It was a tiny worm that lived in a tiny box. And 5-year-old Kate had grown fond of it. One day, the worm lay dead in the box. Kate’s dad wondered how to break the news to her.
“Sweetie…the worm…um…its body got really sick…um…and so…well, it stopped…”
“Dad, did the worm die?” asked Kate.
The naked truth spilled from the little girl’s lips with ease–even as her father faltered and fumbled and failed.
Children are untainted souls. They bring a freshness and open curiosity to life–and death–that we’ve lost as adults.
Here are 7 truths kids teach us about navigating the terrain of grief and loss.
#1. There’s no shame around feelings. Kids cry, rage, laugh, feel sad and everything in between. They simply feel what rises up without questioning, overthinking, analyzing, judging or criticizing it. They let us know that life (and death) would be simpler if we approached our feelings the same way.
#2. Live in the moment. Children are rarely lost in the past or future. They don’t have a whole lot of past to reference and they’re not really concerned about what’s happening next week…as long as they can play a video game, go to Ethan’s house for a sleepover, or eat a banana split right now. They remind us that our power only exists in the here and now.
#3. Speak your truth. Children don’t cover up, pretend, deny, or push reality away. They tell the truth about what they see, hear, feel, and know. We, on the other hand, have become so layered that we’re lost under all the masks we’ve become so used to wearing. Children have a refreshing sense of honesty about the world which keeps their lives uncomplicated.
#4. It’s okay to laugh. Kids don’t have the ability to stay steeped in any one emotion for a long period of time. They miss Grandma and cry because they won’t see her again. Moments later, they’re giggling about something inconsequential but have no judgments around it. Grieving adults deprive themselves of the healing power of laughter because they believe they have no right to be happy when a loved one is no longer in their lives.
#5. Play is how they grieve. Children don’t have the words to articulate what they’re feeling when a sibling, parent, friend, or grandparent dies. Their feelings emerge through clay, paint, papier mache, puppet-making, and other forms of creative expression. Nothing is more healing than the creative spirit, and this is true for adults as well. But so often we limit ourselves by declaring that we’re no good at drawing or writing, we’re not creative, we don’t know how to…Sometimes a few random strokes of color can convey what there are no words for.
#6. It’s okay not to have answers. Children don’t know everything. That’s why they ask a lot of questions. As adults, we’ve become obsessed with having all the answers. If you tell a child that you don’t know the answer to a question they’re asking, they’re fine with that. We cling to the notion that only when we “figure it out” will we be at peace. Having answers somehow implies a sense of mastery. Unfortunately the mysteries of life and death don’t submit themselves to pretty little answers and neat endings. Just as kids live in the questions, so must we. Open curiosity keeps the spirit alive.
#7. The human spirit is resilient. There are many examples of children who demonstrate tremendous resilience in the face of unspeakable tragedies. As parents, we want to “protect” our kids from the harsh realities of life. Children need good role models more than they need protection. If a parent shows them how to live and laugh and love again through loss, that’s what they learn to embody. If the parent shuts down and they have no permission to feel, that is who they grow up to become: emotionally unavailable adults. Part of the human experience is the fact that we can’t keep our kids safe at all times. A better question to ask is: how can I model openness, vulnerability, and courage?
The next time a child asks you a big life question, don’t fret about having to protect them from the truth. Your honesty will go a long way in teaching them the value of trust. They can handle it. The question is: can you?
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