Death and grief: ‘Fit your own oxygen mask first’

Although we all hope that our children will never need to struggle with death and grief, we know that the chances are very high that someone they know or love will die, or that they will be strongly impacted by a tragedy in wider society.

Sometimes adults feel they need to keep things in the household happy and upbeat, even when there is a death.

In fact, it is important for adults to fully recognise and acknowledge their own grief, in order to be able to support children through their inevitable feelings. Being honest about our own grief is the emotional equivalent of ‘fitting our own oxygen mask first’, in order to be able to help our children safely with theirs.

Adults can be tempted not to do this in two common ways: avoidance and minimising.

Avoidance

‘Let’s not talk about that now.’
‘Don’t mention Nonna; it will only upset Sam.’

Sometimes we use avoidance, either in avoiding the feelings that are churning below the surface or avoiding people when those feelings can’t be contained.

There are no rules that say you have to wear your grief as a T-shirt slogan, or tell everyone what’s going on for you, but avoiding your own children in times of grief isn’t necessary or helpful.

Minimising

‘Oh don’t make such a fuss, it’s not that bad.’
‘Stop crying! Where’s my big girl’s smile?’

Often this response comes from the good-hearted desire for our children to be happy. There is a time for laughter, but we must allow children to experience the full range of emotions in order to learn to handle them and to value them. This means that as grown-ups we too must not minimise our own feelings.

When we grieve in front of our children, they learn about feelings. They learn that the full range of feelings that flow from an encounter with death is OK.

And, as they see us emerge from intense times of grief and move forward with living, cherishing memories and accepting reality, they learn that grief doesn’t rule us, and, very importantly, that death doesn’t have the last word.

We show them that even when the feelings that accompany death are very strong, they will change and pass and we will live life with joy.

When we model this for our children, we also show them that embracing life and living joyfully doesn’t dishonour the person that we have loved, or discount the trauma that has been experienced.

The amazing truth of being human is that we can hold together joy and pain, trauma and hope, grief and love. Whatever terrible things happen in the past or the present, which need to be respected and acknowledged, the future is not destroyed – it is open to all the possibilities of life and growth and hope.

Beth Barnett

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.