where possible.
This has been my journey, and it’s important to say that it will be different for every family, but I hope that by sharing my experience it gives permission to others to navigate their own path through grief in a way that feels right for them.
And what of the future? Shortly after he died I developed a bereavement policy for schools as I felt coordinated communication between all stakeholders in a bereaved child’s life was crucial. One of the most important points in this was the transition between school years and eventually schools. One of the things I’m acutely aware of is that their sense of loss may increase as they get older, as they start to recognise that other boys do things with their dads, that they are unusual in only having one parent, and wishing that he was there as they reach milestones throughout their lives. It breaks my heart to think of the pain that potentially lies ahead for them as they re-grieve at key points in their life, but I hope that with open communication, my love, our security as a family unit and support from friends and family, they will allow their grief, acknowledge their pain and ultimately achieve what every mother wants for her sons: fulfilling adult lives and meaningful relationships.
If you have been affected by grief, or if you’d like to share your own grief story with Good Grief, please feel free to get in touch.