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Helping children mourn: ‘If you’re old enough to love, you’re old enough to grieve’

Teaching children how to grieve by example
WATCH: We are a country in mourning. In the coming days, there will be vigils and funerals honouring the dozens of Canadians killed in the Iran plane crash. Our initial instinct as parents may be to shield our children from sadness but one child psychologist says watching us mourn gives children a script to deal with their own grief. Laurel Gregory explains.

We were much better at supporting people in grief back in the “old days,” according child psychologist and author Jody Carrington. When there was a loss in the community, we packed up the kids and went where we were needed to offer food, music, love and support.

Now, Carrington says we are less likely to show up in the same way.

READ MORE: With social media, you don’t have to grieve alone

“When we lose a child or we lose a parent or a sibling or a partner, we are very clear: ‘Please don’t stop coming. Please say the name. Please do all those things,'” Carrington says.

“And then, on the other side of it, we are always like, ‘I don’t know what to… You know, I just won’t bring the food because they might have too much. I’ll just wait for a little bit. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to send an emoji! I’m going to send a heart emoji on the Facebook, that’s what I’m going to do.’

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“In previous generations we didn’t have that exit ramp. We had to go.”

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“Going” meant our children saw us cry, laugh, embrace and connect after the loss of a loved one. Carrington says today, with parents often mourning in private, children miss out on that opportunity.

READ MORE: How to talk to your kids about the death of a loved one

We asked the child psychologist how we can best support children through grief, given many will experience it early in their lives, whether it’s the loss of a close family member, a friend, teacher or a pet.

Laurel Gregory: On a fundamental level, how do children experience grief? Is it different than what we go through or is it the same?

Jody Carrington: It’s the same. If you are old enough to love, you are old enough to grieve. Your capacity to walk through it is really about who is there to guide you. Just like you and me. We often grieve alone. It’s that feeling of being on the side of the road and you think you’re fine and you hear the song and you have to pull over. Or, 15 years mom has been gone and you smell perogies when you come into the kitchen…  Gasp. That’s grief.

Mourning is often joyful. It’s often done in relationship or connection with other human beings.

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When we grieve, it can be very isolating, and mourning is how we stay connected, how we still say the name, how we encourage our babies to talk about it.

Mitch Albom said this in Tuesdays with Morrie, which I love, “Death ends a life; not a relationship.” So if they were once your mama, they will always be your mama. If they died your husband, they will always be your husband.

So when Mother’s Day comes you can make a Mother’s Day card. Just because they are not here doesn’t mean you don’t do that. We often shy away from that because we want to protect the people we love.

Dr. Jody Carrington says children are born with the ability to grieve, but parents need to give them a script to mourn. Photo Credit: drjodycarrington.com
Dr. Jody Carrington says children are born with the ability to grieve, but parents need to give them a script to mourn. Photo Credit: drjodycarrington.com

LG: So when children are going through this, what are some ways to guide them through it?

JC: I think so much is being very diligent of keeping them involved in the process and leaning on the village… because often times, when I’m in a state of grief, I don’t think like I would typically. So just think about this: if one of your best friends loses someone close to them and you come in and you bring food and you notice their babies, you notice the husband and you notice those things.

When you are in the middle of grief yourself, you are dis-regulated, which means, from a neurological perspective, I lose access to my prefrontal cortex. So, I’m in this fight-flight. I’m just in this survival mode.

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When I have the capacity to stay regulated because I am not intimately involved, I can do things like, “Let me get you a drink. Let me get you some snacks.” So we tend to isolate ourselves when grief gets really, really hard and what’s so critically important is: how do you stay connected?

LG: A friend of mine lost a family member and was very torn about bringing her seven-year-old son to the funeral. The boy knew him, but he wasn’t close to him. She wondered if she was exposing him to grief unnecessarily.

JC: No, no. Nobody is getting out of here alive and you need a script. So, this is how it made it all made sense for me… One of my best friends on the planet lost her battle with cancer two months ago at 44, with two amazing little babies (four and seven). We spent a lot of time over the last three years as things have not been good and I expected that we wouldn’t have her forever.

When things got really bad her husband said, “Can you come spent the day with Rhea? I think things are going to get awful” … so I said to my husband, “Keep the kids. I just want a day. I don’t want to worry about my own children and how they are going to show up. I just want to focus on Rhea and her babies and Shawn. Is that cool?” Aaron’s like, “Absolutely. I’ve got the kids. I’ll take them to hockey. You just go. Stay overnight. Whatever you need to do. This is your time. You say your goodbyes, you do your thing.”

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I was like, “Oh my God I love you.” Then I woke up at four o’clock in the morning… I need to bring the babies. I can’t tell them how to do it, I’ve got to show them. So I woke Aaron up at five in the morning – he loves that – and I was like, “Hey, you’ve got to come with me.”

It was awful. The kids were jacked the whole drive there because I’m upset and I know what this day means: it may be the last time I see her. So we have to pull over. One is going to puke…Two seconds before we pull up to Rhea’s house I tell one twin they can carry in the Timbits. The other twin loses their mind…So there’s a massive meltdown and in my head I’m like, “Why did I bring them?”

READ MORE: Grief can be a ‘lifelong’ journey when death is unexpected — tips on how to cope

We come inside and we have a beautiful day. The kids play. Asher, our eldest, came up to me at one point and said, “Can I talk to you for a sec?” I said, “Yep.” He said, “I need to tell you that this was more fun that I thought… I didn’t think this was going to be a fun day. That moment was what was so important to me because I can’t go home and say, “Today was fun. I got to say my goodbye to Auntie Rhea.” They are not going to believe that. They have to feel it. So we have to show them and it’s hard because we often grieve in isolation. If I’m feeling it to that degree, my babies are going to feel it.

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I just think developmentally it’s critical for kids to watch us do it. And the more spaces we have to hide or the more we process things on our phones, versus face-to-face, that’s the biggest issue I think our babies face sometimes: they don’t watch us do it anymore.

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So how do we just be really conscious of that process is really all they need.

Helping your child cope with grief
Helping your child cope with grief

LG: In your explanations, do you keep things pretty simple? You want to share but is there a line where you are burdening them with adult stuff?

JC: Developmentally, you know your baby best. You know your child best. So, sometimes there’s a nine year old who is super inquisitive. Has lots of questions about why and how and if we keep putting it off – having conversations are really critical. Developmentally appropriate, yes. But do your best, mom. Do your best, dad. Do you best, grandma and grandpa. There’s no real right way to do it.

You can read your children when you say too much. But all we really want is to give them a sense of how they can make sense of something that looks scary. Some of the most difficult times are when we shut them out of the process.

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They are going to put pieces together and sometimes in a little brain, they put pieces together that don’t make sense. So giving them that chance.”Do you have any questions about today? What was the hardest part about today? What did you notice about today? Did anything scare you today? Are you worried about when we go there tomorrow? What do you think is going to happen?” And you enter that with whatever faith you have, whatever response you have in your system, however that works out. But giving them that platform and that opportunity is one of the best things we can do.

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LG: Do you think right from two years old?

JC: As soon as you can. Often times when there are no words, when they don’t have words, it’s about… even, can you colour me a picture?

For more resources from Jody Carrington visit her website.

When grief is part of the holidays
When grief is part of the holidays