Dealing with Grief and a Four-Year-Old

I’ve had a rough week. A rough month really if you add in trying to adjust to my husband being deployed to Iraq and then the house slowly falling apart as the air conditioner goes out and mystery leak shows up in the garage closet. Then one minute you are trying to pick out a Father’s Day card, and the next you are planning a trip to a funeral.

Last week my father had a massive heart attack and stroke. He was on life support but the prognosis was dim. On Saturday my sweet dog Sierra, who’s stood by me through four deployments and always been my puppy to cry on, had a bad seizure that she didn’t really come out of. She was nearly 16 and there wasn’t anything we could do for her but end her suffering. As I was driving home from the emergency vet, I called to check on my dad and learned they had taken him off life support. The next day was Father’s Day.

After hanging on for a few more days, my father passed away last night, and now I’m trying to plan our trip to where he lived in Missouri. This will be my first time traveling alone with my four-year-old son. I am trying to not be overwhelmingly sad in front of my son because he just doesn’t get it. As I broke down and cried this morning after learning the news, he peed on the floor and then literally laughed in my face. He is potty trained and hasn’t done this in a long time. Apparently we have different ways of dealing with grief.

I have no idea how a child processes all this. I don’t remember dealing with anything like this when I was his age. No pets passed away and no family members. I was in my 20’s before I went to my first funeral. We have a young family. My mom and dad had me in their teens and I didn’t think I’d have to deal with this until many years from now.

But here I am.

My son is going with me on this trip. Even if he does act up, I’d rather have him with me than be alone. I am hoping he will be sweet to his grandmother. I want her to see that her son lives on in my son. He is our next generation. And he lives on in all his children. (there are 3 of us, I’m the oldest) My father won’t know we are there, but my grandmother will have all of us there for her.

I want to be strong, but I feel like tears are always there threatening to fall. I feel like I’m all cried out and then another round comes out of nowhere. My son seems like he doesn’t register my tears, though he makes a huge deal if he cries even if it’s just because I went first up the stairs. He demands comfort and kisses for his wailing about nothing, but gives me the briefest of hugs when I try to tell him I’m sad and he could help me by being sweet. I don’t know when kids develop empathy, but mine seems to be behind the learning curve on emotions beyond those that serve his own needs.

On the other hand, dealing with a small child is part of what’s keeping me going. I can’t curl up in a ball and just hide. I have to make food, give baths, and keep on playing with him like it’s any other day. I’m grateful to have friends that have taken him for a few hours here and there so I can take care of things like packing and planning.

As sad as things are, I don’t want the trip to be all doom and gloom for him. I want him to enjoy traveling and riding on an airplane. I don’t want him to associate airports with mommy being sad. So I’m going to try and keep things fun for him. And maybe making him smile will help me find my own smile through this whole ordeal.

If anyone has been through something like this with a small child, and has any advice on how they handled it, I’m all ears.

 

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18 thoughts on “Dealing with Grief and a Four-Year-Old

  1. I’m so sorry for both your losses. And to be dealing with it alone on top of it, well it’s a lot and my heart truly goes out to you. I wish I had words of wisdom to ease your pain, but grief is fickle and everyone responds differently. As far as for your child, my biggest advice is to be honest and not try to downplay things. I made that mistake with my then 5 year old. In an ill-fated attempt to protect him from grief I ended up hurting him more. And I see the effect lasting even today. I learned from them, and when my grandmother (who we spent time with daily) passed away last November, I sat him down and was honest. I asked him if he had any questions and helped him process the loss. In the long run, this was much easier on him. I don’t know if this helps, but I hope so.

  2. Almost exactly 2 years ago, we were at funeral with my then-4-year old and she didn’t understand. She kept running around, talking too loud, trying to talk with other kids. I flipped (not one of my best parenting moments) and she still remembers that I cried that day. But she wasn’t affected by the loss so I shouldn’t have expected her to not act like a normal kid.
    I hope that you can find a way to grieve and still be clear with your son that you are sad. We forget that they pick up on more than we are aware of but sometimes don’t react in the way you expect them to. We need space and they are all over us, we need hugs and they just want to be left alone. They know something is wrong and want to fix it or ignore it, but don’t know how.
    I hope the travel goes smoothly and that the hard moments with your son are few.

    1. Thank you! That is one thing I’m worried about- him being loud during the funeral and wanting to play. But I can’t fault him for that since he doesn’t understand. Just going to wing it and hope for the best.

  3. My heart goes out to you and your family. It’s not easy being a grieving mom. My grandmother passed away when my oldest was 4. I don’t think he was capable of understanding what was going on, but I have a large family and everyone was instrumental in helping those of us with young children. We were given time to grieve, but were also encouraged to talk to our kids about death and to keep their normal schedules.

    My sister-in-law recently lost her mom and her kids are 5 and 7. They’ve been extremely attached to her, so she’s been trying to just love them as much as possible. She has noticed, though, a change in her oldest’s artwork that indicates her daughter is trying to process grief. Kids don’t have the ability to really vocalize how they feel or what’s going on in their internal worlds. Usually it’ll come out through play and drawings and will often provide an opening to talk about death.

    As for you the grieving mom, it’s okay to be openly sad around young kids. Not only does it give you the chance to process grief and talk about it, but it also provides information your son can file away for later use when he’s older. My kids struggled when I was grieving since they were 4 and 1, but, since then, my oldest has started to become more compassionate.

    My thoughts are with you. I wish you a safe journey and as much time as possible to grieve.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. Reading all the different experiences people have gone through is so helpful. Reminds me others have done this and survived 🙂

  4. I’m so sorry to hear you’re dealing with this. It is so difficult losing a parent and even harder to try to help a little one when you’re feeling so much pain and sadness.

    I lost my mom almost 3 months ago and my father and father-in-law have both passed. My son (now 8) has sadly suffered too much loss in his short life. My daughter (5) was only 2 when my father in law passed and did not ever have a chance to meet my dad. Just like us, it’s so different from child to child. My son is a very emotional child and was very sad during each loss. My daughter, she processes it so differently. She is of the “yeah, I’m sad, but life goes on” mentality, though if I point out I’m sad she’ll give me a hug too.

    My only advice is to ask him once in a while if he has anything he wants to talk about regarding his grandpa. If not, don’t push it and move on. My daughter has mentioned a few things about her grandma. Sometimes they are short comments about what they did together– then she’s ready to talk about something else.

    Many prayers go out to you and your family!

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