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Parenting Tip of the Month
By Heather Totten

The Teacher Teaches, But Also Learns ~ Preparing Your Children for the Loss of a Loved One

This month's tip is going to be much different then what I've written in the past and will probably be much different then what I'll write in the future. But, I can't help to have my personal life affect me so much that I found a 'tip' out of my trials.

As some of you might know from my parenting journal, my mother-in-law was diagnosed with end stage lung cancer in late November last year. She had the strong will to fight and the tenacity to do it, but her body could not keep up with her mind. After a short few weeks of brain radiation (one of several places the cancer had already spread before detected) she caught a terrible infection. From that point on, her health has increasingly deteriorated until this past Friday evening when she lost the battle and passed away peacefully in her home with her daughter next to her side.

How is there a 'tip' in all of this? Well, it goes back to the beginning of her diagnosis. My children (7, 4 1/2, 3, and 1) have never lost anyone close to them, especially a grandparent. So, it was thrust on to me to show and teach them how to react, survive, and go on. If you only knew ME, you'd realize the battle I had in front of me. Although my faith teaches me how wonderful heaven is and that our real home is with God, the human side of me is rather selfish. I want to stay here. I want to live here. And I want to be with all those I love and don't want them to leave me. But, that will not happen. I know that. And dealing with losing a parent would eventually enter my life. So, how do I teach and prepare my children, and through it, believe it enough that they will not fear death as I have for 34 years?

My tip is not how to approach death and to push my views in faith on all of you. Instead my tip can be adapted to any tough time in the family. Even the loss of a family pet or a move to another city or state can be extremely traumatic on the family and upset the natural flow within the family.

The first step is to take into consideration the ages of the kids. According to Hospice even an infant can grieve. I don't think the infant knows the reason she is upset, but she can tell from her mom that things are just not the same. Let's face it; infants are about the most in touch with the human body due to their innate ability to survive. They know from the moment of birth who their mom is vs. the nurse that first grabs her when she is born. They can smell the difference. They can hear the difference. If you cry in front of them, they cry along with you. They might not know why, but they do know that the most important person in their lives is crying so they think they must also.

Next is to be honest with them. Let them know it is okay to be sad. If it is warranted, cry in front of them so they can see that it is okay to do so. Then show by example by brushing away your tears and going on all the while explaining that sadness is part of the process. Let them know you will keep them 'in the loop' as to what is happening. You are the adult and you know what information needs to be shared with them. It is a delicate balance; too much and they will be overwhelmed, too little and they will feel like they are not important enough to include in the process. For instance, they asked me if grandma was in pain. I know dying of cancer is supposed to be very painful so of course she was in pain, but she was being given many medicines to control that pain. I told them, "No, the doctor gave grandma many medicines to help reduce or get rid of her pain." They were satisfied and that was that. I did not 'hide' it; I worded it differently. Keep them informed with age appropriate information all along the journey even if it the same information. It keeps them prepared and allows them to remember the changes. From my experience, it did not bring on more sadness, it brought on more preparation for my kids. When the day came to tell them that grandma had died, of course they were sad, but they knew it was going to happen, they were not shocked, and they were as ready as you can be.

Let them grieve and don't force it upon them. For instance, talking about death can be very sad. Kids can only take so much sadness at one time. Don't forget they are kids. They have not learned how to deal with disappointment or sadness at this level. They don't have the experience at handling it as we do. Allow them the reaction they need and don't critize them for it. This is going to take some work on your part because naturally we are accustomed to talking to our friends and being able to just talk it out. Kids don't work that way. Right in the middle of what you think is a good explanation of what heaven is like; they will ask what is for dinner. Take it as a clue. They are not being rude; they are at their limit of hearing sadness and they need to switch gears. Switch along with them. I promise the subject will pick up right where it left off, but at their time. Car rides are great places for those conversations to show back up.

Allow yourself to be available for them and to talk when they are ready. This tip ties in with the previous tip. Try your best to be available to talk about the changes in their life at 'their' time. It is not always an appropriate time, but if it is, dig deep within yourself and dive right in. Connect with them. Look them in the face. Hug them. Snuggle with them. Reassure them that as a family, you will all be okay. And as I am typing right now, I had to take the time to talk. My son just asked me where his suit was. It was not that he wanted to wear it now; he wanted to make sure it was ready for the funeral later this week. He wants to prepare his mind for what is coming up. We've talked in depth about what a viewing and funeral are like even before she passed away. Even when he would hold onto the notion of a miracle that grandma would get better, I explained that I'd rather he hear and prepare for this side of it, because we will all easily accept the alternative if grandma would beat the cancer. He'd just smile and say that it would be great. Along with all of this, don't force any information upon them that they are not able or ready to hear. My son is naturally inquisitive and wants information down to the last detail. He even asked what happens to your blood. Well, that was a delicate conversation meant only for his ears, but I handled what I thought he could hear and yet not scare.

Try your best to keep a schedule. It might not be the same schedule before the changes in your life, but allow for there to be some certainty in their lives. During all these months, we traveled to visit grandma almost every weekend. In the beginning she was talkative and attentive. By the last 6 weeks she was home in a hospital bed in her living room and slept most of the time. We were able to make the decision to have the children see her as much as possible in the beginning, but towards the end since my parents lived close, we were able to allow them to hold on to the better memories of her and chose to keep them at my parents' house. That is not always an option for families; we are so thankful my parents were so willing to put their lives on hold every weekend to take care of the kids. But, back to a schedule for them, whether we were traveling or at home, we would try to keep a bedtime routine or reading books routine, movie and popcorn routine, or in our case a visit with Mima and Bobba (what my kids call my parents) weekend routine where my parents would handle doing something special for the kids to look forward to. It allowed them to 'escape' from what was going on and gave them something to look forward to. So although you might not be able to do things exactly the same as before, pick those few things that you can follow through with and keep them normal for the kids. Stress does not need to be passed onto every member of the family. Allow the kids to be kids.

Finally, stick with your 'gut' instincts. When your child lashes out in anger, try not to lash back. Evaluate it and realize if it is a sign of anger and grief. Try to take the opportunity to talk again. Try to get them to start the talk. Usually the first thing out of their mouth is what is most important in their mind. Look for signs of depression in the kids. They have lots of great books out there to observe things you would not normally pick up on. I chose to utilize the information Hospice provided. I also talked with the teachers and kept them in the loop as to what was happening. Especially my first grader, his teacher could pick up on things during the day that might not show back up by the time he gets off the bus at night. I am thankful his teacher was so helpful. Up to date, she has seen only healthy signs in him, but she did notice a change and felt there was something going on at home.

So, through all this, I've learned a lot. The teacher teaches, but also learns. My views on death have changed. I've given my kids my wisdom (if you want to call it that) and they interpret it and give it back to me in such a wonderful return. Seeing life from their perspective is so clearing. It is beautiful. It makes death look not so bad after all. So, although I hope none of you have to face anything like this ahead, if and when you do, take it from me -- it is better to bond together as a family. Learn together and walk it together. You get to experience the blessings of life even in its sadness.

To close my tip for this month, I want to quote my mother-in-law in one of the last emails I received from her back when she was able to still type to me . . . she wrote, "I am so blessed with such good friends and a loving family." So when faced with the end, all we really care about is our family and friends. The cars, the house, and the junk we just leave behind. She was a wonderful person who always lived life knowing that fact. I just wanted to share a bit of her with you. So, go hug those kids and give that hubby a kiss, and thank your friends for being there. That is truly what matters in life. Have a great month!

Heather Totten is a stay-at-home mom with four children and a busy husband. She is incredibly organized, and shares her sense of family, parenting, and organization with us in her monthly parenting tips column. Read what's new with her family in Heather's Parenting Journal.

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