On Children's Love and Grief

It can be scary to see how deeply our children feel. Caring deeply is such a set-up for getting hurt. It's so easy to identify with them and want to protect. If I've experienced that kind of hurt myself and never want to experience it again, I can't stand seeing them set themselves up for it.

The obvious protection is to counsel them not to care too much, particularly when they're pouring it out on something that seems silly or insignificant. If they're heart-broken over the breaking of a cheap little plastic toy, I want to explain why it's not that big a deal. I'm glad to warn them against getting deeply attached to a bug that's bound to die, one I would have a hard time imagining loving anyway.

But if I listen to my words in those "silly" or "insignificant" cases, is this what I really want to communicate to my children? "Don't hope, don't love; you'll just get hurt." I don't think so. The problem is not in the caring, which is good, but in knowing what to do with the pain, which can be excruciating.

For "big" losses, we're allowed to grieve. When a loved one dies, everyone would agree that "It's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all." We expect the huge outbursts of grief at these times; we even worry if they don't come. We just think that "little" losses should be able to be handled differently. But they're really just the same. It's not the size or value or importance of the object, but the depth of our loving that brings the depth of our grief.

So, I try to withhold judgment and just encourage that love, knowing that there may be tears down the road. I try not to be taken aback at the depth of the grief.

When my eldest's little tiny itsy-bitsy shrimp died (they weren't as large as houseflies), he was absolutely heart-broken. I remembered all this good thinking, took a deep breath and decided to take it as seriously as the death of a dearest friend. And he cried and cried and cried. I think it was my attitude--that this was real and important and big--that allowed him to grieve so fully. Each time he stopped crying, I'd test whether he was really done by calling his attention once more to the fact that the shrimp really were dead, and saying what a good lover he was and how much I loved him for that, and he would cry and cry some more.

After half an hour or forty-five minutes, he seemed to be done, but still wanted to be close to me, so I took him to my meeting (for which I was late by now), still operating on the decision to take this situation totally seriously. He stayed close and sad for a little while, but pretty soon was ready to turn his attention elsewhere. Since then, when the shrimp have come up in conversation, his tone has been very matter of fact And he hasn't stopped giving his heart away to little animals--so something was right.

I'll probably never know how much he was grieving for the shrimp (which I, from my adult perspective, still can't believe he loved that much), and how much he was using my unusually open and accepting attitude to cry about other accumulated griefs that hadn't had a place to come out.

But I do know that I want to give my children the chance to grieve about everything that they love and lose--to keep them willing to love as fully and deeply as they know how.