My wife Leah (whom our daughter, Aderet, called "Imma," the Hebrew word for mother) was 32 years old when she died, in the prime of motherhood. She had been busy planning our daughter's fourth-birthday party when she developed a brain tumor -- suddenly, with no warning. The weeks, months, and years that followed made for an agonizing journey, as I learned how to be a single father while struggling through grief and trying to help my daughter understand death. According to Rabbi Earl Grollman, a grief counselor and author of Talking About Death: A Dialogue Between Parent and Child, children younger than 5 do not understand death. They often ask when the loved ones will come back, how they breathe in the casket, and what they will eat. How can a child so young understand the finality of death? And how can she process the feelings of grief? "Grief is not limited to the period when death occurs," say Ellen Goldring and Erika Leeuwenburgh in their book Why Did You Die?: Activities to Help Children Cope With Grief and Loss. "Grieving children and adolescents experience their loss over the course of their lives." Through my own experiences, I have learned that there are specific ways to help young kids hold on to the memories of their parents, and these are the ones that have helped my daughter.
Talk Openly and Honestly Through Stories
One of the most poignant elements of young loss is the death of a parent before a child has the ability to retain long-term memories. When a tangible presence fades tragically, how can the memory be kept alive as the child grows? Talking about the deceased and the child's feelings of grief is crucial, especially for her development and well-being. Hope Edelman, activist and author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, underscores this as "the most important and probably the simplest way to keep a loved parent's memory alive for the child." Over time, she says, it becomes critical to continue talking about the parent, "or the child starts feeling as if they're losing the connection, and this creates a cognitive disconnect. The child knows there was someone who was very important but the adults, by not talking, diminish that person's importance in their lives."
The anxiety over forgetting is its own experience of loss, but "part of the healing process is forgetting, and understanding that the memories, like the person, have died," says Leeuwenburgh, who is also an art therapist in Waldwick, NJ. "Family discussions and sharing stories about a parent's pregnancy, the first years of a child's life, and the family relationship are important to incorporate around birthdays and anniversaries," Leeuwenburgh adds. It is also important to offer age-appropriate honesty; children feel less afraid and less powerless when they can name the reason for the death of their loved ones. "There are many outdated beliefs about what is helpful for children trying to cope with death; for example, that, left to their own devices, children will get over a loss, or that not giving children much information about death is a way to protect them. Fallacies like these can be damaging. Adults need to be aware of how children experience their grief and must encourage dialogue that allows children to express their feelings," Leeuwenburgh and Goldring say in their book.
With my own daughter, my heart ached that she didn't get to spend more time with her mom. "Can you tell me ten things about her?" she would ask. And I would say, "She was sweet as honey, giving to a fault, fun-loving, and filled with laughter. Did I tell you that your eyes smile just like Imma's did?" For the dedication page of my book,Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss, I wrote, "I will remember for you," and I know her memories will be filtered through the family stories and pictures that remain. Listening and just being present can be the greatest gift we give to those who are grieving. And all children and adults need to be heard when suffering, to know and to feel that there are others who are there for us, to ask us how we are managing, to give us a meal, or to offer us a big hug.