Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone. ~ Fred Rogers
A reader writes: My grandsons ages 4 and 7 lost their mom in a tragic single-car accident in which she had been drinking. The night of the accident the babies stayed with a friend of theirs while their mommy went to a friend’s birthday party and when they woke up they had no mom. They were never allowed back in their home, and life as they knew it had simply vanished. The 4-year-old is now 5 and is acting so badly in kindergarten they are talking medication for ADHD—he told us how his mom died and is so-matter-of -fact that you can feel the anger in his voice. A year prior to her death her father (their best friend) died of a heart attack while the younger boy (then age 3) was with him. The 8-year-old acts as the caregiver and basically seems to have shut down. They have had two therapists now and they’ve both quit on them. Please help. They are so young to experience so much trauma.
My response: I’m so very sorry to read your tragic story, and I certainly appreciate your concern for wanting to help your grandsons in the face of these overwhelming and traumatic losses.
You don’t say so directly, but I’m going to assume that you are the paternal grandmother in this family, and it is your son who lost his wife in this horrible auto accident. Your statement that these boys “were never allowed back in their home and life as they knew it had simply vanished” leads me to wonder how your son (their father) is coping with this death and its aftermath. Since your daughter-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly in an auto accident, and since alcohol was involved, I can only conclude that this was a troubled relationship, and your son is probably left with all kinds of conflicted feelings, not only about his wife’s death, but about his entire relationship with her.
I don’t know what, if any, support or help your son has obtained as he works his way through his own grief (even if it is grief over the loss of the marriage he wished he would’ve had and that now can never be) ~ but I can assure you that the best way for adults to take care of their children’s grief is to take care of their own grief first. If your son does not understand the normal grieving process, if he has not yet begun working on his own grief issues, then as their surviving parent he will have little to offer his children as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their mother. You say that the boys “have had two therapists now and they’ve both quit on them.” Were these therapists specialists in working with traumatic grief and loss? Was the therapy aimed at helping these children come to terms with the death of their mother? Was their father ever encouraged to participate in whatever therapy was offered? Was family therapy ever considered?
A loss like this affects everyone in the family, not just these young children ~ and it is the parent (not a therapist or counselor) who has the most influence on how children will respond to a loss of this magnitude. (I don’t know if your son is open to it, but there is a great deal of comfort and support on the Internet as well as reliable information about the normal grieving process. My Grief Healing website is a good place to start. You might also encourage him to read some of the articles listed on this page: Marty’s Articles.)
You say that your grandsons are now five and eight years of age. It may help to know that typically children this age tend to engage in magical thinking ~ that is to say, they are likely to assume that somehow they have done something that has caused the death as well as the distress they see in another person: “Is Daddy mad / sad / crying because I’ve been bad?” Or they may see a cause and effect relationship between themselves and the death: “Did Mommy die because of something I did or failed to do?” And when a parent has died, they may worry about what will happen in terms of their own safety and security: “If Mommy died in an auto accident, will it happen to Daddy (or to me, or my brother, or Grandma) too?” and “Who will take care of me now that Mommy has died?” Keep in mind, too, that these boys have already lost not only their mother last year, but their beloved Grandpa the year before. Is it any wonder that they would be reacting this way now?
If you and your son can look at these boys’ behavior as a need for reassurance, safety and security, then you will be guided toward the “right” things to say. For example, you can provide comfort by saying things to them like this: “Honey, it will be all right ~ Daddy’s upset because your Mommy died and he’s feeling very sad (or mad) about that. Sometimes people cry when they feel sad, or holler when they feel mad. Do you ever cry when you’re feeling sad?” etc.
In the physical absence of their mother, I think the best thing you can give your grandsons is your presence ~ to be available if they need a reassuring hug or need to talk. There are many wonderful books for children this age (for suggestions, see my article, Using Children’s Books to Help with Grief). If you search on a site like Amazon using keywords “children’s books on loss, dying, death and grief” you’ll find a large selection, and you can click on reviews and descriptions of each. You can also check with your local library or bookstore ~ ask the librarian or bookseller to direct you to the appropriate section. Nowadays there are dozens of marvelous books that will help you open a meaningful dialogue with your grandsons about the death of their mother and grandpa and what they may be feeling about it. (Before you select such a book, however, I encourage you to do a little preparatory reading so you’ll have a better understanding of how children grieve at different stages of development. ~ see especially the links I’ve listed on the page on my site.)
I am a firm believer in the notion that the more we know about grief and what is normal in bereavement, the better prepared we are to deal with our (and our children’s) reactions to it. I strongly encourage both you and your son to learn as much as you can about this, which will help you both feel less hopeless and less helpless with the grief you are seeing in these children, and will help you to help them as they come to terms with all of this. In this regard, I think you will find the resources listed on my Child, Adolescent Grief page (and those listed on my Traumatic Loss page) to be quite helpful and informative.
I hope this information helps, my dear. Please know that I am thinking of all of you, and holding you in my heart. ♥