Parenting After A Loss Of A Child. Michele Benyo, a grief specialist, talks about how to support children after they have lost a sibling. FREE PDF with a video is included.
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Parenting After A Loss Of A Child
Kristina: Welcome, impactful parent. Today we’re going to be talking about parenting siblings after a loss of a child. Hello, my name is Kristina Campos, founder of The Impactful Parent. Welcome to my inspire and Learn series, where real parents come on and tell their story of inspiration and learning because a wise man learns from his mistakes. Still, a wiser man learns from other people’s mistakes, and today we’re going to learn from our guest speaker Michele Benyo. Michele is a mom of two. She’s a certified Grief Recovery specialist and founder of Good Grief Parenting company. She will tell us a little bit about her own story of loss today. Still, moving forward, her mission is also to help parents through the unimaginable challenge as a parenting while grieving the death of a child and help parents meet the unique needs of a child who has lost a sibling.
Michele: I’m happy to be here.
Kristina: I want to start with your story. Tell us a little bit about how you got into this and what happened with you.
Michele: Well, when I became a mom, I had previously been an educator in the classroom of high school students, but I became familiar with early childhood family education because once I became a mom, that just was the most important thing to me. And so I went back to get my master’s and family education and taught early childhood parent education to parents of children of young children. And life was good, and I had my son, and then I had my daughter, and one day when my son was four and a half, he showed me some bumps on his little torso. And that sent us into a two and a half year journey with his journey with cancer. And so, I was already a parent educator. My whole purpose was to make good things happen for children. And this was a journey I had never planned to be on. And at the age of almost seven, when his sister was three and a half, my son died of cancer. And his sister, who was three and a half, said to me, mommy, half of me is gone. And that was so much more. I mean, my own loss was devastating. It was heartbreaking and unimaginable that to know that now, this little three-and-a-half-year-old could articulate to me, which is amazing in and of itself. That half of her was gone because her brother was gone, and I knew I knew that that statement was true because of the nature of siblings and her very formative age of three and a half. And so that really started me on a mission because this was the work that I did, but I really knew nothing about how to parent a child through grief. I thought, well, I know where to find the resources because this is my field of parent education. But there really were no resources out there. And I should say that this was 21 years ago. So there wasn’t, you know, the internet wasn’t what it is. Now there weren’t Facebook groups, and there weren’t very many, you know, books or people working with families. I really had to sort of do it on my own. And I was inclined to do that because of my background. And so, at the time, I knew that I would eventually have to share this with other families because if I couldn’t find the support, neither could they. And so it really took me until I raised her to adulthood to be able to step back into this place of supporting other families who had experienced child loss and had children whose sibling Bond had been, you know, I’m not going to say broken because the bond isn’t broken by had been just disrupted by this loss.
Kristina: Well, first of all, sorry for your loss. It doesn’t matter that it was 27 years ago. Yes, it is still so powerful. And I’m glad that you’re here today. Talk about your story and be so happy that you are helping other families going through similar things. So thank you so much for your service. I know that you teach the concept of Good grief. How is grief good?
Michele: When my daughter died and said half of me is gone, I looked at her lifetime. She was three and a half, and I thought grief was horrible. None of us want our children to go through it. We all want to just protect our children from it. But we can’t do that. And I needed to first and foremost learn about grief, and a lot of what I learned was incorrect. You know, people told me about the five stages of grief, and when I looked at how I was grieving, I wasn’t doing that. It wasn’t what I was doing, and I thought am I doing this wrong? No, I wasn’t doing it wrong. I learned that a lot of what we say in our society is about how to grieve, you know, get over it, move through it. You know I put the loss and the pain behind you and just, you know, move on as soon as you can.
Don’t bother other people who are grieving. Don’t talk about it. These things are really not helpful and, in fact, really, really harm and hinder healthy grieving. So good grief is when we share grief, and we share it with people who are willing to be compassionate with us and listen to us. And as my daughter was growing up, I had to do a lot of telling people who encountered her about this piece of her history because it affected who she was and how she made friendships. Rather than hide it and try to pretend it wasn’t there impacting us. It was just so much more helpful for her, me, and every other Griever out there. To talk about it, share it, and go through it in the way we want to, we need to go through it as a Griever, not the way someone else tells us to do it because I learned that I was doing grief. Exactly right, exactly the way I was supposed to, but it took me a while to know that because other people were telling me something different.
Kristina: What do adults need to know about how their child could be grieving so that we can help them?
Michele: This is such a good question because, as I said, as adults, we want to protect our children. We don’t want to make the pain worse for them. So our tendency is sort of to ignore the topic, gloss over the topic, not talk to them about the topic, but the important thing to know is that whether we talk to a child about the loss or not, they are experiencing it. We’re not going to make them hurt more than they’re going to hurt all by themselves if we’re not giving them a chance to talk to us about it. You know, recognize that we understand what they’re going through. And often, kids don’t look like their grieving parents will often say, well, my child looks like they’re doing okay. Well, they probably do look like they’re doing okay, but it doesn’t mean that they are because kids, probably young kids like the ones that I work with, mostly process their grief through play. So it doesn’t look like they’re grieving, but they very much are, and older kids may just not really want to be talking about it. They may kind of close up. Or you may see it in behaviors that you’re not used to seeing a child who usually is, you know, as pretty even keel may start to be irritable. There may be some other behaviors that you see. Or you just may not see anything, but I can guarantee you that they’re grieving so, so that’s the thing parents need to know is that if your child has experienced a loss if your family has experienced a loss, whether your child is showing it or they’re experiencing it
Kristina: I find that also with other facets of something bothering a child, whether it’s anything from something small like failing an exam to something much bigger like, you know them getting molested or something horrible. Child, the children will express their feelings just so much different from what we expect them to. And that’s one of the things that parents need to be aware of is that it doesn’t look like what we think it’s going to look like and therefore sometimes it’s ignored because when they go, they’re doing fine. It seems like they’re doing great. I’m glad to have you reiterate that message because it’s just so important, much less than that ignoring it. My next question to you is, what about our own pain? Because part of ignoring, not always ignoring your child, you’re not ignoring them. But you know, saying, hey, they look like they’re doing great and I don’t want them to I don’t want to put all these big emotions on them. Because if I start to talk about it, I’m just gonna crumble right. And so how do you what do you say for parents?
Michele: As much as we don’t want our children to experience grief, the pain of it. They all do. Every child does. It’s not always a big, big thing. It’s not always the death of a sibling or a friend or parent. That may be something smaller. And what we need to do is help them through it and recognize that childhood is really the best time to learn about grief. We all, as parents, have opportunities to help our children learn about grief. And then to just be willing to have the conversation with them and show them how you’re experiencing it. That’s how they learned so much about life is by watching us, and they’re going to learn about grief that way. So the first thing that you need to do as a parent is to take care of yourself if you’re grieving. You need to take care of yourself. And you need to let your child know that you need to take care of yourself because, at the same time, you’re telling them they need to take care of themselves. And what you’re feeling is normal and natural, and mom or dad feels this. You know, too, when we have an experience like this. It’s important to take care of yourself, so it’s important to let kids know that this is normal and a natural way to feel.
Kids are feeling just like you feel. Maybe you don’t want your child to see the deepest of that pain. But if they do, what they need from you is just the assurance that yes, I feel this is the way I feel, but I’m still here for you. I’m still able to take care of our family; I’m still able to take care of you because that’s the thing that child’s going to worry about. And like I say, we don’t want this when my daughter is three and a half. I didn’t want that to be her life, but it was, and so we shared our grief, and she understood what my grief was. And as she’s grown older, we’ve continued to have conversations about how she grieved as an older person. It’s all been something that’s prepared her to be much more caring and empathetic and prepared adults because those of us who are afraid of grief, and I was before I had to face it this way. We are this way because the adults in our lives when we were growing up sheltered us from grief and didn’t teach us how to do it. And I tell my daughter, you have skills, and you understand things that I didn’t learn until I was in my 40s and had to tell her what it was like to, you know, to miss her brother and to have that pain as the mom so
Kristina: What’s so significant about a sibling loss compared to other losses. Because, I mean, it is different. So tell us a little bit more about why it’s different.
Michele: Sibling loss is the forgotten, the overlooked loss. I think you could talk to anyone who has a sibling who’s lost a sibling. Older siblings can articulate this to you that people would say, Oh, How’s your mom doing? How’s your dad doing? When I lost my child? There was a lot of support for me as a mom. They call it the worst loss. But I was an adult. I had resources. I had a skill set. My daughter didn’t have those things, and she was her. Her identity was crushed by the loss of her brother. And it wasn’t just that loss at that age. It was the fact that when we lose our sibling, we’re losing that person who would have been who would have shared our history who shared our past who would have shared all of our future who would have shared all of our family experiences, not all the same experiences but that you know that connectedness that we have as being part of a family, we live next door to a family of four children who were my children’s ages. My daughter grew up next door to them, with them supporting each other every time one had an issue or a problem if she ever had an issue with one of them. The other is we’re there for that child, but no one was there for her. I mean, they’re all of these parts of that sibling bond that the child loses. And yet that bond does continue. It does. It isn’t. It doesn’t go away.
My daughter had times in her life where she took comfort. Crazily, she took comfort from the fact that if her brother were alive, he would be here, so she hung on to that bond. An example of what I’m talking about is when she was in about first grade, she went to a new school, and she asked me what grade and her brother would be in if he were alive. And I said he’d be in fifth grade, and she said, Oh good. Then he’d be in my school. And she took a lot of comfort from that, and I thought, but you know, he’s not here. He’s not in your school. But in her mind, he was still her big brother, and he’d be at that school with her, and she wouldn’t be going into that school alone. And so, she carries that relationship forward with her. And as parents and other adults in their lives, we need to understand this about them because it creates a lot of secondary losses and all of the times that she didn’t have a sibling there when she should have. So it’s just extremely complex and really weaves through all the parts of their lives for the rest of their lives.
Kristina: I never thought of that before. And there’s I think a lot ever occurred to me that a sibling loss I mean, I know that it’s different. Um, but that it affects the child’s identity so much. I mean, it’s the difference between being maybe an only child or a middle child or the youngest or the oldest child. That’s identity shifting as a lot of that I just never occurred to me before, which is way different than then losing any other kind of family member.
Michele: Really, it is. I’ve got my hands on every book I can about sibling loss written by people who’ve studied sibling loss. Many of these written over the last 20 years weren’t there when I was looking for them. But when you talk to adults who lost a sibling when they were younger, they will share with you that they have this continuing bond with this sibling and regard it as a comforting thing as a good thing. So for those parents who don’t want to share, I’ve had some work with some parents who have had a stillbirth, for example, and one parent whose child died before the sibling was born. And they wonder you know about the sibling relationship. It’s still there because that is still a child who was in the family whether that living child knew their deceased sibling or not. There was this other child that was in the family. And so that that bond really does continue, and it’s regarded generally as a very positive thing. So when parents feel afraid to talk about this child, your child will never know. You know it. Don’t shy away from that. Share that with your child because it’s a part of your life, too.
Kristina: That was exactly the next question I was going to ask is the loss of a child in utero when your other children who are already born know of it, whatever, whatever reason, whether I I was just pregnant, and you told the family and then you lost your baby, or a stillbirth, as you mentioned, um, if there was still parallels and it does make sense um, that there is I’ve actually had also a loss of a child in utero and my two oldest children knew of it and they did they grieve the loss of having that sibling. Eventually, I gave them two more. So now I have four but even my younger children, who would have been younger than the one that I last asked about the one before them, and it’s really interesting how they really do they, they don’t just dismiss it even though they never knew that sibling, right still somehow a part of who they are and they want to know about them.
Michele: Yes. And it affects how you parent when a parent loses a child. You parent differently. You learn the reality of the mortality of a child. As a parent, there can be so much wrapped up in that, you know, just the fear that you could lose another child or perhaps guilt about why you lost this one because you’re supposed to protect your children. Many, many unreasonable feelings, but yet very real feelings. And so I think it’s just helpful for everyone to be able to talk about this and how it makes you feel it is for the parent who otherwise would want to sort of maybe put away this really sad, dark chapter in a way it’s liberating to just be able to be open about it. And the other thing that I just wanted to mention and talk about is the child who’s the only one because my daughter grew up by herself. And the question is, am I still a sibling? And the answer is yes, you are still a sibling. And I coined the term sibling by heart because there is this heart connection. There’s this golden thread. That’s never broken. And they are still siblings, but they’re siblings by heart. And that’s when you have five children as you do now, you know, they are siblings by heart with this child they never got to know.
Kristina: What ways can parents best support their grieving children?
Michele: Well, you know, it isn’t that difficult, and that’s the other message I want to give parents because grief is this overwhelming thing, which we’re just wary of it, afraid of it, you know, we want to avoid it. If you are experienced experiencing grief with your child, the first thing you can do for your child is take care of yourself. Because if you’re not taking care of yourself and what you need, then you’re not doing the best for your child. So that’s first and foremost the thing you need to do. Still, there are three other things that I would just share with all parents, because no matter what age your child is, and no matter what their grief is, I mentioned that every child experiences grief. You and I experienced grief in our earliest years. My first instance of grief that I remember was when and it was grief was when I was probably about four or five and a floating toy named Wally the walrus got away from me when I was on Lake of the Woods, which is a huge lake all you see is her his water and sky. He floated away. No one could get him. I had to stand helplessly on the beach and watch him float off to the horizon. And I remember to this day how I felt, and it was grief. And how would a parent typically how would my parents respond to that? They’d say, Oh, it’s just a toy. Go play with something else. Our children can experience all kinds of grief and what we do with those griefs when they experience them makes all the difference and first of all, talk about it with them. It may seem like a small thing. Mark Twain said in matters of grief, a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are griefs of equal size. So kids read smaller things than the things they’ll grieve when they’re adults. But we need to allow them to talk about how they feel. We need to have conversations when they’re harder griefs. We need to talk about it, and even if it’s hard for us, just let them know that it’s hard for us. So conversation, rather than being afraid of us about that, we’ve sort of talked about that already.
Another thing to be aware of is the piece I was talking about with the sibling bond. It’s really just something to remember with all griefs, and that’s the idea of what we call continuing bonds. When we lose something, it’s helpful and healing to continue connecting to it. If a family dog dies, or the goldfish named Goldie dies for you to allow your child to have a continuing bond with that loss. Bury the goldfish. Talk about the dog, why you love the dog, and why getting a new dog will not replace the old dog because the bond is with the old dog. You know, talking about the loved person in our life who died sharing memories speaking their names, this continuing bonds piece is so vital so that the loss and grief don’t become that elephant in the room. And the third thing that I would share is sort of what I’ve already been talking about, but it’s that idea of honoring grief when it happens. Your child, you know, got a pet grasshopper, they caught it, they put it in a jar they thought they had a pet the next day it’s dead, you know? Honor that grief they have over losing that grasshopper destined to die in captivity. You know that, but they don’t know that. So these are some of the ways that we just really can help children at any age recognize that we can talk about grief, that it’s normal and natural to feel what we feel and you know crimes okay silences okay talking so okay, but sharing it is what we need to do.
Kristina: So much wealth of information, and it doesn’t stop there because I hear you have a freebie for us called the credit do hurry. The guide tells us more about that and what people could get.
Michele: Yes, I encourage anyone who knows anyone with children. It will help you with four first steps, some of which I’ve talked about today give you some specific. I call them sound bites. When we talk about having conversations with kids. It’s like it’s good to say talk to them. But how do I talk to them? So some of those sound bites are in there. You know, talking about honoring grief, talking about how society tells us what grief is and how we instinctively know that maybe there’s a better way to do it. Get the good grief guide even if you don’t think you need it now because I hope you don’t ever need it. But it’s not just about the loss of a child. It’s about any loss, and so you will need it. Get it so that you have it to share it with people who need it. And certainly, if you know anyone who’s lost a child and has bereaved siblings, please share it with them. Especially go to my website. Good grief parenting.com and you can reach me there. You know if you would like to connect with me personally as well.
Kristina: Thank you so much for being on today. I really appreciate the help you’re giving to all different kinds of families. So thank you.
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