Aly Harte shares her own childhood experience of loss and three ways to help children cope with grief, separation or major change…
Growing up I was always aware of friends having two parents. When one wasn’t available to do their hair in the morning, the other stepped up to the plate and braided a mermaid plait for school. At least that’s how it worked, in my head. Maybe this delusion of perfect Sylvanian families was due to my own circumstances of loss —my dad died the week before my eighth birthday.
This left me, my mum and my big brother in our home where the shell of a father figure now resided. Dad’s garage empty of his presence and greasy hands from mechanic work. His Sunday shoes in the bamboo wardrobe with rickety sliding doors in my parents’ bedroom. I have very few memories of my dad, which I have learned to accept, but the most magnified conversation between us in my memory is that he promised, “Even if I am in a wheelchair” to be at my eighth birthday party. Sadly, his heart was failing and he didn’t make it that far.
Now at the age of 35 I am a mother to three sons. This has helped me to let go of the disappointment I felt during my teens when it hit hard that Dad was never going to collect me from summer camp. He wouldn’t wave his hand like the other dads out of the driver window, gesturing to give him a hug as he stepped into the heat of the summer air. Embarrassing me in his sandals and white socks combo.
He missed watching when they awarded me head girl in my high school. An achievement that, when I think about it rationally, may not have made its way onto my school blazer had dad not died. His death fuelled a fire in my belly to succeed and to treat everyone equally which became a part of my character I grew to know and be thankful for. But still, I had yearnings for my life to be different from what it was, even if mum filled the dad hole so well. As she often reminded me and my brother –“life could be a whole lot worse”. And I knew it could.
Changes to the rhythm of a young person’s childhood can be traumatic no matter how we disguise or shelter them from the inner details. If you think of their life as that of a little chick in the nest their parents made for them. The ideal scenario. A chick in a nest with siblings, aware that each evening or at sporadic times during the day, mum or dad would fly back at speed to disperse nutrients and sustenance for the whole family.
Once that rhythm and the familiarity of the drop and go system is broken in a chick’s life, it runs the risk of no longer thriving. Nutrients still arrive but the nest becomes less comfortable when everyone has to squish to grapple for heat from one parent instead of two. Sometimes there is a shift at the weekends —a second nest the chicks are not familiar with. Change, in whatever level or context, can throw curveballs. How we manage the damage of that is what will make or break us and our kids when a crisis occurs.
Children have a mental framework which, despite their resilience and adaptability, can be shaken; the separation of two parents, a family bereavement or an ongoing illness. A location move or school change can also unsettle a child’s flow on a massive scale. The beautifully good news is that kids are, as mentioned previously, resilient. They are intuitive with minds like sponges who move from first to fifth gear when asked. So please know that you are doing the best you can and it is more than likely working well amidst the hurdles.
Normalise The Change
When it was announced that dad had died to me and my brother as we stood by the radiator in our kitchen (I am crying as I type this memory even though the details are vague) the words came from my Uncle David. A gentle big fellow with a smile that would light the sky. On this occasion he was forlorn and heavy with grief. My response, at age seven, keen to see my friends was, “Can I go to school now?” To be fair to Uncle David and Mum, I stayed at home that day. Probably to offer the odd cuddle to Mum amidst the mourners. But the following day I did go to school and as a result I know very little of the trauma because of this normalisation.
More recently I was at a friend’s funeral and his children were there. We ended the service with his daughter’s favourite song from a Disney film. How special to give a child who is encompassed by other people’s sadness, an opportunity to lighten the load. Allowing space and ticking the boxes to keep normality alive will aid resilience and keep communication open — two very important tools for navigating grief.
Divorce can also be dramatic in its enforcement. Figuring out which parent does the collection from cub night or whose turn it is to do the pick-up after school hockey is pretty draining for all involved. Nonetheless, my friends who, in my opinion, have journeyed separation as best they could with their kids in tow, have been flexible and shown grace when diaries clash so the kids feel less of the clang caused by the separation.
Keep Communication Lines Open
I don’t mean give the kids a mobile phone and tell them to text from the bedroom when they want a bag of jelly babies. By keeping communication lines open, even on a fickle note to begin with – “Did I put ham in your sandwich today or was it cheese?” – you are letting their voice continue to be heard and accepted. Or speaking of your own fears around the big change, “Today I thought of your Daddy as I walked around the supermarket. I felt a bit sad that he doesn’t push the trolley with me anymore…” can also promote a desire to talk about their fears showing that they are not alone in their loneliness or bewilderment.
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
A quote from one of my favourite artists Van Gogh reminding us to be patient. Our kids live in a noisy, demanding world, where they are pulled to be a certain way or to wear a particular brand. In times of crisis we want to focus on communication in all its forms so they know their voice and worries are heard. Little snippets over time will strengthen your relationship and bring together feelings of self worth and identity, even in the rough times.
Participate Together In Non Digital Activities
As I type this article my three sprogs are on digital so rest assured I do not come from a place of judgement! Outdoor activities, the swimming pool, scooting at the park, gardening or sitting around an open fire holding mugs of hot chocolate with a board game, promotes wellbeing and helps everyone involved to get away from the digital vacuum of TVs and iPads. Five minutes without worldly noise and digital entrapment is key to normalising life and more importantly normalising grief or separation and managing a little one’s hurt.
Riding horses was my coping mechanism after dad died. I know now that it was a stretch financially for mum but her wisdom in keeping my hands and mind busy meant I could talk to her about topics as fickle as the silage bag bursting open in the barn to the more serious discussions about whether Dad was in pain during his last months.
Playdoh, picking berries, painting a picture or walking the family pet, means the hands and feet are busy so the mind is open. We don’t need a pocket full of cash to be able to help a young person manage big changes. Your time, your patience and consistency will go a long way.
No matter what journey our kids are on, as parents we travel it with them and we carry so much of the weight on top of our own heavy load. This new year, take stock of the good things and how well you are doing to get this far. The little munchkins around your kitchen table, shovelling cereal into their mouths before the school run love you deep in their soul… and that can never be taken away no matter the level of hurt they feel on the surface. You’re doing a great job and navigating as best as you can.
Aly is an artist, writer and educator who is passionate about helping women (and men!) to love themselves from their brains to their bones. Find more from Aly at alyharte.com