Most of us wouldn’t consider it part of our job to allow the small children in our care to grieve. And yet, our lives are filled with losses—some are significant, most are minor. The way we process feelings of loss can have profound, lasting effects on our mental health and overall quality of life. In this episode, Janet shares how we can encourage our children to experience and express loss in the healthiest manner from the very beginning, starting with the first type of loss our babies experience: momentary separation from a loved one. Our response can provide them the messages and experience they need to learn to deal with loss capably and, most important of all, know loss is survivable.
Transcript of “Raising Mentally Healthy Kids Means Letting Them Grieve”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be talking about a topic that I guess is controversial, and that is this idea of letting children grieve. I know that letting a child feel something can be misconstrued as we’re just ignoring them while they’re sad and we don’t care, and you’re kind of abandoning them emotionally while they’re upset. It’s weird, it’s that word let. And if we exchange it with the word allow, it can have a different connotation, right? It sounds like, oh, this is kind of a privilege. We’re allowing our child to experience an uncomfortable feeling that’s very much a part of life. And letting them express it to us without trying to change it or distract it or cheer them up or tell them they shouldn’t feel that way, they don’t need to feel that way. That’s what I’m going to be talking about today.
Because, like every feeling under the sun and every feeling in the darkness as well, grief and loss are extremely healthy for us to allow ourselves and our children to experience and express fully, to share. And we could say this is especially important for children because they’re in the building stages of emotional health. They’re building the foundation for these capacities to experience every type of feeling and know that it’s healthy, that it passes, they don’t have to be afraid of it. They can have the feeling of being scared, but they don’t have to be afraid of the feeling itself. So it’s important that we try to do this for them, if we believe this. And when we let children feel even these dark feelings like grief and loss, they receive many vital messages: That sadness and loss are healthy, normal, integral to life. And they don’t feel good while we’re in them, but with support, the support of my loved ones, I learn as a child that I can handle them, and they eventually pass.
Most of us didn’t receive these kinds of messages consistently as children, so that makes it even more challenging for us to shift that cycle and give our child something different. That’s healthier, that builds a sense of security, that frees them. Because if I can feel all the hardest emotions to feel, the most uncomfortable ones, I’m free. I can do anything, right? I don’t have to be afraid of life. I don’t have to be afraid of what’s around the corner and worry that I can’t handle it. I’m learning bit by bit, naturally through everyday life, that I can.
Still, even knowing all this and realizing how positive it is, it’s really challenging for us to give this to our children, right? Because none of us want to hear or see our child upset. And the younger the child, the harder this is for us. Even a few seconds of crying, even being on the verge of crying or being sad, we have this instinct to swoop in and try to protect our child from that feeling, thereby giving them this message, Wow, they want to protect me from something. It must be something I can’t handle, that’s too scary.
So you see, that’s the importance of trying to figure this out for ourselves, how we can do this, how we can start to believe in it and frame it for ourselves as this positive, loving thing to do. Which doesn’t make it pleasant, by the way, but it makes it possible. And whether we’re a parent or a grandparent or a paid caregiver, it feels like we’re doing something wrong if the child in our care is upset. So we want to distract them, we want to make them smile, and sometimes we can sort of bring them out of it. We’ll want to do almost anything in our power to put an end to that feeling that’s triggering our child’s tears.
But think about it: Doesn’t our child have a right to, let’s say, if it’s somebody leaving the room that we love, our parent—that’s one of the examples I’m going to be sharing here. We don’t want them to leave the room. We love them so much that we’re sad when they leave. Don’t we have a right to feel like that? Isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t it show the depth of my love for you, my joy in being with you, that I don’t want you to ever go away from me? That I have feelings when you do? With Magda Gerber’s profound encouragement, I tried hard to embrace this approach with my children, who are now all three adults. I wasn’t perfect at it, by any means. But I could soon see the difference between their much healthier relationship to their emotions and mine, which is still a work in progress.
In one particularly glaring example, my middle child was very close to the dog that we had at the time. Of all three of my children, she was the one that probably most saw this dog as kind of her mascot. She’s a talented artist, and she drew a pen drawing of this dog’s face, this dog’s portrait, and she won an award in middle school for it. She went to college, and I believe it was her first summer coming home from college, and our dog died. Well, first she became paralyzed and then she died. It was very, very difficult, a dramatic, heart-wrenching experience. Not just that she died, but the way that we had to let her go. We were all very sad.
And this daughter, she really kind of fell apart. She was sitting on the floor in the hallway between her bedroom and mine and just couldn’t get up. She was just sobbing, sobbing. And everything in me wanted to come over there and stroke her and grab her and hug her and make her feel better. I was scared. It looked like she might be falling into some deep depression. It was so intense. But everything I knew about this child and about emotional health and what my role was in my child’s feelings: to listen, to hold space for, to be there if she wanted to reach out to hold me or something like that, but not to force myself on her, like I wanted to do. So I sat there next to her for a while, not touching her, just being present. She knew I was there for her. And still, she cried. And eventually I had to get up, and she went on and on. And in her bedroom, on the floor. It seemed like this endless abyss that she was falling into and that I was falling into with her because I was so worried about her.
Well, what happened was after about, I think it was even less than 24 hours, she came out of it. And it wasn’t long after that that she was remembering this dog, and she could laugh at some of the memories. I mean, dogs do bring all this humor into your life as a family. And probably cats do too, I’ve never had a cat. But that’s one of the joys of having a dog for me is they’re funny. They are just so precious and unique and you’re always trying to figure out what’s going on with them. So she had all of these memories, and she was like a different person. She was free, she was light. She had totally moved through it. And I was dumbfounded because I was still going through it in my way. In my slower, not as healthy way, I believe. I was still suffering. And honestly, it took me like a year to get over that dog, or at least several months, before I wasn’t feeling sad about the dog. She moved on. And that showed me so clearly, wow, this is what happens when you’re free to clear your feelings and move through them. It can go away like that. Not always, not with every grief that a child has, not with every child. But I could see the difference. And if I wasn’t already sold at that point, which I was a thousand times over, that did it for me.
And what it reminded me of, too, is that I need to allow myself to feel losses. There’s loss all around us, and I don’t mean to be maudlin, it’s just a sign that we’re living and we’re loving. When my adult children come to visit me, they light my world up, and then they leave and I feel so let down. Not by them, but by the loss of them. I’ll feel myself welling up, and I just try to let myself cry and not distract myself by getting busy on something. Very easy to do with a phone, right? Interestingly, it often happens in my car. I’ve taken my child to the airport or they’ve left and now I’m going out to do some errands, and I’ll be in my car, where I can’t use a tech device or something else as a distraction. And the feelings come up, I’m sad. And it’s okay. I’m going to see them again soon. It just means I love them.
I feel like that when I’m on an outing with a friend or a loved one or any kind of gathering, I feel a little sad when it ends, and sometimes I want to stay too long or I stay up too late because of that. I don’t want to let go. Or even just when everything in my life feels like it’s going really well and I feel ecstatic, there’ll be this little voice of warning reminding me, This is temporary. Now, I don’t recommend that voice at all because that’s a party pooper voice, as far as I’m concerned! But it’s there because I’m preparing myself for a letdown. But again, I don’t recommend that one.
This was actually the very first post I wrote on my blog in fall of 2009. My mother had died a few months before. It’s the very first post I wrote, now there’s something like 400 and something, and then all the podcasts too. All of my content there is free. I wrote this piece that I called Good Grief, and it was about my experience as a teacher in parent-infant classes. We’re all sitting around on the floor in this classroom and we’re observing the children play. And it’s always a fascinating experience for me still, after many, many years of teaching. We encourage the parents to, when they have to go to the bathroom, which is outside of the gated-play-area part of the room, we ask them to try not bringing their child with them and going on their own. And this usually doesn’t happen until the children know us and they know me at least, and they know this place and they know that they’re safe. And they know that their parent will come back because they’ve learned that through the consistency of the parenting that that family’s had.
But what they do—and it’s so beautiful when I think about it, when I’m there in the moment, it doesn’t feel that beautiful—but they get upset a lot of the time. Especially when they’re in that separation anxiety stage, I think it’s eight to 18 months they go through that, where they’re especially sensitive to their parent leaving. They will get upset. And we make sure that the parent tells them that they’re leaving, so they’re not sneaking out. I would never recommend that. Respect is about honesty. We want them to be aware. So the parent says, and makes sure they’re paying attention and they look in their eyes and say, “I’m going to go to the bathroom. I’ll be back.” And then as soon as they get up to leave, often right away the child starts getting upset and the parent I know wants to kind of turn around and run back. But we encourage them to say, “I hear you. Janet’s there for you, or somebody’s there for you, and I’ll be back.” And then the person left with them, which I get the honor of that, gets to practice holding space for that child being there, and it’s very, very hard.
Anyway, I wrote about this in my first blog post. In this case it was a 10-month-old, the example that I used. And this parent walked with trepidation toward the door exiting the parenting class. Then she paused and she asked me, “Should I just go?” And since she’d clearly told her 10-month-old what she was doing, I encouraged her, yes. Then he began to cry. So I approached him and I spoke softly. “Your mom went out. She’s coming back. You didn’t want her to go.” This simple acknowledgement will often calm a child down, but not always. In this case, he sniffled once or twice and then sat patiently, eyes fixed on the door, waiting for his mom to return.
The situation repeated the following week in class. This mom told her son, “I’m going to the bathroom.” And she somewhat tentatively walked out. I mean, that’s another thing we feel, Ohhh, uh-oh. But it’s easier on our child if we are confident, because that instills confidence in them that this isn’t a scary experience. This is a life experience of not getting what we want in that moment, about losing the attention of someone that we adore for a few minutes. And so this time he cried for a seemingly endless minute, I’d say, and I felt the discomfort of everyone in the class, including my own. I offered to pick him up, but he didn’t want that. And so I just stay there, I stay nearby, and I just wait. I imagine myself this witness, this receptacle to something really important that’s happening. That’s how I get through it. Really important, the most loving thing. So then he cried for a bit, then became quiet, sat still for a moment, and then reached for a nearby ball. By the time his mom came back, he was involved in playing. But when he saw her, he cried out to her, because that’s what children often do, right? Hey, you left me! I don’t like that. They’ll often cry more when the parent comes back than they did when the parent was leaving, which is interesting. It’s like they’re saying, Hey, I didn’t give you permission to do that. Don’t ever do that again.
What I realized as I’d been exploring the grief process with my mother and I read this wonderful book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, and then thinking about this experience that’s very common in our classes, I realized this is probably one of the first times they ever experience loss and grief. When their loving parent has to walk away or leave them with another caregiver. In this book The Grief Recovery Handbook, they talk about all the negative messages, the unhelpful messages that we get around grief as adults, still. Oh, keep yourself busy. Don’t think about it. Or, replace the loss. Another door will open. Don’t feel bad. You’ve got to be strong for others. From a very young age, we can get these messages about grief. And what it does is it makes the grief linger even longer and kind of infiltrate into holding us back in other ways in life, undermining our ability to express our feelings, steering us to this incomplete resolution. A lot of explanations around that are in the book. I recommend it.
We can do better for our children by allowing them to have these experiences as they come up. No, we’re not creating them. We’re not trying to train our child to be okay with us leaving by doing this somehow unnaturally. It’s just part of life that sometimes I’m with you. And when I’m with you, I want to be totally with you as much as possible. Sometimes I’m doing my thing and you’re doing yours, there’s those times too. But then there’s times that I leave. I let you know, I’m not sneaking around. You don’t have to worry about me disappearing. I’m always going to tell you, even if you get mad at me. And you have a right to feel those feelings. In fact, I want you to share those with me because that’s a lifetime of you feeling comfortable sharing the hardest things with me: that you’re mad at me, that you’re disappointed in what I did. If we can share that with our parents, we’ve got nothing to fear or to hide.
Another early loss that children deal with is something you’ve heard me talk about a lot: when there’s a new baby born. There’s a sense of loss of that relationship and the family dynamic the way it was. And as parents, we feel that too. I remember feeling that, I don’t know if I’m ready to have another one. I like everything the way it is. And I’m very much the kind of person that I always like everything the way it is, so I don’t like to change things! But life is change, right? And oftentimes parents will say to me, “Well, my child loves the new baby. We’re not having that at all.” But when the parents dig deeper, they find that it may not be directed at the baby, but there’s still some grief there for the preexisting situation. I remember my sister telling me that her son, who’s five years older than his brother, seemed fine, adored the baby brother. But when she brought up, “You know, I wonder if you’re missing all these things we used to do together. We used to go to the park, we used to go to the playground, we would go to lunch together. It’s different now, isn’t it?” And she said for the first time in this experience, the tears came. Even though she’d thought about it that way, she was a little surprised because he hadn’t showed that before. And she was so glad that she acknowledged it, that she helped bring that out into the open so that he could share his grief.
Now I am going to read a question I got in an email from a grandparent that’s around this topic. And it’ll give me the opportunity to give some specific examples for responding to loss and sadness and grief in a way that will help our children to process it in the healthiest manner. Here’s the note:
I’m guessing this is not a unique challenge, if a sort of heart-rending one. My 18-month-old grandchild has just started daycare. She had other resources in place, including me. Parents are happy with me caring for her, but wanted something from the daycare experience. I’m not yet clear what. All of that just to say, it’s been hard for me to feel wholehearted in this situation, except for the primary desire for the well-being of the little one. Which all of us share, even if we’re seeing it differently.
My question is about how to talk and be respectful with this grandchild when, though happy to see me at pickup, she’s also sad and confused not to see her parents then. She’ll say, “mama, papa” repeatedly, even while diverting into play and hugs with me. She’s at the age where she truly understands just about all the words, if not yet able to communicate fully with them. Do I just say, “I hear you want to see mama and papa”? Or what? Please help.
I love that this grandparent has reached out and that the whole family has joined in this interest in this little child’s well-being. I mean, what a wonderful nest to be in for that child.
Here’s what I would recommend to this grandparent or anyone going through anything like this or any situation where a child seems to be missing someone, sad about the loss of them. I’ve split this into challenges, because all of this is challenging, right? But here are the specific challenges.
Challenge number one, what we’ve been talking about: perceive this as healthy, positive for this child, even though it doesn’t seem that way. And in this case, it’s so wonderful that this grandparent is self-reflecting that she doesn’t really agree with this decision the parents have made, because that is an important hurdle for her to deal with first. In the interest of the well-being of her child and really the well-being of herself, feeling clear and comfortable about what she’s doing. What I would do is work on coming to terms with or realizing that this isn’t my choice for her, but her parents, who I love and support, and my granddaughter, they need me to feel as comfortable and as settled as possible with this choice that’s been made so that my granddaughter can. Because when we’re ambivalent or unsure about what our child maybe seems upset about, then our child has nowhere for their feelings to land in a safe and solid manner. That’s what they need from us, they need us to be sure. So maybe we’ve made a decision for our child to go to a certain school or a care situation, and maybe we’ll change our mind at some point. But until we have, I would try to bring conviction to that situation so that our child can have a sounding board that’s solid. Because if we’re unsure, if we’re uncomfortable, our child has really very little chance of feeling comfortable with whatever the situation is.
Part of getting to that place of conviction for ourselves might well be, in this case for example, acknowledging and processing my own feelings of sadness and loss about not getting to be the one who gets to spend the day with my grandchild. So once I come to that, as this grandparent, that, Okay, whatever I feel about this decision, it is what it is, and we’re going to go for it, then I would realize that she is going to have feelings probably, because this is a change, this is something new. And there’s loss involved. There’s loss of the kinds of days that she had. There’s loss of some of that time with the parents. There’s a lot of novelty and rising up to deal with new people and new care and people that don’t understand you as well. And it’s a big move. So she needs all the solidity in our support as she can get.
Then, from that place of knowing that her feelings are healthy and normal and positive, and that we are accepting the situation as it is so that she has a chance to, then we want to also realize—and this always was the clincher for me, with other people’s children, with my children, in any situation—know that this is an opportunity for an incredible bonding moment between you. I’ve never stopped being amazed at the bonding power that allowing and supporting a child’s feelings, whatever they are, has. It still blows me away. It’s like this extraordinary gift, this reward that we get for doing this extremely challenging work of holding space, being passive to what is. Trusting and calming ourselves enough to let our child feel, to let the feelings do their healing.
So that’s challenge number one, finding that place of conviction and trust that this is a positive experience, not a fail or something we need to rescue our child from. That’s hard on its own, right?
Two: When we reflect and acknowledge, as this grandparent says, what do I say? We reflect and acknowledge only what we know for sure, which is really just what the child is telling us. We don’t want to make inferences there, jump to conclusions, or make assumptions, because that’s usually more about us and our fears and discomforts. So what this child has said is, “mama, papa” and the grandparent says she repeats this. And the grandparent says, “Do I just say, ‘I hear you want to see mama and papa’?”
If we really get picky about this—and again, the reason to do that is that we can sort of amplify feelings out of our own fear. Oh no, she’s missing her mom and dad, ugh this is bad. It takes us down a road that’s going to make it harder for us to trust and let the feelings be. When we just stay right where she is, not rushing ahead, inferring what she might say, what she might be thinking, or what we imagine the worst that she’s thinking, all she’s saying is, “mama, papa.” So what I recommend saying is what I know for sure, which is, “You’re thinking about mama and papa. You’re telling me what you’re thinking about. Yeah, they didn’t come to get you this time. I did. I got the pleasure.” And then maybe she says it again, and maybe we take that into, “I wonder what they’re doing right now.” But we’re not assuming that she is saying she wants or needs to see them or that she’s feeling sad about them.
Backing that all the way up, just staying where our child is. It’s more challenging than it maybe sounds. And just as the first challenge is so much about our perceptions and feelings, so is this. It’s about what we might be projecting into the situation. And whenever we’re projecting something into the situation, it can interfere with what’s actually going on, and we’re not going to know as much about what’s actually going on. What’s our child really saying there? It’s interesting, right? I find often this very thing, that children will say dada when they’re with mama, or the other way around. And then the parent says, “Oh, don’t worry, he’ll be back,” or “They’re coming back.” Instead, it could just be this really sweet, positive, I’m thinking about that guy, or I’m thinking about that mom that I love. That’s it. And if there’s more, they’ll tell us more or they’ll indicate more. Maybe they’ll cry a little or go unghh. “Sounds like you’re feeling something sad about mama or dada.” That’s where we can go then. And then sometimes children will repeat that.
I’m not saying that’s what’s true in this case, maybe she’s just repeating it because she’s enjoying saying those words and thinking about them. They’re very important people in her life, as is grandma, I’m sure. But she might also be repeating them because she senses this is rattling grandma a little bit, and she’s kind of pursuing that, as children do. What is this vibe I’m getting? That she’s not that comfortable when I say that and she’s trying to reassure me, like something’s wrong. Very subtle stuff, I know. Some people say, why is she making this big deal about all this? I don’t know. I’m a geek about this stuff. What can I say?
Okay, number three, third challenge: Take it as it comes. This grandparent says the little girl “diverts into play and hugs.” So I don’t know if that’s the grandparent trying to divert her, but I sense that maybe this is the little girl diverting into play and hugs, I don’t know. But I wouldn’t divert her so much as just do what I would do naturally, if she was saying mama and papa or not. If that meant play and hugs then I would do that, and maybe it’s the little girl initiating that, I’m not sure. But just know that that’s the way it often goes. And there’s no need to try to get her back on task in talking about mama and dada or talking about that she misses them or something else. That’s not our job. Our job is to trust her process.
Every time we grieve about anything, it’s a different process every time. So trusting this unique process, if she is indeed missing them. And sometimes children are very clear that they are. So we let that be shared for as long as it needs to, if that’s the case. And then if a child moves on, we trust that that’s what they need to do there. And then maybe it flares up again. That can happen, like when a child goes to preschool or to kindergarten and they have to say goodbye to the parent, feelings will just come up. Then the child will get immersed in something else and then they come up again. It’s all good, as my son says. It’s all good. So this could be a process of minutes or a sporadic one of days or weeks or longer. Just encourage it, reflecting back only what your child’s saying.
That’s it, those three things. Simple, not easy. But if we do this, our children can continue to experience loss naturally, learn to deal with loss capably, and know that loss is survivable. And, as I wrote at the end of my post way back when I was starting to blog, “this mindful approach is vital because when we adopt it, far from failing, we are providing the highest level of care . . . and love.” So if that makes sense to you, please know, we can do this.
There’s a whole ton of posts on every topic around parenting, if you want to go to my website and check out topics, or even just do a search online with my name and search words about your topic, I can almost guarantee you that something will come up that I hope will help. And of course, my books No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care. If you’re like me, you’ll need all the support you can get on these topics. And I really hope that some of mine can be of help.
Thank you again for supporting this podcast. We can do this.