I think it’s safe to say that our society does not prepare us for the death of a loved one, either in how to experience it when it is happening or in how to grieve afterwards. We are taught to shelter the living from death as if it is an unfortunate reality, better ignored than embraced. Grieving individuals, and those that support them, often struggle for a vocabulary to talk about the loss and the resulting feelings. Instead we have a vernacular ripe with cliché that leaves mourners wanting and isolated, instead of comforted and encouraged.
I experienced all of this when I lost my son, Zachary, from a cardiac tumor at birth in 2010. He was minutes old. He died in my arms. That day was a stake in the road for me; I ceased to be my old naïve self and began – what is called in grief literature – my “new normal.” As I look back on myself, I recognize that much of the trauma of Zachary’s death came from my childlike desire that we all will live forever and that everything will be okay. My parents did not talk to me about loss when I was little. I wish they had.
My husband, Aaron, and I have been honest with our living children about Zachary, what happened to him, how it affected us, and how we still miss him today. That discussion has opened the door for my children to think about death. Some of their responses have taught me valuable lessons.
1. Talk about the dead.
This sounds like something out of the Sixth Sense movie or the perfect set-up for being labeled the weirdo at the party. It shouldn’t be. Children are not predisposed (unless we teach them) to the negative societal taboos around loss. My seven and four-year-old kids bring up Zachary all the time. If someone dies, they mention Zach. If I am asked how many kids I have and I say, “Three,” I am immediately corrected. “No, Mom. You have four kids!” they say proudly. Sometimes I worry how others will respond to this behavior from my children, but then I give my head a shake. Talking about those we love, even if they have passed, should be the most normal thing in the world.
2. Accept death as a natural and beautiful part of life.
We have a cultural obsession with youth and beauty. This is one area, among many, where the cult of celebrity sets us up for heartache. We do not have public and prolific guidance to help us accept death as inseparable from life. I believe life and death are yin-yang, two equal parts of one complete whole. In contrast, our society has erected opposing notions of life and death as one being good and the other bad.
Children, however, when spoken to about death as a part of life, do not fear it as a scary monster to avoid, but integrate it into the fabric of their understanding. There are many natural parallels that children more innately connect with on this topic. The seasons are one example. Leaves fall from the trees each autumn and we have winter. Then new life grows again in the spring. A seed that is buried in the ground, just when we’ve nearly forgotten about it, sprouts and blossoms into a flower. In a short span of time a great grandparent passes and a new sibling birthed. This is all natural, cyclical, and connected.
3. Think about death and strive for personal understanding.
My older children used to go to a day-home while I worked. One day the woman who ran the home took a step closer to me than normal and in a hushed voice said, “I just wanted you to know, your kids were playing make-believe today and they said the baby-doll died. I made sure to tell them that they shouldn’t play like that.” Instead of being concerned, I was proud that my kids were working out their own personal understanding of our experience and what death means to them! They were doing that in the only way they knew how - through play. When I talked to them about it, I affirmed their actions and encouraged them to make-believe however they wanted. They were not distracting themselves or repressing their feelings on loss, like so many adults do, only to rack up steep therapy bills just to re-open their hearts in this expressive way.
4. Loss is a family matter, not only a solo experience.
The bonds between family are not severed because of loss. That is what my children have taught me. When my kids talk about Zachary, he “is” their brother, not past tense. We talk about how Zach lives on in our hearts. If we are discussing loneliness, my kids pipe up and say, “You are never alone because Zachary is right here,” as they point to their chests. I know they do process the loss in an individual way, we all do, but in mourning and celebrating Zach’s life, it is a family matter.
My daughter, Hannah, my seven-year-old, will draw a portrait of our family and, without prompting, include Zach in the picture. That is her solo action, but she immediately shows Aaron and me the drawing, and then hangs it from the fridge with magnets. As a family, on the anniversary of Zach’s birth, and death, we take the day off from work and school and bake a cake, go swimming, plant a tree, and just generally cuddle-up and spend quality time together. I believe because of this, the kids do not feel they carry their grief, or the weight of death, all on their own. It is a shared experience and therefore shared support and love.
5. Speaking of love… It never dies.
My kids often say, “I love my whole family! I love Mommy and Daddy, and Hannah, and Eden, and Luca, AND Zachary!” They talk about loving their unseen brother. They talk about missing him and wishing he was alive and with us. In these moments, I take a deep breath, pause from busyness, and feel my own love for Zachary and the throb of ache in missing him and the life I had hoped we would share together. Yes, my child died and that is my personal tragedy, but the love I have for him can never be taken from me. Though society uses phrases like “move on,” I choose to take the lead from my kids. Zachary is a part of us and we love him – present tense, and that is okay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexis Marie Chute is the author of the award-winning memoir Expecting Sunshine: A Journey of Grief, Healing and Pregnancy After Loss, available on Amazon and wherever books are sold. Alexis Marie is a writer, artist, filmmaker, public speaker, and bereavement expert. Learn more about her book and documentary, Expecting Sunshine: The Truth About Pregnancy After Loss, at www.ExpectingSunshine.com. She is a healthy-grief advocate educating others on how to heal in creative and authentic ways.
Connect with Alexis Marie Chute on Facebook, LinkedIn Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, YouTube, and at www.AlexisMarieChute.com, www.ExpectingSunshine.com, www.WantedChosenPlanned.com, www.AlexisMarieArt.com, and www.AlexisMarieWrites.com.