Courtesy of HuffPost.com | By Michelle Steinke-Bumgartner | Photo by Erin McFarland Photography | Originally Published 08.28.2017 | Posted 02.05.2018
The single hardest thing for me to accept on that fateful night after being told of his plane crash, where the countless thoughts and fears that surrounded the lives of our small children.
How would they survive without him?
How would they ever be whole and happy again?
How badly would they hurt for the rest of their life?
Would they still be able to thrive after such a devastating blow at such a young age?
At one and two years old it seemed unfathomable that they would have to grow up in a world without his direction, his love, and his light. To date, the loss of their Dad is still the hardest part of my grief journey. Parents want to save their children heartache and pain in all ways possible, but I can’t fix this in any way because I can’t bring him back.
What happened to my babies may have been completely unacceptable, cold and cruel but it is our reality, and even if I didn’t want to face it, I quickly learned I didn’t have much choice. I was going to have to face my new reality, and in the process, I was about to get a first-hand lesson in living beyond loss for not only myself but the two little lives entrusted to me.
Sadly, my kids are not alone in their grief, and I’ve learned that loss comes in many forms for our babies, often too young. One in five American children experiences the loss of someone close to them by the age of 18, and one in seven children lose a parent or a sibling before they are 20. Additionally, 68% of kids are now living in non-traditional homes.
Our kids are being asked to live through deeply emotional and stressful experiences so how do we help them grow, evolve, get stronger and thrive after the unthinkable?
How do we teach them to be resilient?
Below are my top eleven tips for raising resilient children after a loss.
#1 – Keep Them in a Structured Environment
Stability and structure are keys to well-being for all children, and that goes double if they have lived through traumatic circumstances. I did my best right after our loss to minimize additional changes and allow them to feel safe and loved in an environment they already knew and were thriving in.
#2 – Give Them Community
This is one of my keys for resiliency in adults, and it makes sense that it applies to children as well. A positive and uplifting community is so critical after loss, divorce or any other altering circumstances. Let kids know that love and family come in all forms by giving them a group of people who will pick them up on hard days and show them the support they need. This community can come from close friends, a church group, a fitness group or even a like-minded therapy group. This village and community can make such a difference in the life of a young child going through life’s biggest storm.
#3 – Teach Them to Give Back
Nothing helps a human heart more than lending a hand to those in need. By teaching our kids to give back, we allow them to see outside of themselves and their problems, and we let them get in touch with that amazing feeling of helping someone else in need. When we give back, we see that we aren’t the only ones who struggle in life and we start to understand our truest form of success in life is helping fellow humans.
#4 – Keep Them Physically Active
I preach this to adults all day long, so it’s no surprise that I think it applies to our kids too. Fitness is a metaphor for life. By putting one foot in front of the other, we learn to keep going, even on the tough days. Fitness also helps clear your thoughts, stimulate the brain, flood their system with positive endorphins and give them a newfound strength and empowerment to face life. Fitness is one of the single greatest tools ever given, and it’s completely free. Just take them outside and go for a walk.
#5 – Shower Them With Love
This one seems obvious but let me clarify a little more. By LOVE, I don’t mean STUFF. It’s easy to overcompensate after a loss and try to buy them things to make them happy. You can’t replace what was lost with things, don’t even try. Instead, spend time with them, read to them, laugh with them, tell them they matter, or better yet, show them they matter by doing things with them.
#6 – Allow Them to Grieve in Their Way
Grief does not have a one size fits all “look,” and there is no linear path to healing. Grief is a messy process that can only be experienced by those who are taking the journey. Don’t judge their grief and don’t tell them they are doing it wrong. Be there for them, observe their behavior and be advocates for their mental health but do it with love, not from a place of judgment.
#7 – Seek out Alternative Forms of Therapy
My daughter was two weeks from turning three when her Dad died. I was told she needed therapy, so we rushed into seeing a counselor. It seemed like a silly thing to do with such a young girl. I realized she didn’t need to talk but rather express herself in other ways. Art therapy, animal therapy and music therapy are all great ways for kids to work through grief without sitting in a counselors office to “talk.” Only you and your child know what’s best for them but be open to alternatives and keep the plan flexible as they age. At some point, they may need traditional therapy, and you can take that step when the time is right.
#8 – Talk to Them About What Was Lost
Say the name of the parent, sibling or friend that was lost. Don’t be scared to tell stories, share laughs and remember the love and light of that person who meant the world to them. A great rule of thumb is when your children ask you a question about the person, answer them completely and hold the conversation as long as they want to. When they walk away, they are done for the time being, and you can be too.
#9 – Teach Them to Ask For Help
It takes a strong person to be vulnerable, and if we can start teaching our children vulnerability from a young age, we will help them evolve and grow tremendously. I’ve always been very open with my kids since the loss of their father. I tell them my run helps me feel better, handle stress and deal with my grief. I also tell them that my counselor gives me someone to talk with about my feelings. By showing them that I can be vulnerable, I teach them that it’s not only a good thing but is something that makes me a better and stronger person in the long run.
#10 – Teach Them Mindfulness
One of the hardest parts of my grief was dealing the wave of thoughts, emotions, and stress that engulfed my mind after his death. I started a simple five-minute meditation practice that slows the waves and gives me clarity. My kids started taking an interest, and now we practice together right before bed. It’s become part of our nightly bedtime routine, and it helps us all stay centered and calm.
#11 – Teach Them Self-Care
If we all could take the time to understand that self-care is the greatest gift we not only give ourselves but it’s also a gift we give to those we love. Teaching children from a young age that when they take care of them, they are better able to love and help those they love is a priceless gift. It’s not an act of selfishness to exercise, or eat healthily, or get therapy; it’s a form of self-discovery, growth and inner peace.
Today, my kids are thriving at eight and ten. They still miss their Dad, and they always will, but the lesson of living beyond loss have enlightened them well beyond their years, and like their Dad, they live every moment fully and beautifully.
Get Michelle’s new book, Healthy Healing now available on sale. Healthy Healing Book