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Listening to a Child's Heart

June 16, 2008 - I roll over and look at the time. It's 6:45 a.m. I am shocked that my daughters, aged 1 and 3 years aren't awake yet. This seriously never happens, one of them is always up at 4:00 a.m. I take advantage and happily go back to wonderful sleep. 

7:45 a.m. - The doorbell rings, and I am annoyed for two reasons: 1) I have to get up now, and 2) YOU WOKE UP THE KIDS! I open the door. There's two police men and my parents standing behind them. All I remember is my dad saying, "It's not good." In that moment I somehow knew what had happened...before the police could even say the words. I collapsed. And that's the last thing I remember happening for the rest of that day. 

My husband had taken his motorbike to work that day and got into an accident. He blew through a stop sign and t-boned a truck. That day, I was abruptly left alone with two small children. That day, my whole world was turned upside down. I cannot even begin to describe the emptiness I felt, the loneliness, the heartache, the anger, the stress. The days that followed are a blur, although there are a few things that stick out in my mind. I remember telling my 3 year old that her dad had died and was in heaven. I remember her response was, "The angels are so lucky to get to have him." I remember my friends and family couldn't believe how strong I was, and yet they had no idea that I couldn't take a shower or do laundry without completely falling apart all over again. They didn't know that my nights consisted of two things, crying or vividly dreaming about the accident.

The year that followed true hell on earth. I felt like my soul was falling apart. My focus was to take care of the kids, but I was not taking care of my own heart. I was on the path of complete self-destruction. During the tail-end of that year, my dad said to me in his very Saskatchewan farmer way, "you have two choices right now. You can "auger in" (meaning I could continue to spiral) or you can move forward and bring yourself back up." That was a turning point for me. From that moment forward, my journey became one of healing, compassion and determination to help others dealing with loss.

This new path led me to a career in funeral service. I went to back school, eventually becoming a licensed funeral director. I am so grateful to have been a part of so many grieving journeys, and I have unleashed a profound strength and purpose with helping families who are in crisis. It truly is an honor and humbling to be invited into someone's heart when they are at their absolute worst.  

I write about my "heart story" because I have discovered some powerful truths about grief and loss, both personally and professionally. I truly feel that if we can learn how to overcome our own losses, we can also teach our children how to do that too. I believe in giving our children the tools they need to overcome their losses, not only for them to use in the present, but also the future.

I have learned that children are immensely intuitive. They have a way of reading hearts and emotions unlike any other, and are full of empathy and love. Children feel things that us adults may not even realize they are capable of feeling. Working as a funeral director, I was drawn to the children that would come into the funeral home for arrangements, and I would always make a point to give them some extra attention. Sometimes I would color with them in my office, occasionally I would take them for a "fun" tour of the funeral home, other times I would run up and down the empty funeral chapel isle with them. Children are often left out of the funeral arrangements and the funeral itself, and I commonly see children standing in a corner by themselves at funerals. And in all honesty, this isn't necessarily anyone's fault! Funerals can be chaotic, stressful and emotional to say the least. Children will often choose to step away from all that stress! 

I have learned that most children are deeply impacted one way or another about the loss of a loved one, but will sometimes stuff down all their emotions because they see the people around them falling apart. Emotional turmoil and confusion is often present in these situations, and when a child feels that expressing certain emotions is not appropriate, there is a potential risk of them bottling all those emotions up. Here are a couple examples: If a child observes people laughing at a funeral, they may feel silly to cry or show sadness. Or, if a child observes everyone around them crying, but that child doesn't feel really sad, they may feel guilt about not being upset like everyone else. Grief is expressed in so many ways, this is just a few of the many examples of what can come up.

So how can we help children when a death has occurred? There are many ways to help a grieving child, and I think we can agree that most all of us as parents want to help our children any way we can. In my experience, I've discovered that learning to listen to children is important. Really important. Not the kind of listening that involves our ears, but listening to their hearts. When I sit and listen to my kids talk, I have learned to ask myself the question, "What are their hearts saying?" The answer to that question is vastly different than the answer to, "Why are they behaving/thinking/feeling that way?" 

And this is true for adults, too. After experiencing my loss, I was always asking myself, "Why am I behaving this way? What's wrong with me? Why am I feeling this way? Why can't I move forward?" My answers to those questions were always, "Because your husband died. Because you are all alone raising two kids. Because you are grieving." When I started asking myself what my heart was really telling me, I began to realize that my heart needed to break free from the deep hurt. I needed to let go of the anger and frustration. I needed to start healing myself. I needed to keep the memories, but let go of the pain. 

Once we begin listening to our children's hearts (and our own hearts), what begins to unfold is understanding, healing and connection, joy and purpose. It takes a lot of time, it takes patience, but when faced with pain we can choose to "auger in" or grow, learn and overcome deep hurt.

- The Widowed Funeral Director