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Helping Children Deal with Loss

  • Cheryl McGuinness Author and Speaker
  • 2005 9 Sep
Helping Children Deal with Loss

In her recent book Beauty Beyond the Ashes (Howard Publishing) Cheryl McGuinness discusses principles of dealing with loss in the context of faith after losing her husband, pilot Tom McGuinness, in the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. Here's an excerpt from Chapter seven.

Many people ask me, "What advice do you have for parents who are helping their children deal with loss?" Of course, my own experience involves the death of my children's father. But most of what I've learned can apply to other kinds of loss too. Here are four points:

1. Take Care of Yourself. I've learned that I can't give what I don't have. If I'm physically exhausted, emotionally spent, and spiritually drained, I can't be of any help to my children. But where does a single mom find the time to take care of herself? That's the question I struggle with as I try to balance the speaking requests I receive with the needs of my kids. I feel called to take advantage of the opportunities that God is giving me to share my story. And of course, I need to provide financially for our family. At the same time, I need to be present for my children.

I've learned to ask questions such as, "Do I really need to do this?" "Can I drop this activity?" "How can I slow down and enjoy this day?" "When can I schedule a physical with my doctor?" "When can I get some time away with the Lord?" The answers to these questions have required some creativity on my part and a willingness to think outside the box and change the way I've been doing things.

I've had to be deliberate about plugging time into my schedule just for me. I used to think that doing something meaningful and nurturing for myself required setting aside a big chunk of time. Now I know that even a little time to myself is helpful. An hour sitting in a beautiful spot with nothing to do but rest is wonderful. So is taking a walk on the beach or soaking in a bubble bath. And this may sound like an old song, but I've found it helpful to get back to the basics of eating well and exercising. I'm back to working out most mornings, and I feel much better for it.

2. Balance your own needs with the needs of your children. There's a delicate balance between caring for yourself in a healthy way and caring for yourself in a way that neglects the needs of your children. As I learned with Jennifer and Tommy, their loss was as great as mine, and its impact was multiplied by their youth. They didn't have the resources of maturity I had to deal with the pain. They relied on me to be their source of strength and support.

That's why, in the early days after 9/11, I declined invitations to be a guest on various talk shows. I felt strongly that my children needed me to be at home with them more than I needed to be on television. They needed the security of my presence to help them adjust to a loss they could not understand.

3. Teach your children to have an eternal perspective. For children, the loss of a parent is devastating. That's why it's vital for kids to understand the difference between physical death and eternal spiritual life. From the beginning, I tried to teach Jennifer and Tommy to have an eternal perspective -- the kind that looks beyond the grave and sees heaven. The loss of a loved one who knows Jesus is only a temporary loss! Tommy and Jennifer know they will see their dad again in heaven. Anticipating that reunion gives them great joy.

4. Provide structure. After a loss, life is chaotic. I know. Months go by with little thought of reestablishing a normal routine. Eventually any anticipation of a return to normal is replaced by the realization that your family will never again be normal the way it used to be. A new normal has to evolve.

As I began to heal from my grief and pain, I began to establish a new normal for Jennifer, Tommy, and me. Part of that new normal involved establishing new routines and a new structure for the family. I didn't try to replicate life as it used to be, but I did fondly incorporate the past in the context of an evolving present. I realized we were still a family -- a new family with new challenges and new opportunities. The new routines and structure provided security for Jennifer and Tommy as they struggled to feel safe in their new world.

Excerpted from Beauty Beyond the Ashes: Choosing Hope after Crisis © 2004 by Cheryl McGuinness. Used by permission of Howard Publishing Co. All rights reserved.