All of a sudden, my 5’5” teen looked and felt like a baby. He’s been taller than me for over a year and his voice is deeper than his fathers. But as I waited to pick him up from school with the news that one of his best friend’s father died, I felt like I was ripping a security blanket away from an infant. My son who likes to pretend he knows everything does that because in his world he DOES know everything! Now I have to tell him something he doesn’t know. My heart raced as he walked to the car and I felt like I was about to steal a piece of his childhood.
He knows people can die. We don’t shield him from the news. We don’t replace dead goldfish before he comes home from school. I share stories about my father who died when he was a baby. He knows I continue to grieve for my dad every day. But, the denial I employ to help myself feel safe that death can’t touch me and my family again is very real. So my child surely must not realize that death can touch his own sheltered life. Now I have to shatter his innocence and I am overcome with grief for him.
Not only do I have to tell him about this loss, but I also want to support him and help him support his friend. How is an adolescent boy supposed to know what to do? I worry he will be uncomfortable, that he will shy away from his friend, that he won’t talk to anyone about how he’s feeling.
He is quiet. He checks Instagram (for definitive confirmation?). “I want to go to his house. Now.” Well, he’s certainly not shying away. So we go. As do a handful of his friends. We arrive and there was probably 30 seconds of awkwardness when we first walked in and saw his friend. “Hey bro, I’m sorry.” “Thanks.” Not much eye contact happening. But then someone picked up a ping pong paddle and off they went.
Upstairs, adults were busy taking charge, making lots of decisions for the new widow. Answering the phone, cleaning up trash, making sure she had enough wine and sleeping pills, making funeral plans she may or may not have wanted done for her. Well-meaning people taking over the little control she has and making schedules, screening calls and questions, telling her what to wear, where extended family should stay, when to take a shower. But downstairs, the kids hang out, quieter than usual for sure, but allowing their friend to take the lead as they follow along. In between card games and ball tosses, he tells his friends about his father’s hobbies and the last vacation they took. The boys share memories of him as well. He tells them how he found out. He also talks about plans for school and his favorite college basketball team. They laugh. They talk. They sit in silence.
Hours later it’s time to go. These boys spontaneously go to their friend and hug him, kiss him, tell him they love him. Hold him. Say they will be back (and they will).
How wrong I had it! I was so worried that my own son won’t know what to do, or how to handle his own feelings. But they did exactly what they needed to do—for themselves and their friend. It’s the adults that needed help.
Imagine is a free year-round children’s grief support center that serves NJ children age 3-18 and young adults 18-30 who are grieving the death of a parent or sibling, or who are living with a parent of sibling with a life-altering illness. Imagine also provides grief education and training for thousands of teachers, parents, coaches, youth and other adults annually.
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