As parents, we want to comfort our kids when they're in pain ... but it might be more helpful to give them space to feel sad.
The weirdest school year has officially come to a close around the nation. Summer — usually eagerly anticipated and much celebrated — has arrived with little fanfare and even less joy. Most schools did the best they could to give their students some sense of closure and celebration, knowing full well that their students have been separated from their peers and teachers during these three long months of distance-learning.
While I deeply appreciate the teachers’ motives, the drive-by parades and car-side farewells seemed only to deepen the lingering sense of unreality, strangeness, and grief that has enveloped us all since March. My kids put on brave faces, smiling and waving at their teachers, but as soon as we drove off school grounds those masks slipped away and tears filled their eyes.
I wanted to comfort them, but anything I said would have rung false. After all, my own eyes had been teary since the second we drove onto school property. Instead, I said what was true and what we all knew, “Guys, this is so sad.” They agreed, vigorously nodding their heads and wiping tears away only to have more take their place. We spent the rest of the day in the weird haze of grief that’s been lingering on the periphery during quarantine. Now it enveloped us fully as the unshakable truth of loss finally sank in.
Yes, we’re all healthy. No one in our family lost their job. I am immeasurably grateful for how blessed we are to have come through this intact, but none of us are unscathed. Not in my family, and probably not in yours.
I truly believe pushing down grief and forcing my children to only focus on the positives would do them a disservice. They lost so many things in these few short months — each of them had rites of passage they lost … forever. Friendships were put on pause, sports were canceled, and the joy and light of spring was wrenched from 2020.
So instead of trying to comfort them, I spent the first weekend of summer leaning into grief with them. I asked them to tell me what they missed most in these three months – which friends’ absence they felt the most keenly, which class’s abrupt Zoom pivot was the hardest, which end of school tradition they were the saddest over having lost. My goal wasn’t to teach them to wallow – I know exactly how many ways wallowing takes a person backwards, not forward. But I did want to acknowledge their feelings of loss and grief. These feelings are real, and the gratitude we have for being healthy and employed does not and should not diminish sadness over things lost.
Holding both gratitude and grief in our minds and hearts is important in developing emotional intelligence and resilience. After all, no one bounces back from a loss by stuffing their emotions down and pretending they never happened in the first place. That’s just white-knuckling it, and I don’t want my kids to live that way. So I made space for their grief and for their sadness, and I let them fill that space with anything and everything they needed to.
To be honest, I wasn’t certain this was the best strategy. Part of me instinctively wanted to be positive, look at the bright side, focus on plans for the future in an effort to just forget this whole mess of a spring. But I’ve learned from experience that trying to ignore grief only compounds it—we have to face it sooner or later. So I chose sooner.
As it turns out, it ended up being a healing experience for all of us. Letting my kids be sad and express their sadness while acknowledging the legitimacy of their emotions did bring us all some measure of peace. They seemed to learn (much more easily than I have) that once you give yourself permission to be sad, your only choice from there is to move forward.
And move forward they did. They started talking about summer bike rides and trips to the library and sleepovers with friends with zero prompting from me. They begin to look forward to the beginning of next school year with more glee and anticipation than I’ve ever seen, relishing the idea of swapping quarantine stories with their friends. My daughter in particular can’t wait to tell her classmates about the Zoom presentation where she unexpectedly turned the camera my direction and I, in my pajamas and un-showered at 11 a.m., dove under the table and huddled there for the rest of the 10-minute presentation.
I know it’s hard to see our kids in pain and it goes against our instincts not to comfort them or distract them from that pain, but I think it’s important that we as parents take some time to let them grieve over this surreal year—and to let ourselves grieve as well. It’s like cleaning the poison from a wound— we need to do it in order to feel true gratitude for the experiences we had during quarantine, and all the experiences we will have in the future.