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This past Friday, the world lost a beautiful soul. Sue Mann was my daughter’s violin teacher and first introduced her to the violin at the tender age of 5 and gently guided her from “Twinkle Twinkle” to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D-Minor over the span of four years. My daughter met every week one on one with Sue for her private lesson, and then spent her Saturday mornings playing with the entire strings ensemble Magical Strings West. The tight-knit group has played together in concert locally as well as internationally.
My daughter was aware that Sue was dealing with cancer and with as much information as I was given via her Caring Bridge site, I filled Vivienne in on updates throughout the year. With the upheaval that ensued with the arrival of the pandemic, I suppose it didn’t seem to my 10-year old like such a great leap when Sue had to take a break from teaching. Without a blip in the radar, my daughter uneventfully switched over to Zoom lessons with a substitute teacher, one of Sue’s colleagues.
The last update we got from Sue was that she was undergoing chemo and then hopefully, surgery. She was ever the optimist with limitless inner strength and grit. I imagine the optimism in her posts is ultimately what left my daughter feeling blind-sided by her death. There was no gradual letting go. There was no saying goodbye. She truly thought she would see her teacher again, until the day she learned Sue had died.
When I broke the news to her, she handled it very matter-of-factly. She was more interested in the logistics of who would take over the music ensemble, who would be her violin teacher. She didn’t want to talk about it and she didn’t have any questions for me. I reached out to May, the director of Social-Emotional-Learning at my children’s school and she explained an analogy to me like this: “When kids eat an apple, they take many small bites, while attending to other things, and then return for another bite when they are ready for more. They will seem normal again and then think of something that might stir up more emotions. “ I took the advice to heart and didn’t push my daughter to talk and we had a fairly typical weekend.
Yesterday morning (five days later), we received the surprising news via email that her ballet teacher of the last two years (who my daughter sees five days a week usually for two hours at a time) had given notice and would be leaving in 9 days. The school had already hired her replacement. My daughter had just seen her teacher on Sunday for a private lesson, and there was no mention of her plans to leave the school. I understand it is up to each person (or sometimes the contract they are bound to) to decide how much to divulge, but at only a decade old, my daughter felt misled and once again blindsided. After 20 minutes of stunned silence, she sat down at the breakfast table and just broke down in tears and quickly retreated to her room. I quickly put food on the table for my sons and ran upstairs to find the floodgates had opened and her grief pouring out. “Why are my teachers all leaving me?” She tearfully asked. I tried to gently explain to her how life changes and as one thing ends, it makes room for new beauty to come into our lives.
Over the years, I have spoken with experts, read books, had many conversations with friends who have dealt (or more precisely are still dealing) with grief, and reflected on personal experience as a mother of three. Here is what I have learned works to help support children. I thought I would share them since this entire year has been filled with such heavy loss.
Allow Them to Grieve in Their Own Way
I was heavily impacted by the news of Sue’s death and I couldn’t hold back the tears as I conveyed the news to my daughter. Her response was so unemotional, I was left wondering if she cared! But, as I mentioned above, children take little bites that they can handle, and their grief looks very different from an adult’s. The majority of the day, children may appear completely unaffected, but also expect that their feelings and behavior can and will turn on a dime in a myriad of directions. Anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, etc. are all fair game. And then, just as quickly, children will return to laughter. Laughter and play are important *breaks* in grief for children, so do not misinterpret it as their not being impacted.
Let Them Say Goodbye and Give Them Choices
As I wrote above, I think part of my daughter’s grief with Sue’s death was feeling that she never got to say goodbye. I would have liked that too. All mamas want to shield their children from pain and suffering, but in doing so, we may inadvertently send them the message that we don’t believe that they are strong enough to handle the situation. Additionally, children may feel deceived or misled if we hide or sugar-coat the truth.
Next Saturday is the Zoom memorial service for Sue, and some of the parents of Magical Strings are organizing a recording of the children playing a piece to accompaniment to edit together and show at the service. I asked my daughter to run through the piece a few times to familiarize herself with the accompaniment before we recorded it at home, but she refused. When we started to record, she played half-heartedly. I stopped the session and reminded her this was a way to honor and remember her teacher, but if she did not want to participate, that was perfectly okay too. I gave her the choice to participate or not. Though she didn’t answer me right then, but this morning I heard her practicing the piece on her own. This past week, she has felt a lack of control in her life; a feeling that so much was happening around her and to her that she had no say in. So, I am consciously giving her as many choices as possible. I backtracked even further and gave her the choice whether to attend the service or not and also whether to participate or not.
And while her ballet teacher’s leaving does not have the same permanence, some moms at the ballet school have decided to compile a scrapbook where each child gets their own page to decorate, write, express feelings and in a way, say goodbye.
Answer Their Questions As Honestly As Possible
This is a piece of parenting advice my friend Art gave to me over 10 years ago when my three-year-old asked me where babies come from. And it’s the same advice I followed when our dear family friend was diagnosed and then died from brain cancer at just 10 years old, the same advice I followed when Daddy was hit by a car while bicycling, and the same advice I will continue to follow. Of course, answers need to be age-appropriate as my then 3year-old was not asking for a biology lesson in human reproduction. But I stuck to the basics and importantly, I used the correct anatomical vocabulary. Accurate vocabulary is true for all scenarios. Using phrases like “lost my friend” or “passed away” can confuse young children and they need to understand the concreteness and finality of death to avoid confusion or more hurt.
This was not an easy blog to write, but I hope in some way it can help you and your child(ren) navigate grief. Just try your best to give honest, thoughtful answers and remember, it’s ok if your answer is, “I don’t know. “ Show empathy, and give them a judgement-free safe place to express their feelings and thoughts. And lastly, don’t be afraid to seek outside support/counseling if you feel you are in over your head. Our children are resilient and strong and capable and with support and help from us, they will emerge stronger and wiser.
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