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How to Sooth a Grieving Child: A Tale of Parental Powerless



He died.


My daughter's rat died.


Having a pet rat may disgust you. She actually had two! Roach, the name of her other rat, died two months before. I won't try to dissuade your disgust because Mr. President and Roach are not the story's point. Their death and the ramifications of it are.


Like any parent, when death enters my kids' lives, I feel sick that I cannot shield them from it, somehow soften the blow. I imagine myself holding the piece of the shattered part of their heart and trying to put some of it back together.


But as a widow, watching my children grieve is like standing on the quarter deck of a ship at sea during a storm and watching this enormous wave coming towards you aiming at your ship. All you can do is watch and hope the ship can withstand it.


Every time my kids grieve, I see how strong their ship is, but it doesn't stop me from worrying. Grief didn't break me, and yet I think it might break them.


Pallas's father died when she was nine. It didn't seem that young at the time. Maybe it was because, as a parent with young-ish kids, I was consumed with who she was at nine, too short-sighted to wonder what 12, 15, or 23 would look like. Now I see little nine-year-old girls, and I marvel at the heart pain she withstood after his death.


I talk about death and grief with my kids. They hate it. But I insist. I don't want grief to be something that sideswipes them. It's futile, really. In writing this, I remember that grief, unexpected or expected, sideswipes even the hardest!


But talking about it is my way of feeling like I can prepare my children for the side effects of the grief or somehow bubble wrap them from the pain of future grief. (It does no such thing. But the love of a mother is one of the most irrational kinds of love I know of!)


When Roach died, I held her. While she was sad, she put some of her grief energy into worrying about Mr. President. Rats, like humans, need company to live well. She fretted and worried about Mr. President's loneliness. She spent more time with him.


But then, Mr. President died three months later.


As a mother of children who have lost a parent, I am hyper-vigilant when my kids grieve. I am armed with phrases to normalize their grief, sprinkled with phrases that remind them that the feeling they are experiencing will not last.


And when Mr. President died, I went on high alert. I live with my daughter, so when I wasn't holding her and affirming her feelings with phrases like, "I know. This is hard. Of course, you feel this way" I was watching her, trying to interpret her sighs and her needs, offering hugs and laying in bed together as we to shut down the grief.


And in doing so, what I was really doing was trying to protect myself from feeling powerless. As a parent, I truly think that is the most horrible feeling knowing that you can't protect your child.


I cannot protect my kids. I can try, but it just ends up stressing me and them out.


So I stopped. I continued to offer hugs, hold her in silence when she cried, or sit next to her, neither of us talking but knowing she wanted company. I stopped watching her for signs of grief and let her tell me what she wanted and needed instead of guessing and hovering.


And I remembered a quote from Ram Das.


"In the end, we're all just walking each other home."


In her grief, I walk her home. She walks me home too.


And I remembered that is often the hardest thing to do.


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