How to Help a Grieving Child

Remember when you found out you lost your baby?

Bring up that feeling for a moment.

Earth shattering.

Can’t breathe.

Crumbling to the core.

Broken.

Heartbroken.

Maybe you burst into tears. Maybe you went completely numb. Maybe you were angry at God. Maybe you were in complete denial.

Most likely you took time to process this horrendous moment. You probably sat in silence at some point trying to sort out your thoughts. Eventually maybe someone checked in on you and asked how you were doing.

Now…

Try to remember when you told your child their sibling wasn’t coming home.

Try to picture their face. 

Furrowed brow.

Confusion.

“What do you mean?” 

“Why?”

Overwhelmed.

Did your child start crying? Did they ask for clarification? Did their mood turn somber? Did their body language change? 

Maybe they were too young to understand. Maybe they had never experienced death before. Maybe they were stunned by the emotions they saw you display. Maybe they attempted humor to ease the tension you displayed.

Most likely you tried to answer any questions they had. You probably tried to explain loss. I’m guessing you may have hugged them, regardless of the reaction they had. Eventually the conversation transitioned to something else and you may have not checked in on their feelings like adults did with you.

This isn’t a guilt trip. This isn’t mom shaming. This is my experience. This is my reflection of my grieving children. 

I remember telling Emberli and Ava that their brother passed away. We were sitting on the couch in our living room. We had just gotten the twins to bed. Matt was home from work that night. Emberli was asking us what we were talking about earlier in the day with my mother in law. She knew we were having a private conversation and told her we would tell her tonight. 

How misleading were we? She most likely thought it was a surprise for her and Ava. I don’t think children routinely think of the worst case scenarios when looking forward to a conversation. Not like an adult at least. 

“Sometimes when someone is too perfect for Earth, God decides they need to come to be with him in heaven. Today God wanted Porter to be in heaven instead of here. I’m so sorry we won’t be having a baby brother anymore.”

Emberli’s face went from smiling ear to ear to blank. There was a confused stare and a furrowed brow. 

“What do you mean? Why?”

I had hoped that my vague explanation of where Porter went would be enough. Because to be honest, I didn’t want to say “Your brother died.” That was too morbid and too real. I was wrong though. She needed the realness just as much as I did.

“Porter’s heart stopped beating while in my tummy.”

Emberli’s eyes welled up with tears. You could see the flood of emotions building up in her as she processed that statement. I wonder what she was thinking. Was she thinking she couldn’t breathe? Was the sadness unbearable for her too?

“I’m so sorry. Porter isn’t coming home again.”

She buried her face in my chest. Sobbing. My 7 year old was sobbing at the loss of her brother. Again. As a reminder to those new to Porter’s story, it was just over a year ago when we had a similar conversation with the big girls. Emberli cried then too. Except at that point in time, we reassured her that we would have Porter one day. This time there was no one day. He was gone now forever. All we had was to say “We will see him in heaven.”

But Ava…

Sweet Ava Kate. 

Ava was only 3 years old. She knew of Porter. She likely did not remember the last time we lost him. She has never felt or seen the type of emotions we were displaying. She knew Porter was coming after Christmas. She knew he was in my tummy and he was her baby brother. Ava’s reaction was different.

“Sometimes when someone is too perfect for Earth, God decides they need to come to be with him in heaven. Today God wanted Porter to be in heaven instead of here. I’m so sorry we won’t be having a baby brother anymore.”

Ava’s face stayed smiling. She looked around at everyone’s face to get a read on how to react. She saw my face serious and sad. She saw Emberli’s face confused. She saw Matt’s face sad. Her smile faded. She watched Emberli cry. 

“So no more baby brother?”

“No baby. Porter went to be with Jesus in heaven.”

She laughed and shouted, “No more baby brother after Christmas! No more Porter after Christmas! Baby Porter’s in heaven!”

This was not somber or soft or sad. She said it in her silly Ava way. We could tell she was trying to evoke an emotion from us that she could understand. Ava understood happy, silly, giggly her made others smile and laugh. So of course, at 3, this was her processing.

She repeated this a few times. And each time, it felt like a knife being stabbed in my heart. The reality that my baby had died. Their brother had died. She was saying this over and over and it was real. This really was happening to us. Matt was able to quiet her down and stop the shouting. I’m sure he could see the pain in my eyes. 

Before more questions could be asked, we offered to put on a movie and we could all watch it together. This broke the tension and gave us a transition to something else, something not Porter. 

This was day one for the girls’ grieving. It didn’t end here. But I didn’t comfort them in their grief like a mother should. I was so swallowed up in my own grief that I couldn’t see my own children grieving along with me. 

But their grief did not go unnoticed. If it had, then there wouldn’t be this blog post. Days after Porter died, my mom found a wonderful book for Emberli on loss. I will link it here on Amazon. It is a workbook format where you write and draw along with the prompts. I sat the girls down and showed them the book. We briefly went through the pages and discussed it’s purpose. 

That was it. 

I had her put it away in the playroom.

I never sat down with her again.

I know that is sad.

I should have sat down with her and processed her feelings together. 

But I honestly didn’t know how to process my own feelings.

Weeks later, Emberli was up early in the playroom. I walked in and glanced over her shoulder to see what she was doing. She had this book open, quietly working on the pages. She glanced up at me.

“Want to see?”

Emberli showed me the pages one at a time. She read the prompts out loud to me and then showed me her answers and drawings. She didn’t elaborate much and I didn’t ask. We looked together. And I let the feelings of sadness and grief wash over me. 

Because watching her process her grief broke my heart. 

Why did she have to experience this?

Why did she have to have these emotions at 7?

Why did she have to have a mom that could not help her process these emotions?

I kissed her forehead and told her I loved it. Then I wanted out of these feelings and transitioned to the next task. 

“Let’s have breakfast.”

Ava’s grieving has looked very different from Emberli’s. Ava would randomly say, “We aren’t having a baby brother anymore.” Then she would smile and watch the reactions from the rest of us. I repeated “Baby Porter is in heaven with God” like I was a broken record. 

4 weeks.

It took Ava 4 weeks to show emotion about Porter. 

I remember it so clearly.

I packed up Ava, Hannah and Heidi in the car to head to Ava’s ballet class. It was a Wednesday morning about 9:30am. Ava sits in the 3rd row of our mini van in a rear facing car seat. KLOVE was playing on the radio and a song was playing. I was quietly singing along in the front of the mini van. 

“Mom! They said God! Porter is with God!”

“Yes, he is baby girl.”

“Mom! They said heaven! Porter is in heaven!”

“Yes, he is with God in heaven.”

About 30 seconds passed in silence and then crying erupted from the 3rd row. I turned the music off and asked her what’s wrong. She was crying and said she wants Porter to come to our home. I told her he can’t come home. He went to be with God now. She cried harder and demanded that Porter come home on Sunday to go to church with us. I told her he can’t come home because he’s in heaven. She cried even harder. She pleaded with me and asked if Porter can come home after Christmas then. I am now crying in the front seat. How do you shut down your child for a 3rd time in a row? How do you keep telling them that they can’t have their baby brother at home as they are crying? 

“I’m sorry, sweetie. He can’t come home after Christmas because he’s in heaven with God. But we can see him one day when we go to heaven too.”

She says ok. I want to transition away from these feelings before I have to be at dance class. 

“Let’s listen to music now, ok?’

As a mom, my heart breaks knowing I wasn’t fully present with them in their grief. If I could do it over again, I would talk more openly about it with them. I would check in more often. I would share how I was feeling and explain that it was ok to feel these emotions. I would pray more with them out loud so they could hear me say to God to hold my sweet boy tight for me. 

Hopefully this will shape them. Hopefully the next time they experience grief they will turn to journaling or worship music. Hopefully next time I will be able to comfort them and meet them in their grief before weeks pass. Hopefully they know that grief is ok. It is normal. It is healthy. 

I want them to know that grief is a form of love. I want them to know that everyone grieves differently. I want them to know that the timeframe it takes to process grief is different for everyone. I want them to know that life after loss is different and that’s ok. I want them to know that this time on Earth is not going to be perfect. That we have more to look forward to after this life. That going to heaven will be the best day of our lives because we get to be with Jesus who died for us. I want them to know that we will all embrace and worship God together as one family in heaven. One day. 

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