Should you hide your tears? Your pain? Won’t grieving in front of your kids make them more afraid of death and losing you?
You looked this up or saw this on social media and decided to read because maybe your sibling, friend, parent, spouse, or cousin told you that you shouldn’t grieve in front of the kids. They’ve grief shamed you. Maybe they said you needed to be “strong” in front of the kids. In this case, they defined strong as hiding your feelings as if that’s some badge of honor–covering it all up for their sake.
Let’s say you do hide your grief as best you can and cry only in private. What does that teach your kids? That you were able to dismiss the death of your loved one without any suffering?
Parenting while grieving is hard. Very hard. The world goes on, your kids still have to be fed and bathed, or if they are older, driven somewhere. You feel you are doing everything in slow motion, your brain is watery and unhinged and the world feels wobbly and uncertain.
However, if we make it a practice to hide our pain what we are teaching our children is that we should be ashamed of our tears. That pain is so ugly it can’t be done anywhere but alone. And when we do that, we deprive our children of being allowed to offer comfort and learning what grief is about. So when they lose that dog they loved so much, they don’t know how it’s done and you can’t point to any examples because you hid in your room or your car to hide your hurt.
They can’t learn what it is if they can’t see it. Worse than that, if you hide it, they’ll think that’s what they should do when and if they lose someone they love–a parent, a pet, a friend, or another relative. That can lead to numbing strategies like substance misuse or self-harm.
We can’t paint the picture of the world as a perfect little pain-free utopia where breakfast is all gumdrops with maple syrup. That’s not realistic and sets them up for a world of hurt. Worse, they feel they are “weak” by asking for help and support.
So how do you grieve in front of children?
Be honest in an age-appropriate way.
“I am crying more and distracted since my brother’s death. I miss Darren so much. I loved him so much. Right now, I’m doing my best and it’s not great so I might need your help. Most of all I need your love and hugs. And I do want to talk about Uncle Darren, OK?”
A child wants to offer their love and comfort. It makes them feel needed and important. It teaches children of any age that providing human comfort and asking for it is OK and healthy. Asking them to pitch in also gives them a way to help you and that’s exactly what they want to do since they feel so helpless. It allows them to understand that we are not perfect and what’s important is showing up even when we are not at our best. That sometimes that’s good enough given difficult circumstances. Furthermore, it helps them know what to do. They might be wondering if talking about it reminds you of your loves one’s death. By telling them you want to hear their stories and memories, you clarify what’s OK because they don’t know and they struggle to figure out what’s appropriate.
It’s also an opportunity to be a good role model for help seeking. So you might tell your children that a relative or friend might be taking an extra carpool to help for a few weeks and that you will be going to a support group so that you can be with others who know this hurt. Tell your kids that the healing process can take a long time. But that the pain is part of that healing process.
Sharing your grief with your child is a gift and a rare opportunity to let them see you as human and allow them to show you compassion so they’ll share it with others someday.
The page on grief has several resources to help children understand grief.