I’d like to start this post off with three disclaimers:
- My intention is not to tell anyone who has been through trauma and/or tragedy how to grieve. I would never be so presumptuous. Grief is a very intimate, very personal experience and there is no right way to do it. My intention with this post is to share my experience with parenting through it and to give a little encouragement so that you don’t get stuck in the cycle.
- I am not a licensed counselor or psychologist. Again, I am simply sharing my experience.
- This post includes details of traumatic events and child loss. If you are sensitive to that kind of thing, please stop reading here.
On March 12, 2010 a sweet little boy entered the world. His name was Isaiah John-Edward Johnson. He was the baby to his three older siblings and they adored him. I was in the hospital for a month prior to his birth fighting a battle with HELLP syndrome, most easily explained as a severe and potentially deadly form of preeclampsia. He was in the NICU for two weeks learning how to breathe and eat on his own. The day we brought him home was one the sweetest days of our lives. He continued to improve at an astounding rate until June 7, 2010 when he passed away in his sleep. SIDS is listed as the cause of death on his death certificate. His older brothers and sister were 8, 7 and 4 at the time.
After a whirlwind of administering CPR, calling an ambulance and seeing uniforms of all kinds fill my home, I knew it was time to look into the faces of his doting brothers and sister and tell them the truth. I will never forget the words that came to me that day.
They had to have been straight from the heart of God,
“Sweet peas, I need to tell you something. Our sweet Ike is living with Jesus now. We will need to say goodbye very soon.”
And then I pulled them close and said, “In the coming days, well-meaning people are going to say a lot of dumb things. But I want you to look into my eyes and believe me over everyone else. God did not do this to Ike, nor did He do this to our family. God did not take Isaiah from us. He doesn’t need another angel. He is not mad at us, and He is not trying teach us a lesson. This is a horrible event in our lives. You will see me cry a lot, be angry for no reason and not know what to do sometimes. It is absolutely okay for you to do the same thing. But it isn’t now, nor will it ever be, your fault. I love you so much and will be here for you and whatever you need.”
I still remember the looks in their sweet blue eyes. It was in that moment I knew that if I wasn’t careful, these three beautiful children would live in the shadow of their brother’s death forever. I resolved within myself to go to any lengths to make sure that wouldn’t happen.
I share this with you now because I want to assure you that I know first hand how hard it is to navigate through the ups and downs of grief as one person, but how in the world do you do it for yourself and you children?
The answer: One day at a time.
I had to start by allowing the Holy Spirit to highlight the places where I could get tripped up.
For example, I kept nothing of Ike’s. Not one thing. I knew that if I kept even a pacifier, it would become a shrine and the temptation to turn it into a false idol to worship would be too much. My living children deserved better than that.
Secondly, I knew that getting through his death would be more than I could handle on my own. I immediately sat myself down in a professional counselor’s chair and let her guide me. I did whatever she said and used the techniques she used with me to help my children navigate their own grief.
Allow me to digress for just a moment… When a child dies in the home, child advocates step in to investigate, as I ‘m sure you know. In the process of their investigation, we were required to do many things. One of those things was to attend a support group that dealt with survivors of child loss.
After a few sessions, our children came to us and said, “There are kids in our classes that lost their brothers and sisters a long time ago and they are still crying. We just don’t feel like they do because we know we will see him again. Is there something wrong with us?”
Talk about a full stop.
“Absolutely not,” we immediately replied. I called our caseworker, informed her of their confusion, and after getting her permission, we never went back to that group.
My point? Grief should be a process that you go through, not a destination at which you stay. Our children instinctively knew that and taught us the importance of surrounding ourselves with people who made it through that process, healed and whole. That became our goal.
In the year that followed, they began to express grief in their own ways, and we let them.
However, when those expressions began to be destructive, we we were quick to impose creative disciplines. I started by sitting down with each of the boys’ teachers and explaining the circumstances. I followed that explanation up by saying, “Please do not give them special treatment. If they break the rules, they need the same correction that their peers get. Yes, what they’re going through is so hard, but if they learn that they can manipulate people and situations with this story now, they will do it for the rest of their lives.”
When things got out of control they went on “lockdown”. They lost every single privilege they had, including salt and pepper, and had to earn each one back by showing respect and consideration for themselves, each other and others.
That may sound harsh but, again, if they learn that poor decisions can be explained away with a good enough excuse, they will stay stuck in the cycle of grief and self-destructive behavior for the rest of their lives. Besides, whether it seems fair or not, it was effective. It’s been ten years and all I have to do is mention the word lockdown and they snap right back into themselves!
The only real regret I have is not addressing the fear that our sweet girl struggled with after Ike’s death. At the time, I assumed that if I just showed her enough love and offered enough reassurance, it would dissipate. Instead, it is something that she is learning to overcome ten years later. She is doing so much better, but if I’m honest, I often wonder if I could have done something differently to help her conquer it before now.
I am admitting that because I want to encourage you…
If you are in a season where you are having navigate these challenging waters, you won’t always do everything right. It’s impossible. You’re still human and, truth be told, this is hard and comes with no instruction manual.
There finally came a time in this process where I had to start to discipline myself and my emotions for my sake AND for the sake of my children. I didn’t want them to struggle with his death for the rest of their lives, therefore I had to come to a place where I ceased struggling with it. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss him. When I sat down to write this post his birthday was just five days away and I have been struggling with disciplining my emotions for a solid week.
I still wonder what life would be like with him here. There are moments where grief hits me right between the eyes and I have to take a moment to catch my breath. So, when I say struggle, I don’t mean not feel it. I mean not let it consume my life and steal the joy that having my other three children bring me.
I believe that the most important thing is to be age-appropriately authentic with your children during times like this.
Tell them how you’re feeling. Let them see you cry. Show them that trauma and loss is hard. It’s okay for them to see that you are hurting.
They will learn how to grieve properly by watching you. Guard your heart against building a shrine to the trauma and/or tragedy. Recognize the areas where that risk could present itself (like staying in a support group too long). Resist the urge to hold on to the past. Embrace experiencing peace here in the present.
Grief is a terrible thing, but if we trust the process and purpose to come out of it, life can beautiful on the other side. It will never be the same. You will never “get over it”. But if you can learn to graft your experience with it into your life, grass becomes greener, the sky is bluer, laughter is precious and joy is priceless.
Grief can free us from caring about trivial things. It gives us permission to just not give a shit about what other people think and opens us up to be unapologetically authentic . And when, through our example, we teach our children how to overcome a tragic event, we can watch them care about people who are dismissed by the rest of the world.
I think about it like this… what we allow grief to do in us, it will do in our children, only ten fold. We may not be able to control what happened, but we can control that.
So, sweet friend, don’t run from your grief.
Embrace it, wrestle with it and become determined to make it work for you. Your children will learn to do the same.
Most importantly, I know it feels insurmountable right now. There are so many emotions, so much confusion, lots of questions and no real answers. I remember that season all too well.
There will be messy times and that’s okay. You have permission to be messy. But take it from me, you will get through this. You will. Give yourself and your family as much time as you need. You are loved with a love that saves and heals and never lets go. Lean into that love.