real life

"Mum, this year I'm going to ask Santa Claus to bring Daddy back."

Christmas can be a wonderful and magical time for children, but for those who have experienced loss of a loved one it can also create some challenges.

“I know, I’ll ask Santa to bring Daddy back,” my four-year-old son asked me one morning.

His father had died a few days ago. I realised at this moment that I had a long road of assisting my three children to grieve the loss of their father.

co parenting at christmas
"My four-year-old son said he was asking Santa for his Daddy back just a few days after his dad had died." Image via iStock.

When my husband died, my children were six, four and one. Their understanding of death and what it meant was varied to non-existent.

I spoke to others I knew who had lost a loved one and had small kids.

One of them was now a grandmother and I soaked in her knowledge about the road ahead. She explained early on, as does the literature, that children’s grief is not linear, it ebbs and flows depending on the age and stage of life and their own circumstances.

I have written a children's book, Sometimes, which I hope to publish soon. I hope it can be a beacon of light on this topic that so many people struggle with. Whether it is a sibling, friend, parent, aunt, uncle or grandparent, children are touched by grief and loss.

I wanted to write an article this festive season to answer so many questions I have been asked about how I have dealt with my children's grief these last couple of years.

As I mentioned different ages and stages will need different things. I am not an expert but I will share with you seven things that have helped make the road a little easier for dealing with grief with my children.

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I hope they help you too.

1. Sometimes...remember or celebrate them

Include children in discussions about the funeral or memorial. My six-year-old daughter sat on my lap as I discussed with friends how to celebrate my husband’s life. She came up with an awesome idea to make sure people didn't wear shoes. As we were celebrating his life at the beach and he loved feeling the sand in his toes it was a perfect idea.

psychopath in the family
Include your children in discussions about the funeral or memorial of their loved one. Image via iStock.

Write stories and invite others to write stories about the person who died for your children, ask people to send in photos, movies and more. Create photo books or collages with each child.

Invite your children to write cards or do artwork for the person who died and lay it with them. Art and story writing are great forms of therapy for children. Remember the favourite things the person liked, did or said. For us, it was singing the kids a lullaby their dad had made up and every night we still say the same phrase their dad said when he put them to bed: "Dream of surfing!"

2. Sometimes...talk

You may not feel like talking all the time, you may be sick of talking and everyone asking how you are. But equally don't forget to talk to your children.

Talk about what happened, talk about death and what you believe has happened to their loved one. Talk about the person who died and all the things they did and loved. Explain to them in words they can identify with.

It helped that we saw a giant rainbow above my husband’s body when he died, so I was able to paint a picture for my children that daddy had gone up the rainbow to heaven. They still see rainbows and say, "There's daddy".

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Understand that sometimes, like you, your child won't want to talk, and that's fine too. Just be on hand to answer their questions and talk to your family and friends about the wording you would like them to use so that if your children ask someone else a question about death they are not confused by differing responses.

3. Sometimes...listen

When your child is ready to talk, be ready to listen. Let them do the talking. You may find they have a lot of questions. Also listen to others and tips they have to share.

lonely child
When your child is ready to talk, be ready to listen. Image via iStock.

I remember feeling so surprised when my husband died that so many people I know had lost their parent as a child, or had lost their partner as well. Listen to others but hold it in the back of your mind. Some of it will work for you now, some of it might work in the future and other advice is not going to work for you.

You have to find your own path.

4. Sometimes...let yourself grieve

It's so important to show your children that it's okay to cry, it's okay to feel sad. Help them get in touch with their feelings by being a role model for them. Talk about different emotions and that your emotions can change quickly or you can feel more than one at a time.

A few months after my husband died I went on a Petrea King retreat for a few days. I learnt so many things on the retreat which have helped in my grief and one thing for the children has been the idea of imagining yourself as a house full of emotions. Each emotion has their own room.

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Sometimes you might be in the angry room and then quickly move into the scared or happy room. It helped my children to identify their emotions and we will still often ask each other what room of their house they are in.

5. Sometimes...adjust your expectations and priorities

Give yourself time to work out what is important to you going forward. What things did you and do you want to instil in your children, and how can you make that happen for them in their new situation?

Plan together for the future. Once you identify what is important to you, plan and make that happen. For me it was realising that I needed to be close to the beach, bush, and my husband’s family farm again.

We wanted our children to have a love of outdoors and be practical individuals. I decided that I couldn't do that where we currently lived on my own and moved closer to family and a spot where that was all possible. After a while I was able to look ahead.

6. Sometimes...make time

Life is so busy at the best of times. But when death strikes there is so much to do.

Learn to carve out special time as a family for you and the kids. Illustration by Alex Miles.

Surround yourself with an army of friends and family. People you can trust. Give people jobs, let people help. Learn to let go and say yes to help.

In this way you learn to carve out the special times as a family for you and the kids. But also carve out the time for each of them individually. They each have different needs and understandings and they need that time alone with you.

It could be planned fun or just mundane grocery shopping together. Whatever it is, make sure to carve out snippets of alone time with each child.

I decided that travel was important to me and planned a special holiday for each of the children so we could each explore places we love. One child went to Japan, another to Africa and my youngest will decide when she gets older.

7. Sometimes...look for the rainbows

"look for the rainbows". Illustration by Alex Miles.

Try to recapture the magic in your lives for the children. As hard as it was when my son asked if Santa could bring Daddy back, I loved that he believed in magic so fiercely that anything was possible.

My children and I get such a warm glow every time we see a rainbow. For us rainbows are magic, it's their dad reaching down to say "hello". It's amazing the times we see them: birthdays, anniversaries, hard days, they will appear. Look for the rainbows.

Look for the magic in every day.

Finally, to quote the last line of my children's book:
Sometimes we have difficult days.
Sometimes we have good days.
But one thing remains the same-
the love we have for each other will live on.
Always.

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