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Sharing Grief and Loss With Your Kids

Coping with grief and loss is difficult for adults. And for parents, it’s often difficult to know exactly if and how to share that journey with children. J&J mom Theresa faced this recently, and she shares what she learned.
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My parents believed that death was a part of life, and so I attended my first funeral when I was five. My memories are vague, but funerals in my family were usually huge gatherings filled with laughter and tears, celebrating life and mourning loss.

Over the years, I’ve said goodbye to many loved ones. My husband Keith and I have taken the same approach with our children, as my parents did with me. Our 8 year-old son and 7 year-old daughter both have been to several funerals, including their great-grandfather and great-grandmother’s. But this summer, we had to say goodbye to their Gramma, Keith’s mom, Wilma.

This time it was different for many reasons. Our kids were older and could grasp what death meant. But, at the same time, they couldn’t understand why this would happen. It was so unexpected. Gramma was relatively healthy for 73, but she had an accident.

From the beginning, we were open and honest. “Gramma is hurt. She took a bad fall, and she’s in the hospital.” We didn’t shield them from the strain that keeping a constant vigil took on our family.

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We spoke with hope and talked about seeing her as soon as she woke up. “She’s in a coma now, but just wait until she wakes up! She will be so mad that they shaved her hair for surgery!”

But, things got worse instead of better, and we had to prepare ourselves and them for a different ending.

It was hard enough for us to process. How do you tell your children that? This was Gramma, who baked for them and took hours to pick out the perfect present. Who played all their favorite songs on the piano and read books with them until they had their fill.

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Again, we told them the only way we knew how–with open honesty and love.

“She might not wake up,” we warned them. We prayed together for strength and healing, and it brought us some comfort. We considered whether or not to let them say goodbye to her in the hospital in her final hours. In the end, we decided against it, knowing that would be what Wilma wanted.

And when the time came to tell them she had died, we did it as a family. ”We will miss her so very much,” we told them. “She loved you more than anything.”

We let them see us cry – we shared our grief and loss with them. They asked many questions, and we did our best to answer them. We spent as much time as possible surrounded by family.

Our children were proof that everyone grieves differently. They attended the viewing, the funeral and the burial. It was difficult for them to see their Gramma one last time. While our daughter cried, our son was quiet. He took his cues from us and tried to force himself cry. We hugged him and told him he didn’t have to. “Everyone says goodbye differently,” we explained. We tried to give them other ways to express their feelings.

They wrote her letters—sweet, loving notes—to keep with her in her casket. Everyone in the family selected photos to share at the services, and the kids helped put the poster boards and albums together. Wilma loved music, and our nephews made a playlist of her favorite hymns. We shared stories about her. We talked about how much we were going to miss her.

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In the end, our kids comforted us more than we comforted them.

Almost four months have gone by since we said goodbye to Wilma, and the family has a long way to go in the healing process. But, the other day we had a very special delivery. Keith’s dad gave us Wilma’s piano. She was an accomplished pianist and treasured the piano, which was her mother’s.

As they wheeled it into the house, I began to cry. The kids ran to my side and hugged me. I told them that I missed her. The delivery man asked if it was my mother’s. I told him “No, my husband’s mother. She was an amazing lady.” He responded, “I bet she’s happy that her grandchildren will be playing it.”

Yes. I know she is.

Theresa Tamboer has been with Johnson & Johnson for 17 years and today is Senior Director, Corporate Communication for the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. Theresa lives in New Jersey with her husband, Keith, their two children and two dogs.

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