Posted by Lia Grippo
Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. ~ Rumi
In all times, young children take emotional cues from their caregivers and their environment. You might have seen this when your child falls down and looks at you before deciding whether they should, cry, laugh, or shrug it off and keep going. They are looking to us for meaning and context.
In times like these, this inborn need to imitate is fully engaged. Our children can feel that there is tension, anxiety, and fear in the air. Unable to see the big picture (they are simply not mature enough to do so for a good number of years to come), they simply absorb the mood of their environment.
While we might like very much to protect them from these feelings entirely, knowing they are not ready or able to carry the burdens, we can not do so completely. The grief and anxiety is simply too pervasive.
What, then, shall we do to care for their tender feelings in this time?
Can you remember a time when you had a good deal of stress built up inside you and you picked an argument with someone you loved? The feelings you were releasing probably had nothing to do with the topic you argued over. You simply needed an eruption, a space where grief and tension could find an avenue of release.
Our children will do just this. They may seem to “overreact” to a very minor injury (physical or emotional). They may push against a limit you have set, in a way that feels as if they are poking at you repeatedly. They might try to exert inflexible and unyielding control over a situation that seems extreme and unusual to you. These scenarios, and others that have a similar feeling, are often our child’s attempts to find a strong enough boundary, or container if you will, that allows their grief movement. Grief that doesn’t find avenues of release “leaks” out in tense and unpleasant interactions, adding tension to an already challenging situation.
But what do we do when our children show signs of grief?
The first and most important thing we need to help our children navigate these powerful feelings is to cultivate and show loving compassion. The second is to avoid trying to “make” our children feel happy. Everyone has a right, and indeed a need, to feel unhappy at times. In our attempts to help our children not feel sad, we are giving the message that feeling sad or frustrated isn’t acceptable. However, successful attempts at appeasing or distracting our child from expressing these feelings does nothing to make the feelings themselves go away, rather they go underground, erupting in ways both unexpected and confusing for parent and child.
When you feel your child is exhibiting these signs of stress, allowing them to cry is often the kindest thing we can do. Sometimes, we must hold a boundary, lovingly and firmly, to give them the opportunity to cry. Sometimes, we must simply get out of the way when a big cry begins.
Allow yourself to sit quietly near your child when the cry comes and cultivate your own calm and compassion. You need not, and ought not, let them hurt you or themselves, but even this must be done with as few words as possible. They might throw themselves to the ground, belly down, and kick and thrash about. This is healthy. Young children are very good at letting their whole body get in on the grief release. As long as everyone is physically safe, let them do this. There will likely come a time where they will want to continue crying in your arms and/or lap. Let them. You will feel their body soften and quiet. Allow yourself to remain in quiet presence even then. Sometimes, after a restful pause, more tears will come. Sometimes, your child will signal they are done for now by bringing up a topic of conversation or getting up and beginning to do something different. Follow their lead. If they are done, let them be done. There is no need to discuss this further.
What about us parents?
This can be hard for us, especially if we ourselves did not grow up with the freedom to feel our grief openly. It can also feel hard when we ourselves are not having the solitude and space to express our own feelings of grief, anxiety, and frustration because we are with our children without respite and without our accustomed external supports.
Be aware of how grief shows up in you. Do you retreat into yourself, becoming quiet and withdrawn? Do you become short tempered about things that would otherwise elicit a different response? Do you feel the urge to move your body intensely? There are so many ways our bodies signal the need for release and we must come to know ourselves.
You are likely having these feelings come up, but aren’t able to give them expression throughout the day, because there is simply so much to tend. You may find yourself having to set your own feelings aside, even the ones stirred by your child’s release of grief.
When you can find space for them, here are some suggestions for helping oneself to access those feelings again and give them expression.
I will leave you with the words of the great poet, Pablo Neruda,
“… And here am I, budding among the ruins with only sorrow to bite on, as if weeping were a seed and I the earth’s only furrow.”
At Wild Roots we are working to support families throughout this difficult time. If you find this content helpful, and have the means, please consider making a donation to help keep our school afloat. Thank you!
Wild Roots staff authors include Erin Boehme, Lia Grippo, CJ Cintas, Anne McCarthy, Tyler Starbard, Jenn Sepulveda, Heather Young, Amalia Smith Hale, Natalia Pareja...