She said that parents who have an ill partner should strive to be as honest as possible with their grieving kids, even when honesty is hard. But establishing free-flowing communication doesn’t mean you’ll magically have all the answers. According to Diane Vines, a marriage and family therapist and clinical consultant for the Houston-based ChildTrauma Academy, how we react to a child’s emotions can sometimes be more important than what we say.
During those moments when Chris stood up from the dinner table gasping for air and our son panicked, the key, Ms. Vines said, was that I did not.
“When you’re watching somebody you love possibly choke to death, that’s upsetting,” she said. “We look around to see, should we panic right now? What should we be doing right now? What is everyone else doing?”
When parents manage those feelings with relative calm, children will often feel reassured and react more calmly, too, she said.
One day during those traumatic weeks before Chris got a feeding tube inserted to help with the choking, I was driving Cohen to hockey practice when out of the blue he said, “My life is harder than a lot of other kids my age.” I told him he wasn’t wrong, that I was sorry and that I love him. I asked what was on his mind. He shrugged. He didn’t seem sad or angry or worried or scared. He was simply stating a fact.
Most parents who contact Ms. Warnick are looking for the right language to use with their children, she said. “The harder job is actually being able to bear witness to our children’s suffering,” she added. “I think one of the most wonderful things we can do for kids is teach them about grief, and teach them that they have the capacity to survive their feelings, even the most intense ones.”
Some months after Chris’s feeding tube had alleviated our kids’ panic, I tucked Willa into bed. That night she giggled and hugged me as hard as she could. “You know what, Mommy?” she said. “Sometimes I forget that Daddy has this sickness.”