My husband and I sat stupefied in the bleached, freezing emergency bay at the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. We gazed in horror and disbelief at the jumbled wires hooked up to our newborn son, steadily marching to the staccato drumbeat of the machines, breathing for him, beating his weak and damaged heart. These machines were keeping him alive. We were blindsided when the maternity ward doctors discovered his life-threatening heart defects two days after he was born.
When I had each of my babies, my maternal instincts had immediately kicked into overdrive as I anxiously sought to eliminate any potential threats to the well-being of my precious new baby. No germs! No loud noises! No pollutants! Don't touch the baby's face! Seeing my son like this was almost too much to bear.
In those agonizing days my mind was laser-focused. Not just on the well-being of my son, but also on my two little girls at home. We knew that new babies bring special challenges to their older siblings, as the big brothers and sisters try to adjust to a new normal and a new star of the show. We had already taken steps to prepare my son's older sisters for the arrival of a new baby and stave off potential behavioral repercussions. We had carefully planned the choreography of the little one's entry into our home and family.
But we were not prepared for this.
Unprepared for Trauma
Because we were helpless to do anything but sit and wait for the experts to do their work, I focused on what I could control. My mind kept returning to my girls. I knew they were anxious for us to return home. I knew they were confused; we had told them hours earlier that we would be home by now. I knew they were expecting us to come home with the baby boy they had cradled in the hospital with ambivalence. Now what would we tell them?
I had a PhD, a body of research focused on childhood trauma and recovery, and a decade of clinical experience helping kids deal and heal, yet I was now at a total loss. It was as if I spent half of my life preparing for and helping others navigate terrain such as this, but when it was my turn, I froze. It is true that there are simply things in life you can never prepare for, no matter how hard you work.
When life sends us events for which we could have never prepared, we seek help. Some of us seek advice from a friend or trusted professional, some of us turn to an "expert" to guide us, some of us spend hours down the Internet rabbit hole hoping for a morsel of information to quell our anxieties or give us hope. What would have been helpful for me at the time was a guidebook: utterly clear, straightforward instructions to help me put one foot in front of the other. I was desperate for something which required no synthesis, no analytical thinking, no equivocation; I hardly had the mental and emotional capacity in that time of crisis to feed myself, much less to think critically about blog posts and WebMD articles and tips from dubious Internet sources.
Thank goodness our son survived and is healthy. And now that I'm two years from that experience, I've gained some perspective. I've had the clarity and the mental space to indeed spend many hours looking at the research, contemplating real-life accounts from those with hard-won insight, exploring my own kids' unique developmental needs. I still don't have all the answers, but I have become increasingly aware that no one does. Not experts, not the Internet, not trusted professionals. Each brush with trauma, each loss carries its own unique exquisite pain and commands its own individual reaction.
Nevertheless, I know now from my research and experience that there is consensus among experts and parents about a few basic tried and true tenets for helping kids cope with grief, loss and change. I've boiled them down for my own personal use with my children, for the next crisis, big or small, that will inevitably occur. It occurred to me that this is helpful for me, it might be helpful for you, too.
A Practical Guide
I call it my Guide on How to Help Kids Cope With a Broken Heart. I wish I had had this guide when our family was coping with our son's broken heart, and I believe the tenets extend to help us help kids in all kinds of different circumstances cope with their own broken hearts. Over the next twelve posts, I will be exploring each of these tenets and the concrete ways they can be used to help children in times of pain. I hope you will find it helpful, I would love to hear if you do or if you don't, and I wish you and your family peace.
Guide on How to Help Kids Cope With a Broken HeartJoin me in my exploration of each of these tenets via this blog where I explore concrete ways you can help kids cope.
- Kids seek validation.
- Kids feel guilty.
- Kids struggle to understand.
- I: Wrapping a Mind Around Death
- II: Talking with Kids About Death
- Kids tell their stories.
- Kids feel real pain.
- Kids crave ritual.
- I: Commemorate Change
- II: Should Kids Attend Funerals?
- III: Kids Need a Ceremony
- Kids experience fear.
- Kids collect mementos.
- Kids are still kids.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.