Thomas Pisello 0:00
Today, we have a returning guest. She is a favorite of ours on the show Helen Keeling-Neal. She’s a licensed mental health counselor Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and nationally certified counselor. She also has personal experience with grief and loss, herself as a widow, her husband passing away when her children were only four and six years old.
We’re here to talk about children and the grief that they experience, and how as parents we can help them.
First thing is, we’re going through our own grief, our kids are going through their grief. What have you seen as some of the issues with parents in terms of expressing their grief in front of their children?
Helen Keeling-Neal 1:29
Yeah, this is a really good question. Everything changes when a child loses a parent, and everything changes when a spouse loses a partner.
And it’s that difficulty with being able to cope with one’s own grief and loss as well as supporting and helping a child navigate through their grief and loss.I know from my personal experience, I am a very intense feeler. I’ve got a history of complex trauma, which meant that when I experienced this grief and loss I was unable to contain very big feelings that were coming out of me. I didn’t have any containment at times.
My kids were four and six. I took my kids into therapy and the therapist they were working with said that for my younger child, I needed to regulate more of my feelings around that child.
This was such a wonderful wake up call for me. I needed to not be so upset that my child felt like there was nobody capable of taking care of her.
And that’s what can happen. There can be crying. We can see a parent nosedive into a depression and shut down. You can have anger coming out sideways.
Helen, my experience was the exact opposite. Instead of emoting more, I actually emoted less. And I went into a stoic mode. I went back to my busyness, diving into my business as an entrepreneur. I had 21 people working for me at the time plus contractors and had to get back to it, otherwise, we were going to lose the business. I put on a tough, stoic mask. I was like, I’m gonna show the girls that I’ve got this, and everything’s gonna be okay.
But this had negative consequences. You spoke about emoting too much, and then your child feeling like the world is falling apart, no one is here to make me feel safe, and I’ve got no one to take care of me. But the opposite of being too stoic also has an impact.
Yes, it really does. But what’s so fascinating about this is that they both have the same impact. The message is to not have feelings, with over emoting, there is not enough room for your feelings. The child has to be the one that tries to regulate the family, when they really are struggling to regulate themselves emotionally. So there’s no room for their feelings there as there’s only space for the big feelings of the parent,
And then was stoicism. Let’s pretend that everything’s okay, no matter what. There is no room for grief. There’s no room for sadness. No, there’s no room for anger. There’s no language for the feelings. There’s no permission to let feelings up and out. It’s back to business as usual
This is the tragedy of hindsight, now looking back, they had to go elsewhere for their feelings, which makes me so sad thinking about this. They had to go to other households, they had to go to friends to emote, to have that safe space to feel their emotions, they couldn’t really do it at home, because I wasn’t giving them the space and the permission to do it by being so stoic myself.
The good news about that is Tom, as hard as it is to look back and see what we did, as parents in the face of this loss, what your children had were safe houses and safe people and a safe support system and safe attachment to where they could go and process their feelings. So in that sense, their needs were cared for. It may not have been directly the way that you would now do it. But they did have people around them who could help them with that.
And that’s what we see is one of the keys for children, when they lose a parent is an extended support system, not just with the parent who is grieving so much, but to have friends and family who can step in, and be those people. And the times when we as parents cannot.
We need to give ourselves grace to know that there are these other people that can help. We do not have to do it alone. We do have our own feelings, and they are deep.
The trauma in the loss of a spouse is more so, on a point scale based on research, than the trauma that you go through in a divorce or almost any other loss or trauma in your life.
So there’s a lot that we’re going through, and we don’t have to be everything to everybody.
Certainly our kids are always going to be a priority for us. But there are other people that we can rely on now,
Helen, I don’t think you had that at the time with younger children. We had other households where they would go to dinner, and almost second homes, especially through the illness process. Talk about when it’s young children, what resources or help you can get for them.
One of the big things that becomes an issue is, depending on the financial circumstances, if there’s a big financial change with the loss of a spouse, there’s a change in childcare. Then you lose the person who can stay with the kids while you pop out to pick up something from the store that doesn’t exist anymore when you have small children. So this adds tremendous burden and tremendous stress.
There’s also a vulnerability with children when they’re young. And you’re depending on friends and extended family members to take care of them. Children after the loss can be very vulnerable. And we do see that sometimes they can be prey for predators. And they can be set up in a way that they may not have been exposed to, in the past, if there were two parents around. You’re having to take a risk and trust someone, because you’re just so desperate for help.
One of the things we know that I want to talk a little bit about what we see, when children are very varying ages, whether it’s it’s it’s four to six or 10 to 12 or or teenage ages, what we see if they don’t get the support or have the support, we see increased rates of depression, increased anxiety. We see children turning towards drugs, alcohol or sexual relationships as a way to fulfill that need and the comfort. And so having a way to grieve appropriately and age appropriately is really important.
What do our kids need from us the most?
I wish I would have asked the therapist that question.
I think it depends on the child sometimes, but they need consistency. They need the boundaries that were in place before the loss to be consistent afterwards. And this is one of the things that I see that’s very difficult because we’re just exhausted. And so keeping consistent boundaries, especially if you’re struggling with your own feelings, it’s very difficult.
“No, go ahead, have dessert, use the iPad, stay on the video game”, those boundaries go away because the spouse is exhausted and is having to set the boundaries alone now and follow through with them now, all by themselves. And you also feel bad for your children.
That’s what I fell into with my youngest, especially where I felt like she was short changed through the loss the most. And so I’m probably not as disciplined and not as diligent with her as I certainly was with my eldest and certainly was with my partner.
I agree that there’s some of that just by the sheer nature of being a sole parent. My younger child got more leeway than my eldest did..
I see this as one of the biggest mistakes that’s made: the lack of consistency, and I can definitely see this happen because the grief is not consistent. Your emotional state, and even your thinking state is impaired. Because there are waves of grief and this nonlinear experience that we’re going through during this healing process, where that solid foundation you had in partnership is no longer there. And so I think it becomes easy to be inconsistent
I view this not so much as a mistake, because I have a lot of empathy for surviving through these kinds of circumstances and not being able to dig in and be consistent because it is so challenging to deal with the grief.
But I do see that there can be a big effect on a child when there isn’t that consistency, because when the rules change, it’s confusing. Children are designed developmentally as they age and it peaks in adolescence, for them to run against these fences. If we think of having fences around a child, the job for the child is to run up against the fence, and the fence is what helps them feel safe, even though we think children should not be running against fences. Their job is to run against fences, it’s part of that development. If the fences are too porous, and they break through the fence, a child will start to feel unsafe on the inside. If the fence is too strong and it pushes back and walls them in the child will start to feel unsafe and angry and resentful, as well. So we want safe, appropriate boundaries, and to have these be as consistent as possible.
It’s enlightening to think of it that way, that it’s not a matter of discipline It’s actually about safety.
One of the things I know that my girls have experienced. There was a Mother-Daughter event at Pepperdine University, where both of them thankfully went to school together. And my oldest was able to take my younger daughter to the event.
But it didn’t take them long to realize that, even though they had each other, that Mom wasn’t there. And they saw all the other girls with their Moms. And they left the event in tears.
Talk about these kinds of triggers and what do we do as parents when this occurs?
Well, I have to say your girls are amazing for the way they handle that and they went together. And I’m really glad that they allowed themselves their tears, because how could the grief not come up at that event.
And it’s going to come up at other events like graduations. It’s going to come up at a wedding. It’s going to come up when there’s a child born. So what they’re doing is honoring their grief, and as awful and as hard as it is, we can’t protect them from that. And in a sense, we don’t want to because it is important that those feelings come up and out.
You know I can’t even say Doughnuts with Dads without feeling mad. Because our kids become marginalized in those kinds of situations, which is supposed to be such a lovely thing. But that loss is accentuated in a situation where it’s focused on a parent and that parents not there.
So I think your bottom line there, and this is good advice that I needed to be reminded of quite a bit, is don’t over protect them through this. Don’t try to take away those feelings. Let them experience those things, because that is part of the healing process.
One of the things that really impacted me with my kids, when they got through the tears, my eldest had more cognitive awareness of her Dad, while the youngest was four. So it was a little bit different. With the youngest, it was a much more visceral and emotional reaction. The amount of anger that she had, because she felt so out of control about it all.
And I taught my kids to punch a pillow. My youngest, she’d never had tantrums before, then she started having full on tantrums at age four.She was so angry and so upset.
I remember one time, they didn’t have the blueberry flavor, at Jeremiah’s (a great local ice cream shop). And my four year old lost it. She’d never lost it over something like that before. But it was not having control and feeling it at this deep unconscious level in connection with this grief and loss. A lot of feelings needed to come up and out.
So our job is, we have to teach them how to express these feelings in a way that’s appropriate and regulated.
Amygdala overload reactions, as children will have those similarly, and act out in fight, flight, freeze, and fawn as the top four reactions?
Talk about each one briefly and kind of how we can maybe recognize in our children that they’re experiencing these triggers and these outbursts because of the grief.
A good example would be teenagers. They’re wired to fight anyway, because they’re trying to differentiate, but they might notch up or escalate that anger and that fighting component even more as a result of that because they’re just grieving deeply. And, you know, we see depression in teens is expressed a lot of times as anger. So we can see that in the fight. Obviously, my little Sarah at that point was fighting, she would fight with her body, she would flail and I would actually hold her. She knew my rules were you can’t hurt yourself or anybody else. And you can’t break anything. But what you can do is this, would you like me to hold you while you punch stuff? Would you like to get it out?
And then with flight.
Flight can be sneaky. It can be running away physically, like leaving for a friend’s house or running away from home.
But it can also be escaping into the phone. It can be escaping through alcohol or substance use. It can be escaping through eating, It can be escaping through hooking up,
This is crawling up into a ball and crying, or sitting still in their room for hours on end.
What can happen is that a child was either enrolled by a parent or volunteered themselves to be the surrogate spouse in the family. Overcoming a perfect student as an overachiever. I can just focus on this achievement. equivalence. The student is the child’s equivalent to workaholism.
Helen. As you’ve said, you’ve got to let your child emote in the way they want to, but also set boundaries so that, like you said, you can’t hurt someone else, you can’t hurt yourself, you can’t break anything, but do let it out.
Getting the children into therapy is vital. However, the teens will be especially resistant to this. And this is why I always just think it’s really important to set that up immediately, that this is a family norm. That we’re going to do this. We’re going to go to a New Hope for Kids on teen night. And you will meet other teens who are going through the same thing. We’re going to have an individual therapist,
It is key to get some extra help outside of the parent, so that you can go and talk to the therapist because your children will need a space to talk about us. As well as the deceased parents, they need to be able to go and unload about how Mom cries all the time, or my Dad doesn’t show any feelings, and that I’m angry because it doesn’t look like he misses her at all.
The kids need to have a space where they have an adult that they can talk to who’s not us a lot of times. I do see some widowers, where that’s delayed. I was lucky in that Judy actually enrolled the kids with a therapist even before she passed, because she knew that they were grieving through the disease process, and with her not being well. And that was a godsend, because they were able to continue that on.
For those who haven’t gotten a therapist yet. I think what you’re saying is that the healing really can’t progress. Without that, or it’s difficult to do it You’re taking it all on yourself, or you’re putting it on friends. And I know I’m not a professional therapist, friends aren’t professional. And you really need that grief counseling for the children.
It’s very helpful to have a group for the children to leverage as well. So New Hope for Kids was such a great resource locally, and there’s a lot of other groups all over the country, that can be a resource. And they would do things like a camp, where you got to go to sleep away camp and sleep in a tent and do a lot of art, which can be so helpful and expressive for children.
And I do think that was an important part of the girls making it through, to the extent that they’ve made it through, on special occasions. Obviously, five years later, the special occasions are getting easier, but there’s still awkwardness and there’s still sadness on those days. There’s still, a lot of doors being closed hard, and not a lot of sharing, which is the way that at least one of my daughters expresses herself.
Talk about special occasions and how we make those better for the children.
Everything has changed. And that first year, there’s every birthday, every Mother’s Day, every Father’s Day, every Easter, every Hanukkah, every Christmas, every New Year’s, every Valentine’s Day. It’s like, what the heck, how grueling is this to go through? With this hole in our family in the hole in our hearts.
There’s a way to create new traditions that can honor the lost parent and if you can to bring an element of fun into it. Yes, tears Yes, grieving. And yes, we’re going to honor this by going and getting a milkshake, or we’re going to let a balloon go for little children. It’s very memorable to do that. Oh, we’re going to go and that family picture and let’s hang them on the tree, to make sure Mom’s on the tree, and the lost grandma and grandpa are on the tree. So it can be creative and a search online will bring up lots of ideas on how to bring in new traditions.
Our tradition was on the anniversary of David’s death, we would go to Steak and Shake because he loved to take the girls there, and we’d have a hamburger and a milkshake. Personally, I’m not a big Steak and Shake fan. But yes, I’ll go to Steak and Shake. And then we would take the food and we would sit by his tree. We have a special tree, that’s daddy’s tree, and we would hang whatever the kids might want to hang on the tree. One year it was a letter, or a card, or some beads, and we would hang them up on that tree. And that’s what we did for that anniversary.
I’m working with a family right now. And they’ve had a loss. And so when the first birthday came around, they had a family dinner, and they set a place at the family dinner. And then they all told a story about Dad. A “Remember when” story, which is lovely. And there were a lot of tears because it was that first birthday. Yeah, those first.
Yeah, we can remember back to the first that first year and all of those special occasions without, definitely.
Yes. And then over time, what happens over the years, is there becomes a “sweetness” to it.
I saw a meme the other day. And it had these jars, and there was a jar that said grief. And the jar with grief didn’t get smaller, which is what was illustrated as what people think happens with grief. Instead, the reality of grief is that the grief stayed the same size, but the jar of life around the grief got bigger.
And so as the life around the grief gets bigger, we get older, we grow up, the traditions evolve, they get more reminiscent and sweet. So we have all this space now where we can grieve out, breathe outside of the grief that was in there. So it was really good.
I’ve seen a meme that uses a heart with a hole in the heart. And the hole doesn’t get any smaller, but the heart gets bigger, to absorb the new love that is around you.
And you know, speaking of that, one of the struggles is always you’re a year later, two years later, three years later, or sooner perhaps, and you’re in a relationship, how do you bring the kids into and along with the new relationship in as good a way as possible?
Because it seems, even several years in, that it can still be very painful for them for you to be in a new relationship.
Because it’s a reminder that Mom isn’t there. And I wouldn’t say it is a mistake, but I would advise people to be very aware and mindful of what you’re doing and that it needs to go very slowly.
If you come in with a new relationship quickly, and you have children like four or six years old, those children are going to get very attached very quickly. Very attached, they’re going to see that person as filling the hole. They’ve got someone who’s hugging them, cooking for them. All the stuff that Mom used to do is now back, and if that relationship doesn’t work out now have a compound grief going on for the child. Another lost relationship.
So we want to go slowly. And we see with sort of slightly older children more of the resentment, more of the feeling like this person is taking my parents away from me, I’ve already lost one and now I’m losing this time. And this person is becoming a priority when that child has such an intense need doubled the need that they had before John as one parent, so it is important to have conversations with the children to check in and see how they’re doing about it.
Communication is key. “Is there something you want to talk to me about? What do you think about so and so? What is it you like about them? Is there anything that you’re not really comfortable with? Let’s talk about how we can change that and make that more comfortable.
As there can be questions, I recommend doing things outside of the house at first and not in the home, especially if you’re in the same home way where the spouse has been lost.
Those are just all little things. Some bigger things I recommend would be not going on a family vacation with your new partner in the first two months.
You’re saying to be proactive with the conversations and be active asking them for their opinion and certainly as they’re older get them into some of the thought process you are going through.
Maybe doing this even before you begin dating, starts discussions with the children like, “look, you know, I’m not ready to do this now. But there’s some things that I’m thinking about with going out socially with a woman friend”, and talk about that a little bit with them.
Well, that’s exactly right, Tom, that’s the advice to set the path, where you drop little nuggets of, “you know, one day Dad might going on a date again. What do you think about that?”. And then whatever the response is you are readying them for a change. You are dropping suggestions by communicating that you are thinking about it, and getting them to think about what that would be like. “Would that be weird for you?”
I did that with everything with my children. I had to do it when we had to move house because of finances after David died. I had to drop little nuggets to lead them down the path to normal, normalizing the process. You’re dripping that information to them. You’re letting them process this in pieces.
Maybe they’re intuiting that, oh, something’s up that Dad was mentioning this and they’re beginning to process it subconsciously, if not consciously.
Yes, exactly. Helen, I wish I had you to advise me in some of my early days, because I can tell you that I did not follow this advice. Making sure that other people learn from our challenges and mistakes is all part of it. Right?
Exactly. And I wish I’d had the me from now some 12 years ago to help me
What’s the one piece of advice you’d like to give our widows widows or widowers, our growth warriors with today about kids and grief Helen.
When or if your child starts acting out, with perhaps getting lower grades, acting depressed, angry or anxious, make sure you bring in resources as quickly as possible to help them in that journey. Don’t wait to do it. It’s really important.
And you have to give them grace in their behavior. Keep the boundaries, to make them feel safe, but also give them grace. They’re hurting and that’s why they’re behaving in the way they may not have before, and the grief has escalated their behavior.
Bring in resources as soon as possible. Don’t wait to do it. And give your kids grace.
Helen, thank you so much for this advice. I know that a lot of us have kids care about them
incredibly through this process, and I know that this advice will help a lot of folks so thank you so much for it.