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.
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.
We all have a need to express our pain—some of us through talking (with a friend, therapist, or support group) and others through writing (stories, letters, or a journal or blog). Parents should encourage and assist children to write, as there is tremendous healing power in writing emotions and memories, whether though composing stories, perhaps with a full palette of color illustrations, or through letters to the deceased. The child can say something he didn't get a chance to ("I never got to say 'I'm sorry!'") or take comfort in being able to share new developments in their lives. The ability to "speak" to the absent loved one can also be soothing for the healing process.
For a long time, my daughter and I would pretend to "call heaven" and speak to Imma. It was powerfully cathartic to release words that had nowhere to go. The connection between the child and the lost parent can be cultivated in another way. "Since the child is a product of the deceased parent, aspects of their personality and genetic appearance will always be with them in body and spirit. New associations and connections can be created and discussed," Leeuwenburgh says.
Child therapists encourage children to express loss through other creative means. Leeuwenburgh believes imaginative play and artistic creation are the primary ways in which young children release the complex and unnamed emotions they hold inside. "It is difficult for children who were preverbal at the time of their parent's death to verbalize memories of their time together. They had not mastered language, which makes it hard to verbalize the memories." In her private practice, Leeuwenburgh utilizes a variety of toys, arts, and crafts to facilitate the process of healing. Methods that can help include sand-table play, a tactile activity where kids are soothed by the feel of sand between their fingers and empowered by building imaginative worlds and figures to make order out of a chaotic world.
Continuing traditions a child shared with the deceased parent is another significant element to help her remember. Laura Munts, president of the Mommy's Light Lives On Fund (mommyslight.org), an organization based in Exton, PA, says her mission is to bring "joy and comfort to children and teens by helping them keep alive traditions they did with their mothers or fathers." Traditions, Munts says, "are a very attractive vehicle for grieving children who may not want to sit down and talk about what they are feeling or thinking, but who are eager to make Mom's famous banana bread."
Leeuwenburgh suggests creating photo albums and memory books "and having pictures of the child with their parent as a tool to provoke memories and encourage expression of thoughts and feelings." In the first week after my wife died, I created a photo book that chronicled our family life together. The creative process served as an anchor for me in those overwhelming days, and the book is still a source of comfort and sweetness for my daughter and me. "It's very important to keep photographs of the lost parent around," Edelman says. But in families where a parent has remarried and it's a touchy matter to have photos throughout the house, "put them in the child's bedroom. Allow the child to have a relationship with the deceased parent in her own space," she adds.
According to Munts, for children who "may have been too young to have concrete tradition memories or who have forgotten over time," there are techniques for bringing these memories to the surface as a source of healing. "Most families have pictures of the kids doing some type of activity and the pictures reinforce the activities when family stories are retold and connected to some tradition or simple pleasure," she says. The pictures become springboards for memory.
It's been five and a half years since Leah died. I have remarried. Aderet is now a brilliant and vivacious 9-year-old who is a new big sister. Listening to advice from therapists, I have learned to let my daughter take the lead in deciding when she wants and needs to talk. Much of the time, she simply wants to be a "normal" kid; talking just makes her sad. So I have learned when to silence myself and let her tell me when she wants to actively remember. Those are the times when the pictures come out, or cards and letters are written, or we visit the cemetery. This I do know: The ways she feels and expresses her memories will certainly evolve over her lifetime.
Dr. Eitan Fishbane serves on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Among his recent books are "Shadows in Winter: A Memoir of Love and Loss" and "The Sabbath Soul: Mystical Reflections on the Transformative Power of Holy Time." He lives with his wife and children in New Jersey.