Sharing Grief with Children

When I woke up that first morning in the rented house that we were sharing with friends in Vermont, all was quiet. The birds outside were singing like crazy, but I heard nary a peep from the humans inside. Even my son, then a tiny, early-rising babe, was sound asleep. But somehow I knew my three year old daughter was wide awake on the other side of our bedroom wall; maybe something about the way the sheets were rustling gave her away. Without thinking much about it, I crept out of my bed, slipped through the open door into her room, and climbed into the twin bed next to her.

She was staring up at the ceiling, lost in thought. It was so hushed in the house, I couldn’t bring myself to say good morning out loud. So I turned towards her, curled on my side, and waited.

After a few moments, she turned her head to look over her shoulder at me. Our noses were about four inches apart; her eyes were wide and wondering.

“Did your Papa die?”

At first I could barely breathe, let alone respond. My dad died when I was eighteen years old. He was forty-four. He had cancer. My daughter had been asking a lot about him, and about death, but this was the first that she had really begun to grasp the implications of his absence.

Though I wanted to squeeze her tight and tell her that it was okay, that her papa wouldn’t die, that she should look at the pretty bird out her window – I didn’t. Instead I told her the truth; I said yes.

Silence filled the space between us. I felt compelled to say more. I told her that I think about him all the time, and that I never stop loving him. I told her that I miss him every day.

She thought about that. Then she said, “I miss him too, Mama.”

That morning will stay with me always. Though she never met her grandfather, in her own way, my daughter shares my grief. I have no doubt that she really does miss him. My mother and sister and I talk about him openly with my children, sharing pictures and stories. We’ve watched a few videos together. It hurts, but not intolerably; there is a sweetness and deepening connection there too. I want my kids to know about my dad. I also want them to know that missing someone and feeling sad sometimes is okay, just as laughing together over memories is okay too.

Now it is June. We are smack dab between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – two holidays that always lead me to think of my friends who have also lost a mother or father. Sometimes grief surprises us with a new billowing wave during these special, set-aside days. This month also marks my daughter’s birthday and my wedding anniversary. Every June I think back to those extraordinary days with such tenderness and awe: the intimacy we felt in that little birth center bedroom with our minutes-old pink and purple baby; the fear that my knees would buckle beneath me as I struggled to maintain my husband’s steady gaze during our wedding ceremony. Sitting quietly and persistently next to the joy of both these momentous life transitions, though, was an awareness of my father’s absence. On both of those days, I had the thought at least once: He should be here.

So when I think back to the day of my daughter’s birth, that absence is part of the story. I felt exhilarated yet exhausted, empowered yet vulnerable, celebratory – yet bereaved anew.

Our losses become part of us, integrated into the person our children know and love and look to for stability in a world that can be hard to understand. Rather than keep my sadness and grief away from my children – a decidedly futile endeavor – I try to be open with them about it. They know there is bad stuff in the world, and they know when they’re not being told the whole story. And like most children, they are incredibly keen observers of their parents, sensing immediately when something is not quite right.

Avoiding tough emotional issues can really backfire. Children’s imaginations can come up with much scarier scenarios than real life delivers! If my kids are to trust me – if I am to be the reliable and sturdy center that they can come back to over and over – then I’d better tell the truth. (In ways they are more likely to understand, with lots of hugs and unconditional presence and love).  That way, I hope they will learn that the truth isn’t something awful or secret, and that even when the truth hurts, we can tolerate it, together. Even when I’m sad or angry, I won’t stop being their mama. No strong feeling can ever take me away from them.

More recently, my son has been coming to a new awareness about death. The deaths of bugs and birds, dogs and storybook characters have begun to weigh heavily upon his sensitive three-year-old soul. I can’t make it go away, but I can sit with him and answer his questions as gently, honestly, and lovingly as I know how. I can tell him how it makes me sad, too. And then we can go poking in the garden together to inspect the new baby green tomatoes and twining vines on the bean teepee. It really is bursting with life out there.


Have you talked about death and grief with your children? Have you faced a loss together? Your comments and thoughts are very welcome here. For more on being emotionally present to children – and lots else – come visit my blog, Homemade Time.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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