I’ve never been one to fully broadcast my Irish side. On most St. Patrick’s Days, you may find me in an obligatory green piece of clothing. Since I don’t wear as much green as I used to, it may be a faded t-shirt or green beads that I borrowed from my daughter.
However, in the past four years, St. Patrick’s Day has been bittersweet rather than a loud and rowdy celebration of Irish (or near Irish) heritage. Four years ago when my son was still in middle school, he lost a classmate, a teammate, and a friend in a horrible accident. I cannot fathom losing someone you see every day when you are so young. On this day every year, he does not think as much about green leprechauns and pots of gold. Rather, he and his friends are reminded of the empty seat in their classrooms.
As a parent, I had to think on my feet from that day on as I watched my son go through the stages of grief. The night it happened, his friend was supposed to be at soccer practice, but his friend never showed up. Through social media and news reports, we found out what happened. He went to bed knowing, but was numb from the sobering truth. I sat in his room because he had questions I didn’t know how to answer as he was dozing off. The next day, I made him go to school. He hated that more than ever, hated the idea of walking into a class and seeing his friend’s empty seat. I armed him with a hug and a pocket full of tissues. But the truth was that counselors were going to be there. The students were going to be there for each other for support. There is no support sitting at home watching TV or lying in bed refusing to see the sun that your friend would never see from Earth again. He thanked me later for making him go.
That night, he cried himself to sleep and made sure that we would go to his memorial service in the next few days. Those nights I felt like I was staying up with a newborn child all over again because sleep came so restlessly for him. There were times that his friends he hung out with after school asked me questions or just wanted to talk through their feelings. I stayed in touch with their parents going through the same thing I was. Sometimes those friends asked me to drive them to his memorial marker. The day after his funeral, the indoor soccer team started their championship game. After a tearful moment of silence, the forward bawled her way to a smashing goal upon the kickoff. It was the saddest, yet powerful team effort I have ever witnessed for such young players.
Grief is something that everyone has to endure in their life. When a life is lost so young, their friends may be struggling with it for the first time. While some children lose a grandparent, they think of it more as a circle of life when the old die when their time is up. The loss of a child from a terminal illness or tragic accident is even more difficult. Time may make it easier for them to learn about coping and moving on, but the memory never goes away. It is important to reflect on all of the positive memories just like it is important to give them time to grieve. Some children will talk while others will write, draw, or reflect. The role of the parent for me is to be there. My son’s friends talk with him because they say he is a great listener. At the same time, he needs someone to listen to him, which is often where I come in.
When I was in high school, one of my English teachers said that children and their parents only spend about six minutes of quality time together. I shared this with my parents and we just laughed in surprise at the statistic. Every evening after that, if there was some down time after dinner, I would sit with my parents on the screened-in porch or in the living room to just talk. Sometimes it was for six minutes, sometimes longer. I do what I can to have at least six minutes of quality conversation with my children on an individual basis so that we can talk about the mundane, the fascinating, or the important thoughts that are on our minds. These six minutes, a statistic that is likely to be much lower in the technology age, allows my kids to know that I am there for them no matter what with few limitations on topics. That includes dealing with grief.
If you have to share grief with your child, I feel for you. It is not something that you can truly teach a child. Rather, you have to take the journey of sadness with them as a guide. The rest is up to them to figure out as a part of growing up. If you are a parent who lost a child too soon, I see your grief and your guardian angel watching over you every day.