Connecting with Children in Need of Mourning
I was experiencing mixed emotions in anticipation of the day both my children stopped believing in Sinterklaas. On the one hand, I didn’t want the joy, the excitement, the “magic” to end for them. On the other hand, I was looking forward to the day I could have far more honest conversations with them, experience less pressure concerning filling their shoes AND to give them something they can like/enjoy while contributing to their health. Overall, I was fearful that connecting with them around the loss of a childhood tradition would be difficult.
So it happened recently. My youngest child came home from school looking down. She didn’t want to talk about it at first, probably doubting if she should say anything at all (“Why not milk it this one last season?” her older brother asked her). Yet, she’s not skilled in hiding her feelings (which I’m quite happy about), so after my third inquiry as to how she was doing, she broke down into tears. And I don’t mean a few – they flowed off and on for the majority of the afternoon.
I’m so very grateful my Nonviolent Communication (NVC) training has taught me to use empathy in such moments – that connecting with what’s going on is an amazing way to stay engaged with each other. There were two primary things her sweet soul expressed that afternoon:
- disappointment that something so meaningful to her had just disappeared out of her life, and
- hurt that she had been lied to for the past eight years.
Before learning NVC, I would have likely responded to both of these messages by giving her a healthy dose of perspective, like this:
- “But darling, we’ll still celebrate with family and have fun – just without the sack of presents at the door!”
- “Oh sweetheart, aren’t you glad you experienced it at all? Wasn’t our lying to you worth all the fun and excitement?”
I imagine had I said these things, she wouldn’t have felt the slightest bit better. Likely she would have experienced that I didn’t understand her at all, and her pain would have been worse. So here’s how I responded instead:
- “Are you really, really sad that Sinterklaas doesn’t exist? Do you miss him already? Does it hurt to know he won’t be coming to our house again?”
- “Does it make you scared to know that we lied to you, and maybe you wonder if we lie to you about other things? Would you like to hear from me about this?”
The first round took a while. With each new empathic guess I made, she nodded her head hard and cried – there were many waves of sadness. Until at one point, she seemed to pass through her mourning and reached a point of acceptance, ready to talk about what comes next. I was really happy that I gave her the space to mourn, because I think that was her biggest need of all.
The second issue was also important, but took far less time. She seemed relieved to hear that I understood and was ready to give her reassurance about how much we value honesty and from now on, we wish to speak as honestly as we can with her.
Our Sinterklaas celebration hasn’t happened yet, and already, I know that this connecting experience with my daughter will be the sweetest gift I’ll receive.