A: My father-in-law, Veljko, died just over six years ago, and we lived directly next to him. We moved next to him some 14 years before he died, and let’s put it this way: My father-in-law and I were very different people. A Serbian man who had survived a prisoner-of-war camp and came to the United States with nothing. Me? A girl born in the ’70s with nary a worry in the world. Our worldviews could not have been more opposite, but I soon realized what a gift he was to me. His life experiences, humor, laughter, stubbornness and wisdom were a daily occurrence for me. I was spoiled.
My father-in-law greeted each grandchild into the family with shock and delight; it was as if a baby had never been born before. In seven years, he became a grandfather six times! Already in his late 70s and 80s when my children were born, he wasn’t out walking them or playing physical games with them. He simply sat and endlessly talked and listened to them. “Deda” was an attentive, sometimes stern but mostly joyous presence in our lives, and we were lucky enough to be with him right until the end. My whole family, children in tow, went to kiss him goodbye as he died and, while I knew they couldn’t totally grasp what this goodbye meant, I would able to tell each of them how they kissed Deda one last time.
My children (then 2, 5 and 9) all dealt with his death differently. Each was in a different developmental place with the permanence of death. Each child had a different temperament and a unique relationship with their grandfather. And despite me being an “expert,” I didn’t know what to expect, so I carried on with honesty and transparency. We all attended the funeral and life went on, but we spoke frequently of Deda and told all the funny and touching stories. We laughed and cried as a family, because that’s how grief goes.
But as the weeks and months passed, it became apparent that my intense 5-year-old (who quickly turned 6 right after her grandfather died) was not crying. She didn’t talk about her grandfather when we did. She didn’t get teary-eyed when we did. She just sat and blinked. We didn’t push, because how do you push someone to grieve? Then, about six months after he died, my middle child was getting out of the bathtub when her little lower lip began to tremble and her eyes began to well up. Naturally, I thought she was somehow injured and rushed to ask if she was okay, but she croaked out, “I didn’t say goodbye.” I didn’t know what she was talking about. She said, “When we were at the hospital, I didn’t say goodbye to Deda,” and then all of her tears came out. Big, fat tears fell as she crawled into my arms, wrapped in a towel, finally sad. It took six months for my sensitive daughter to cry, and that is perfectly normal. That is how she processed this huge loss in her life. And as surprised as I was at the time, looking back, it all makes sense.
You ask me if you should be worried that your son isn’t visibly grieving, or if you should help him express his grief, but I don’t think you need to concentrate on him. Instead of focusing on how your son should be reacting to his loss, let’s refocus on how the adults in your family are processing this loss. You see, an oft-repeated phrase at PEP, the Parental Encouragement Program, is: “Children are poor interpreters yet keen observers.” This means children see everything, but they don’t always know what it all means. Demonstrating how one grieves in front of young children is often more important than teaching someone to grieve.
Your main goal, as parents, is to make room for all your son’s emotions, such as the joy and the satisfaction that comes with routine and play, because those are also the emotions of grief, especially for a child. Somehow, our culture has developed a warped view of what grief looks like, and while we like to boil everything down to a bulleted list of expectations, grief is varied and twisting, like a river snaking through land. Sometimes it is only a barely visible trickle; other times it rushes with intense force.
You should also make room for the possibility that your son will process this loss at a different time. Your only job is to not judge. Because, if you think about it, adults aren’t built much differently. We sometimes push down our grief and allow our tears to fall at more opportune moments.
You don’t need books or articles or columns to navigate any of this; humans have been adapting to loss as long as we have walked the Earth. If your son is playing and happy, and you all relive memories of your father-in-law, that is good enough. Grief becomes problematic when it is pushed down or prescribed. Take care to do neither. Good luck.
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