In the 1980’s Elton John came out with a song called “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”. I remember the first time I heard it on the radio. It was the end of the school year and it was foggy as the June gloom was settling in for the long haul. There was a general melancholic feel to the day, to the month, and when I heard the song I felt like crying. I can not say exactly what was going on that made me feel like that but, looking back, I think that was a time where I felt like the song gave me permission to openly be sad, even if there was “no reason”. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures have a way of bringing on emotions that may well blindside us in any given moment. I want to also acknowledge our intuition as one of our senses that often gets overlooked. As humans, we are sensory beings and over time, we learn how to work with our senses in a way that one might say that we have an element of control over them. I often say that I am thankful for the gift of compartmentalization because it gives us the ability to tuck our emotions away that we may not have time to look at for the time being so we can take care of the tasks at hand. On a good day, we can come back to our emotions later and work on figuring out what it all means.
Now that we have had some time to settle into our new routine of distantly socializing, we may notice some grief coming up in us and our children. Some of us experienced it at the beginning of our “artist in residence” time and for others, it is only just starting as the realization of our new normal (for the time being) is taking hold. As adults, we have spent years learning skills to process our grief and we often can sit with it for a period of time until we move through it. Children process grief differently. Rather than sitting with it for a long period of time, it tends to come and go in waves with bursts of joyful play in between. This can make it challenging to recognize it in them.
While children are certainly happy to have so much time at home with their families, they will likely be experiencing the collective grief in which they have no context to understand. Remembering that children take their emotional cues from the adults in their world, children will feel the unspoken tension, fear, uncertainty and anxiety in the air and while we adults have the skills to work through these feelings, our children are still learning how and can be quite clumsy about it. They may feel emotions that they can not even name yet, so how can they know what to do with them? It can be confusing.
When the grief that we carry is not given an outlet, it can “sneak out” in messy ways. It is likely that we all have experienced this at some point. Maybe we completely overreact to what might seem like a minor situation. Have you ever started an argument with someone over something petty just to blow up in a big way? Our emotions are looking for a channel for expression. When we hold tension and grief in, it will find a way to come out.
This is also true for your children. Perhaps they fall and get a tiny scrape that would typically be no big deal for them but this time they scream and cry and have a really big reaction. Maybe they are pushing limits over and over and when we have to hold the limit, they have a big cry. Maybe there are other behaviors that have a similar feel. These can be signs that your children are looking to you to hold a firm boundary which creates a container for them to have this emotional release. When they have these moments it can be very uncomfortable for all who witness it.
So, how do we navigate this? To help our children move through these big emotional releases, we have to draw on every bit of calm and lov
ing compassion we can muster. Let’s face it, at the end of a long day that can be really hard to do. It is important to let them feel it deeply and not try to “make them feel better” which may seem counterintuitive. When we try to distract them or try to make them feel better, we are actually sending the message that feeling sad, angry or frustrated are not acceptable emotions and over time they will learn to suppress those feelings. When your children are showing these signs of stress and need for release, it is actually a very kind thing to do to let them have a good cry. It is important to hold a firm boundary through this and not let your child hurt themselves or you in the process. However, we can share our calm though and simply be nearby as they grieve.
Because children are still developing socially and emotionally, they may use their whole bodies to express this sadness. They may drop to the ground, face down, kick, scream and cry and as long as they are not hurting themselves or others, this is a healthy expression. What they want and need is a witness to their grief and the best thing we can do is be there and use as few words as possible. And let’s just say it, THIS CAN BE EXTREMELY HARD TO DO. After some time children will get to a place where they may want to be held and they are still crying, sobbing really, with their whole body. Eventually, they will come to a place where their body softens and the crying comes to an end. They may not be totally done so just wait and do your best to hold them quietly and simply be there. Follow their lead, when they are nearing the end of the grieving, they may start talking about other things or even get up and play. When it’s done, let it be done. Do your best to let it pass without the need to bring it up in the moment or later. Children are amazing, when they have had a big release like that, they are done and move on. A good cry can feel very much like a heavy rain that washes off the plants and makes everything feel refreshed.
As a parent, it is hard not to feel guilty or bad when our children have a big moment with grief. It can even be scary. Not all of us grew up in a home where that kind of expression (sometimes any kind of expression of emotion) was allowed so we are still learning how to be with it ourselves. It is important that we find our own healthy and appropriate ways to grieve. Often there is simply too much to tend during the day that we have to put it off but it is something to track in yourselves. Where are the places that stress sneaks in? Where are you overreacting to situations? Where are you tense and holding back?
There are many things you can do to help let the feelings flow when the time is right. Listening to music that stirs emotion or watching a sad movie can help move the tears are good places to start. Exercising and big genuine laughing can move the emotion as well. Sometimes, when the children are sleeping, finding time to go out to your secret spot and simply having a moment alone can be helpful and some people like to write. There really are a lot of tools to help us move through grief, the trick is to find the things that work for you and keep them in your magical Mary Poppins bag of tools for later.