By Jennifer Abbatacola
My beautiful grandma lost her husband, the love of her life, in her early fifties. She smashed flowers on railroad tracks. She became “all-business” with her four children. She didn’t have the tools necessary to do anything else. The impact her behavior had on her children greatly impacted them for the rest of her life. My mother was never really able to process her grief. It caused her to live in fear and in return for her fear; an unbalanced amount of regard was directed towards my grandma.
I was married to a man named Marc. His parents divorced after an ugly marriage when he was about 13. His family fell into disarray. I love both these families but in the moments after Marc’s death, somewhere between 11:46 and Noon on July 4, 2017, I decided my family would not have the same story. My family’s story would be different than our families of origin.
When God orchestrates loss in our lives, we respond with grief.
Grief is not a journey of endless wails and screams. It’s not uncontrollable crying. It’s not a Hallmark movie or Netflix binge. It’s not throwing plates or taking a baseball bat to the windshield – although sometimes this is a person’s physical reaction to the internal pain. In fact, none of that was experienced in my home when my children’s father died. Our grief was quiet. What we found in our pain was much different than we expected. You may search the internet to find the clinical definitions of grief. There are experts with multiple degrees that can give you a professional explanation. For me, grief is a God-orchestrated journey of self-reflection that should be respected. Grief is complicated and beautiful if we look for anointed moments to discover more about ourselves and who God is.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. ” -Psalm 23:4
When we grieve, our Heavenly Father responds with comfort. Comfort is the act of giving compassion to one another. When that loss is experienced and grief begins, there is no way to practice giving compassion. There is no dress rehearsal. I can’t say to someone who is experiencing this profound sadness, “Hey, hold up. I’ll be right back. Let me go read a book or take a class on comforting you.” It comes too swiftly and unexpectedly. You’ll need God’s help for this one.
My grandma grieved but she didn’t comfort. Maybe it’s because she, like us, had the tendency to give more compassion to young children than we do older children. It seems like the younger my child was, the more compassion I was able to give when they were hurting.
The first time they fall when learning to walk, we drop anything we are doing and we cry with them. But the fifteenth time, we ask them to get up. “You’ll be okay,” as we continue to work on our laptop, answer a client’s email or cook dinner. As they grew and became more independent, it feels like the cup of compassion I was given at the beginning of their lives, lessened. We forget that our children need to grieve and they don’t have the skills to walk through the process alone. Neither do we.
When their fall is much more than a physical scrape on their chunky, sweet, soft knee, like the loss is a parent, sibling or best friend…even a major disappointment, a family relocation, the loss of a pet, a divorce, or a prodigal sibling we are probably also experiencing the loss with them and likely emotionally empty on top of it all. But God has a special way of refilling our cup so that we can respond.
Comforting a grieving child isn’t tricky but it’s not easy either. Psalm 23 gives us a place to begin. The picture of the rod and staff comforting us seems strange to our ears, but it just is a picture of the shepherd drawing us close with the staff when we are too far away and using the staff to protect us from harm.
There are many books on loss, grief, and comfort with many great strategies and lists of wonderful things to do. But when I lost my husband, I found comforting my children required just three choices that helped bring them close and protected them as they took time to mourn: time, patience and focus.
Choice #1: Time
“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” -Psalm 34:18
A grieving child does not operate on a schedule. The truth is, we must be present and available in a world where there is no margin. The Bible is clear about this when it tells us that God himself is close to the brokenhearted. This is not always convenient for our busy lives, but you just have to decide that your child’s grieving process is a priority. You make the choice to model for them the response of the Lord because your job of pointing them to the Creator has not changed in your devastation. If anything, it has increased the need for them to know that God is real. So you do what God does. You get close to them; you grab a staff and pull them in close. Your child is crushed in spirit.
In a world where discernment is not modeled and we find ourselves in a season of great loss and believe we are not able to make a good decision, someone else’s urgency becomes your priority. There is a mindset that is created that we must care about every little thing. I named it stepping over dollars to get to nickels. Because of my personality, my low deference, it was a little easier for me to say “that’s not important to me.” But for others, this would be difficult. Where someone, besides my children, sat at the funeral was not important to me. No time would be spent on that decision. Everything was in Marc’s name. (It was part of being married to a good Italian.) I didn’t have to change that in the first 30 days. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of thank you notes. I know I missed someone. I did my best. I’m sorry if something was overlooked, but I was comforting my children.
All of this will mean that you will need to assess quickly the most important decision that needs to be made–right now– and what decisions can wait. When my children lost their father in the summer of 2017, I literally stopped everything. I went nowhere. I allowed people to help me and I constantly asked the Lord, “What is the most important decision I need to make right now?”
I quickly realized that the most important thing I had to do from minute one was to comfort my children. All other things can wait. Their first impression of the new normal and the messaging they received from me would never have the opportunity for a redo.
A child is going to grieve. It falls on us as parents if they do it alone or with someone. Making your time available to them is the clearest way you can communicate to them that they will not be alone. A practical way to communicate this availability is to have family meetings. I announced family meetings in my home where I would gather them up and tell my children the truth. I told them how I felt and I expressed to them that I wanted to hear how they felt too. I told them they were allowed to feel whatever they actually felt … that whatever it was, it wasn’t bad. And as I fostered the time and they trusted that I was listening to them, we slowly began to talk about the important things on our hearts together. We talked about their father. We all went around the room and said one thing we were thankful for. A positive dialogue was opened. Time was needed to create that culture of honesty and healing in my home.
But still, our life was happening and you cannot always have family meetings. When there were no meetings and we were just living in our home receiving friends and family, I would take time to be stopped on the stairs, in a bedroom, or outside in the yard. We would snuggle on the couch or on the deck. Everything stopped when they needed comfort. Because they will try to get it from somewhere and I want it to be from me, who can point them to true comfort in the Lord.
There are days when I go from one child to the next endlessly. Comfort requires time with no schedule. It requires the Comforter-in-Chief (that’s me and you) to be present when the time comes.
I fell into bed at night exhausted and you will too.
If the only words you hear from me today, let it be this: in our culture of busy, as much as you are able, clear your schedule and just be available. Your availability is what your children need when they grieve.
In Part 2, I will share with you two more choices that will help you lead your children through grief.