Helping Children Cope with Loss and Heartbreak

Posted by on May 23, 2011 in Thoughts | 4 comments

Today’s post is the continuation of a series of essays focused on coping with heartbreak. The first part dealt with understanding heartbreak, the second provided some thoughts on how we can cope with our own heartbreak. Today’s piece is a guest post on helping our children cope with heartbreak. I am most grateful to Amy Hillis for sharing her own tale of loss and heartbreak in bringing us this piece.

Almost four months ago, my youngest son passed away.

He was eight and a half months old.

He and I had spent the five months leading up to his death in the PICU of Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center Hospital. Five very long months, that I spent away from the rest of my family. I have three older sons at home, Jacob (8), Jonathan (6) and Zachary (3). I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband works nights.

It was a difficult time for everyone.

The boys were trying to make sense of David being so sick that I needed to be away from them for such a long time.

Thank goodness my mother-in-law was able to step in and keep some semblance of normalcy going while I was gone. I firmly believed that their memories of David should be kept to the three months we had him home with us, as a complete family.

I did not have them visit David during his hospitalization. I had a room at the Ronald McDonald House across the street from the hospital and the boys came to visit me there.

Many people thought I should have spent more time at home (my husband included) leaving the care of my mostly unconscious infant son to the nurses.

I disagreed.

As it became more and more apparent that David would  never come home to be with his older brothers, I spent all my of energy and attention on the youngest member of the family. It was the only thing I could do for him.

It’s part of what makes us mothers. The need to take care of our children.

It was this very need that drove me in the early days after his death.

I had to take care of my other children, regardless of the pain and sorrow I felt.

I had to guide my boys through the heartbreak of losing their brother.

In the early days, all three boys were very clingy and stayed close to me. Zachary, especially would cry when I left the room and insisted that I sleep with him. I’m not sure how much of this behavior was grief or fear I would leave again.

Either way, even at three, he knew our world had shifted and would never be the same.

My mother-in-law had told the boys early on that David was sick but that he’d get better. While the older boys understood that David was gone, permanently, Zachary didn’t. He would say things like “Davy’s sick, but he’ll get better” and “he’ll come home when he’s better”.

It was those conversations that were the most difficult.

Sometimes I couldn’t answer him, sometimes I would try to explain that David wasn’t coming home. I’ve never used the term We lost David or likened death to sleep. I didn’t want my very literal 3 year-old to think this was going to happen to him. Eventually he became less clingy. I no longer need to sleep with him at night and he doesn’t talk about David too much anymore. For a 3 year-old, out of sight is truly out of mind.

Jonathan on the other hand, was very matter-a-fact, saying things like “David’s dead, he’s not coming back” or “my brother died, we buried him in the ground.”

I had to have a long talk with him about what is and what isn’t appropriate to say.

I impressed upon him that while these statements were true, they were not very respectful. We discussed respect and why choosing words is important.

I encouraged him to choose words that weren’t as blunt, especially when talking about David’s death to other 6 year-old’s. He showed me a lot of anger when I first came back, he was very moody and if things didn’t go his way, he’d say I didn’t love him and I was mean.

Jonathan has spent a considerable amount of time in the hospital, he had a liver transplant at 9 months old. I think he felt jealous that I had spent so much time away with David. Something I used to do for him.

Fortunately this has subsided. Like Zachary, he rarely talks about David.

Jacob is my sensitive child. He feels the ups and downs of the world deeply.

At 8, he struggles to be the big brother. He doesn’t understand that he is the role model, the standard by which the younger boys base their actions.

For him coping with the loss of David meant talking about him. He asked me a lot of questions. Many about why he had to die. Why couldn’t the doctors do anything to make him better? Most of his questions were the same questions I struggled with.

I answered each as honestly as I could. Some questions simply have no answers.

We listen to a lot of music in our house and I had created a play-list of songs that were comforting to me. He listened to my play-list of emotion-filled songs and learned them all by heart. He and I found music to be very cathartic and we bonded over our mutual love of music.

I think with Zachary and Jonathan the fact that they don’t talk about David is simply because he has become an abstract concept. He was in the house for a very short time, only 3 months.  Between the hospital stay and the time since his death, he’s been out of their lives a full nine months. I think in many ways they have already grieved his loss, starting last August, when he actually entered the hospital.

I became complacent with Jacob, though.

I thought as time moved forward that his grief would subside, much like the younger boys.

I thought the fact that Jacob no longer asked questions or asked to listen to the play-list meant that he was coping well.

I was wrong.

David’s first birthday would have been May 11, just a few days past Mother’s Day. The week or so before Mother’s Day, Jacob started complaining of random stomach aches. He started going to the nurses office at school. I even had the nurses office call home and question whether he had been having issues outside of school.

It finally dawned on me that he was struggling with his grief. I explained to the school nurse about David and the significance of the week and she agreed with my assessment.

Jacob and I had a very long, very emotional talk on the night of David’s birthday. He told me he still felt sad, especially during school.

I explained that it was okay to feel sad, that I was still incredibly sad and it was okay to cry. It was okay to ask to talk to someone at school and he was always welcome to talk to me.

I think he could sense that I was holding on to my own grief. I tried not to break down in front of the boys but maybe that wasn’t protecting them like I thought.

Maybe it was having the opposite effect – if mom doesn’t cry and talk about David’s death than I can’t cry and talk about David either.

Jacob hasn’t had any more stomach aches or trips to the school nurse.

I’ve been playing our play-list and he’s been singing along. I cleared a space in one of our flower beds for a small memorial for David. Jacob had lugged a big rock home from the park and I used it as a focal point. We even wrote David’s name on it.

Jacob was happy to have his rock included and they all want to help water the flowers and keep the weeds out.

There are no easy answers when it comes to grief.

Navigating my own grief along with the boys has been a challenge.

There are many days still, that I wish I could pull the covers over my head and hide. Of course, I peek out from those covers and see three sets of eyes staring at me, depending on me to be their mother. To be the person that takes care of them and helps through their own struggles.

As their mother, it’s the only thing I can do.

Amy is a native Chicagoan that currently resides just outside of Cincinnati, OH. She was pursuing a Master’s at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago when she became pregnant with her 3rd child. Nathaniel was born with a rare genetic disorder called Citrullinemia and lived for a very short time. Amy and her husband, James, went on to have 4 more boys, 3 of whom were also born with Citrullinemia. In January 2011, her youngest son, David passed away from complications of a liver transplant related to CitrullinemiaAmy started blogging in October 2010, while David was still in the hospital. You can read her blog at Transplanted Thoughts or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @transplantedx3.


  1. Wow. It’s amazing that you can put your own pain aside to be there for your boys. We all have trials in life. I hope when my turn comes I can be as strong as you are. Prayers for your family.

  2. This was an intuitive and touching post Amy. It made my heart ache as always for your pain.

  3. Once again, Amy writes so beautifully and touches my heart in ways no one else can. It’s so inspiring to see her bravery in a horrible situation such as this.

  4. I absolutely love those last few lines. It is so true, there are days that I just want to stay in bed but no one around here will allow me to do it. What amazing ways you have found to help your boys remember and cope. Love to you Amy.


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