Won’t raising the issue make it worse, people ask me. They know someone who is dealing with loss, perhaps grieving the death of someone close, and they aren’t even sure whether to mention the deceased person’s name.
After leading a team that has spent roughly 450,000 hours with grieving kids, here’s my advice: say the name of the person who died. Make space for those around you to grieve. Invite the memories and the feelings, the silly ones and the hard ones.
This holiday season, especially, we’re encouraging people to talk about grief, and offering to help. I’d also like to provide one example of how the conversations might go, so I sat down with Serra Falk Goldman, whose husband and daughter died in an accident in 2017, leaving her to raise her 8-year-old son, George, on her own. I got to know Serra after George began attending Experience Camps for grieving kids, the organization that I lead.
Sara Deren (SD): I’ve been thinking about you lately, and how different the holidays must be, particularly during the pandemic. How are you doing?
Serra: It means a lot that you’d ask. Big picture, I’m managing. But, when a parent dies, the surviving parent faces a lot of pressure. Grief is exhausting. The pandemic has been exhausting. The combination of the two is particularly hard. At times, it can feel suffocating.
SD: So has the pandemic shifted your experience of grief?
Serra: Before the pandemic, we couldn’t help but notice the two empty seats at the table. Even if there were 100 people in the room, all we’d notice is the gap. I think people dealing with Covid may be feeling that right now. Yes, they will celebrate the holidays with immediate family, and they want to be grateful. But, for many, all they may notice are the people who aren’t there, whether grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins or even close friends and neighbors.
SD: It sounds like you’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Those thoughts and feelings can be hard to process for yourself as a person. What about for you as a parent?
Serra: Well, as a parent, you’re only as happy as your least happy child. And it’s harder to process your own grief when you’re stuck at home, schools are closed, and you’re also the lunch lady, cleaning lady, and math tutor. Early on, I made a rule that I had to leave the house twice a day. It was a coping mechanism so I wouldn’t just curl up into a ball. Now, there are days when I still practice what I learned during the worst of my grief.
Some days are really hard, really long. When my daughter was in the hospital, I’d tell myself to just get to 11:00 am. At 11:00, I’d think that I just get to 4 pm. Then, just get to bed.
SD: So, you’re saying that the pandemic reminds you of grief?
Serra: Absolutely. In grief, you’re walking through a heavy thick fog and you can’t escape. It’s exhausting, and the smallest thing can seem so overwhelming. Covid-19 has been that way, too. Going to the grocery store is a whole project. Going to the post office can feel like climbing up an invisible hill. And, both Covid-19 and death alter your sense of security, and in both cases, we don’t have good answers about what’s happening, why, or even whether things will ever feel normal again.
SD: That’s a big expectation, for things to feel “normal.”
Serra: It is! People don’t talk much about grief, and so it’s an unknown territory. When a child experiences grief, it shakes their safety and security in the world. And, as they reach new developmental milestones every year, they re-process the grief and have a new perspective on their loss. It’s also a loss of what you thought life would be like, which again is like Covid-19. For so many people right now, things aren’t what they expected or wanted, and that gets old fast.
SD: So, what do you do?
Serra: We need to be patient with ourselves. We’re all pretty hard on ourselves as it is, and grief makes it harder. Maybe you’re not ready to go to an event. Well, that’s just the way it has to be because we need to take care of ourselves. Try to get sleep, and make your life as stable as possible. George uses his coping skills from camp. He knows to go outside, play with the dog, do something that makes him happier. Resilience is a muscle, and the more you exercise the better you get.
SD: That’s a wise perspective.
Serra: Perspective-taking is so helpful. For George, being at camp around other kids who have lost a parent or sibling is a huge sense of relief because he gets to be “normal,” like other kids. It also helps to know that there are a lot of kids who experience this. It’s easy to think that what happened to you is the worst thing that ever happened. But, every story is horrible in its own way, whether it’s cancer, an accident, suicide. Other people are grieving too.
SD: This year, even more people are grieving. What would you say to them?
Serra: From the moment someone dies, everyone has an opinion for you. When you’re in the shell shock of grief, it’s hard to know what to do. You wonder, where’s the rule book and how do I follow it? There is no rule book. Listen to all the ideas and do what you think is best for you and your child. Be confident in whatever grief decisions you make. Someone may tell you to make space for quiet moments, but silence isn’t always the most positive for grieving kids. You don’t need a beautiful sunset to put your life in perspective. Don’t do it unless you want to.
SD: All those opinions are so well-intentioned. What advice do you have for those who know someone who is grieving?
Serra: I’m inspired by the kids you work with, who are good at knowing what not to say. They acknowledge emotions, they don’t sugar-coat it and at least at camp, it isn’t taboo. If people talked about grief, it would free all of us in one way or another. Talking about grief is protective. The moms of my daughter’s friends email me when their kids share a story about my daughter, Marie. We talk about her and my husband, Bill, all the time. You don’t need to have experienced grief to comfort a friend who is grieving.
SD: It sounds like your community is pretty powerful.
Serra: It’s your community that saves you and lifts you up when you can’t get up on your own. My community made sure my bills got paid, that we had clean underwear in the hospital, and planned the funerals.
SD: We’re seeing some of that community spirit during the pandemic, as well.
Serra: If you can’t make it to the market, someone else can do it. That’s why camp works, too. It provides a rallying cry and sense of community, so kids don’t feel as alone. Grief is a very lonely feeling. The secret to surviving grief is connection, is being able to talk about it. That’s what it is to be human. We’re all in this together.
SD: We are. And thank you for being here with me today and sharing your experiences with others. Hopefully hearing your story will help others feel less alone.