Grief parenting can be a huge challenge to any parent. Guiding a grieving child through life is one of the toughest situations any parent may face. There’s no instruction manual for it. Most parents who go through grief with their children are caught unprepared. That’s why Michele Benyo, the founder of Good Grief Parenting, has made it her personal mission to help moms and dads to support their grieving children. Michele had two kids, but her 6-year-old son died of cancer. This devastated her 3-year-old daughter who told her mother, “Half of me is gone.” As a parent who experienced the loss of a child herself, she shows how to help kids deal with grief in a positive way. In the process, grieving children can grow up mentally and emotionally resilient. Join us in today’s episode as Michele talks us through helping your child navigate the death of a sibling.
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Walking Your Child Through Grief With Michele Benyo
Welcome, Michele. It’s good to see you again.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
I’m thrilled that you’ll join us and share with us the work you do. I’m hoping you could start by telling us a little about how you got into the work you do and what drives your passion for it.
I became a mom a little bit later in my mid-30s and was coming out of a communications and education background. I loved being a mom so much. It was a wonderful adventure. I went back and got my Master’s in Family Education and became an early childhood parent educator. That’s a program that we have in every school district here in Minnesota. I thought, “What would be more perfect than spending all my days with moms of kids my children’s ages and being an early childhood parent education all day?”
I started that work after my second child was born. When she was fifteen months old and her brother was 3 and a half or 4, he was diagnosed with cancer. Here I was in this early childhood field, loving it, and feeling like I had prepped myself, but I didn’t know how to do this journey of loss of dreams with their childhood no longer being this carefree childhood that I thought growing up and parenting should be. We journeyed through it for two and a half years, and then my son died. My daughter was three and a half when she said to me, “Half of me is gone.”
I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t experienced even grief of my own. I had grandparents die. That was a sadness, but not this kind of devastating loss of something that I wasn’t supposed to lose, and even more importantly, what my daughter lost because this was her only sibling. It was her big brother. They adored each other. She said half of her was gone. Since I understood brain development, identity formation, and all of the amazing things that happened in those little brains in those early years, I knew that that was a true statement.
That started me on the journey of saying, “I do not know how to do any of this. Not only do I need to figure it out for myself, but more importantly, I need to help her grow up whole and happy. It’s not okay that half of her is gone.” This was many years ago. That little girl is 26. At that time, and even still, I thought I could find whatever resources there were. I found there weren’t any for how to parent this young child through her life with that kind of loss. I knew back then, when I had to embark on this journey myself that someday I was going to have to share what I figured out.
She graduated from high school in 2015. That was about the time that I started Good Grief Parenting to help parents parent not just recover from loss and grief but how do they parent in the presence of grief. It changed her life and mine. It incredibly upended everything that I expected for us. That is what drives me. I’ve learned a lot that I never expected to learn, and I want to share that with other parents.
Bless your heart for that. That’s something that goes beyond words in a heartbeat. You’re right. There are very few resources for that. What have you learned about how to get from that shocking place and grief back to a healthy life with joy in it?
Some of the significant things that I learned were, first of all, that we have to go through grief. We think of it as this big gray cloud over life. It can be that, but it doesn’t have to be that. We can’t avoid grief. We have to go right through it. When we allow it, feel it, and go right through it, it is something that can be good in our lives. It can be good for our children as long as the adults that are helping them know how to help it be good, which is how do you cope with this rite of passage of life? We’re all going to experience it. How do you gain skills from it? How do you learn that you are capable, can handle it, and can get lessons from it?
There’s goodness in grief. As hard as that is to believe, there is goodness in grief and going through grief. I learned these things that grief was not what I thought it was. It can be faced. It can be carried. We can grow through it. It reinforced the best things that I knew about parenting. One reason I went into early childhood parent education was that, as a child, I was sensitive to the fact that my parents didn’t always do for me and with me what I thought would be helpful. Those things were like listening to my emotions, helping me cope with big emotions, and things like that. I was aware as a young person that there is a better way to parent.
Where I’ve landed with all of this is that the best way to help kids with grief is to do good parenting. It is helping them understand what they’re feeling and that it makes sense that they’re feeling that. Kids’ emotions are indicative of what’s going on inside of them. Their behaviors are illustrations of their emotions. Instead of getting upset with them or leaving them alone with it, we can help them know how to handle it better.The best way to help kids with grief is through good parenting. Help them understand what they're feeling and that those feelings make sense. Click To Tweet
I help parents get in touch with their own huge feelings and how their view of parenting has to change. Once you’ve lost a child, you can never parent in the same way again. All of these fears, guilt, doubts, and things overshadow this journey you were on. How do we help our children cope with this reality that we’d rather they not cope with and yet learn that they can handle it and can move past it? We can envision for ourselves a joyful place. We can head for it, and we can even get there.
One of the things that strongly resonated with me was when you said to validate the child’s emotions. I think about Harville Hendrix’s work with the Imago dialogue, which is a critical piece. The goal of that exercise is simply for the two people who are communicating to feel more connected at the end of it. It’s not that they agree, but they feel more connected.
As I listen to what my partner says and I feed it back to her until she says, “You got that,” then I say, and this is that validation part, “If this is what you saw, heard happen, and made it mean, then it makes sense that you would have those emotions.” When we get adults to do that, they leave that situation feeling more connected.
That’s what happens when I validate my child’s emotions. I don’t have to agree with him. I don’t have to say, “I feel the same way you do,” but I need to say, “It makes sense that you would feel that. I understand that you would feel that.” That’s a part of strengthening my connection to my child. If we feel connected to somebody, we can get through all kinds of stuff together. If I feel disconnected from somebody, whether or not to eat with the plastic fork that came with the takeout food can be a knockdown drag-out problem.
I learned that with my son when he was in those 3 and 4 ages when he’d have his big emotions. I learned that if I acknowledged what he was feeling, sometimes, in the midst of a tantrum, he would stop and say, “Yeah.” Those big feelings would leave. It’s like, “You get it. That is how I feel.” It was magical. I would tell parents that it was magical. I do help parents with the idea of emotion coaching that John Gottman does. It really is magical. Every child deserves that kind of relationship with their parent. When they’re experiencing something like grief that everyone in the family can bump into at the most unexpected times and have these emotional responses, it is a huge part of coping and growing well and healthy through it all.
What are some of the other tips, tricks, or techniques that you’ve learned to help people either parenting through this and/or moving through grief?
One of the biggest things with parenting is to know that young children grieve, whether they look like they’re grieving or not. If there has been a loss in the family of a significant person in the family or even a pet that was an important part of the family, you can know that whether they look like it or not, that child is processing that grief.
My daughter said, “Half of me is gone.” What could be more telling than that? If I watched her, she didn’t look like this broken, crumpled mess of a kid. She played. She acted like herself, but if I tuned in, I could hear her playing about her brother or singing about her brother. Kids process their grief by playing. We need to know that if they look like they’re not bothered, it’s because they’re processing the way they know how.
The other part of that is that we want to protect kids from the conversation and from acknowledging this big ugly thing of death and grief. They need us to make it okay for them to talk about it and to invite them to tell us how they’re feeling around it rather than what we usually do, “If they’re not talking about it, I’m not going to talk about it. I don’t want to upset them.”
I invite adults to invite conversation and say, “I’m missing David today. I’m feeling so sad. How are you feeling about that today,” or, “When do you miss David the most? What things do you wish he was still here to do with you?” Asking them questions like that that give them an opportunity to tell you what they’re thinking is important.
I have to agree. One of the biggest mistakes I see parents make is the assumption that they shouldn’t let their children see them cry or be upset and that they need to be strong for their children. What most don’t understand is that if I put up a front that I’m not upset and I’m strong for my child, my child gets the impression that all those intense emotions they’re having must be wrong because dad’s not feeling it.
The other thing that goes along with that is using the words dad and died. That’s another one of those things. I choked on those words when my son died and I had to say my son died. I didn’t want to attribute that word to someone that I loved, but it was the only word that accurately described what happened. My three-and-a-half-year-old had been with us through our two-and-a-half-year journey. She was aware of things going on.
We had conversations that her brother was probably going to die. We had those conversations with her and with him even. I remember thinking, “I don’t believe I’m talking to my child about this,” but they needed to understand. She needed to understand that his body had stopped working. He couldn’t do the things he used to be able to do. He couldn’t play with her, talk to her, sing, or do any of those things anymore. We weren’t going to see him anymore. She couldn’t quite get her head around that at three-and-a-half, but as she grew, she grew in her understanding of what death was. She knew that was what had happened.
She asked questions as she grew. I’d been telling her he was gone. One day, when she was older, she learned that he had died. That’s like, “He died. I thought he could come back.” Sometimes, that can be like a second episode to them. Being honest with them with the words from the beginning is another tip, as hard as it is for us as adults to do that.
You’ve got to do your own work as an adult because you’re going to have your own grief and your own confusion and hurt. The other thing is to not assume that you understand what they mean when they say they understand or that they understand all the words you’re using. I remember somebody I was working with talked about this. She was quite young. Someone died and they went to the grave. She said it was her aunt and uncle. They told her, “So-and-so went to sleep.”
From that night on, this little girl was terrified to go to sleep because she’d end up underground or she wouldn’t be able to wake up. Maybe they told her that he went to sleep and couldn’t wake up. That child downloaded that very literally. In her ‘60s and ‘70s, she has trouble sleeping until she uncovers that and realizes, “This is from that childhood trauma.”
That’s so important. That’s why when we use the right word, it only means one thing. They are going to grow into that understanding. The other thing I thought you were going to say, which is why I smiled, was paying attention to what kids ask us and then saying, “Why are you asking me that?” or, “What do you think happened?” or, “What do you think that means?” and let them tell you.
Sometimes, we jump in to give them information we think they’re asking for. Since their little minds are in such a different place than ours, that’s not what they’re looking for at all. It is a matter of finding out what they want to know. It’s often much less complicated than we are going to make it. Take their lead. Let them lead us to where they need to be.
The other thing you reference, too, that is so important is that self-care piece for parents to be sure that they are aware of their feelings about grief and how to handle it. Sometimes, our ideas aren’t all that helpful or healthy. We need to do our own self-care so that we can care for our children. It isn’t an either-or. We are going through this loss as a family. It isn’t either you take care of yourself or you take care of your child. You do both. You’re going to model for your child how important it is to take care of yourself even when you’re an adult.Parents need to do their own self-care so that they can care for their children. It isn't an either-or. Click To Tweet
That’s one of the toughest things for me when I’m working with parents if they go through the ultimate self-sacrificing. They think it’s wonderful for their child because their child is never missing a play date and never missing this, and always has a smiling father or mother. What they’re not seeing is the role model of an adult who does good self-care. They learn how to do self-care by watching their adult caregivers do self-care.
You’re raising such important things about the way that adults do grief with kids that we need to be aware of. That is they’re watching everything we do. Even more than what we say, they’re watching what we do. We want to be good grief role models. That’s acknowledging that grief that there’s a reason for grief when we lose something or somewhat important to us.
We’re going to have these feelings. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to be painful. Those essential messages that go along with that are, “We can recover from this. We can feel better. We can do the things we need to do to help ourselves feel better. We can get to a better place,” and, “We’re capable of getting through this.” Those are good messages for kids to get.
It’s important for their development. If they don’t get them from us, they don’t get them. One of the problems that we have is sometimes, people come into therapy and think, “I’m only going to have a problem with arguing and fighting if my parents argued and fought a lot.” It’s about a 50/50 split between people who come in where there was a lot of loud arguing and fighting and it wasn’t respectful in the family and those who end up in my office where they never saw their parents argue. They don’t know how to have a disagreement that’s done respectfully, that’s done with good communication, and that involves negotiation if needed because they never saw it.
There’s a wonderful story to bring home the point you were making earlier. Friends of ours had a very bright five-year-old. They lived out of state from their in-laws. This was the first trip where the mother of the five-year-old was visiting her in-laws. She was in the kitchen with her mother-in-law when her five-year-old comes in and asks, “What does pregnancy mean?” All the alarms go off. She was like, “I’m going to be monitored by my mother-in-law. I have to say the right thing.”
She goes through this detailed explanation about the man and the woman. They fall in love, and the seed, the egg, this, and that. Twenty minutes later, they’re in the living room where the grandfather and the five-year-old are watching television on the big screen TV the news. The five-year-old walks up and says, “There’s Pregnancy Bush.” She was asking what the word president means.
Often, that very good advice that you talked about earlier is needed over and over again with parents. They’re like, “How do I respond at what is age appropriate? I don’t have a degree in early childhood education.” I answer it to parents by saying, “You ask a few questions of them when they ask you a question rather than jumping into answering your question. If you think you know what they’re asking, you probably don’t.”
It can be, “Why are you asking that? Why do you want to know that?”
That’s a good question. It can also be, “Tell me. What made you come up with that right now? If I have the context, I might be able to understand better,” even if they can’t put words on it.
The other thing you’re doing is teaching them how to have conversations and give their input. We certainly want them to grow up feeling like we want to know what they’re thinking. We start young by asking them what they’re thinking and asking for their input and opinion to explain why about something. There’s so much goodness in all of that, approaching it that way.
It leads to all kinds of good training. The better part of the love and logic for parents’ training is you help your children make choices all day long. They learn how to make choices, and then they learn how to live with the consequence of those choices. They only do it if they get to practice it. They only learn it if they get to practice it.
I’m sure you see a lot of people. This is where I often need to start, too, and where I, myself, needed to start. Adults didn’t learn these things from their parents, so they have to learn it all over again. They didn’t learn how to have reasonable discussions or they weren’t asked questions themselves as a child, or whatever the case may be. I’m sure you do a lot of guiding people in some of these little tips that are going to make a big difference in their parenting.
It is little things like, “What do you want and what do you need? What would be good for you?” If certain people were raised by parents who were too wounded, they spent their whole lives trying to figure out what their parents needed. They get a spouse and spend their whole time trying to figure out what their spouse wants or needs. They don’t understand what they prefer and what they would like to have. Even developing their own inner awareness about preference and desire is a fundamental skill. We have to teach the parents so then they can hand that down to the children.
That permission-giving and perspective-taking, which are two sides of that coin, are other parts of my good grief parenting approach. Everyone in that family that’s experienced this loss of a child, which I work with families where there’s been child loss pretty much exclusively, everyone has their own needs and feelings around that. We want to be aware of everybody, ourselves, and the others in our family.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of giving people permission. It is giving yourself permission to think, “What do I need? I’m paying attention to what my spouse needs or my child, but what do I need?” That permission-giving is important. It’s being able to take the perspective of the other person in the relationship who experienced the same event but had a different experience than you did because they’re individuals.
The way I say that is they were present at the same event, but they created a very different experience. They’ve generated perception. We all do this. We’re living in a culture that teaches us that perception is a passive process. We open our eyes and see what’s there, but science tells us perception is an active process.
Our minds don’t record reality. They construct a different reality for each one of us. That’s why it’s so important to get another person’s perspective and get them to be able to articulate it for you. That is so you can understand what they’re going through because they may have been present for the same events and not experienced anything like what you experienced. Tell us a little bit more about the work you do and how you do it. Do you do it online? Do you do it in person? Give us some more of that, please.
I work virtually with families. I have done both a course and coaching. I do coaching and teachings in video form as part of that, both individually and as a group, with parents who have had the loss of a child. I present the Good Grief Parenting framework that has four of what I call heartbeats. The first one is Good Grief Beliefs, which is helping parents recognize what they think about grief and how to handle the grief that they learned growing up that, in most cases, isn’t healthy or helpful. I help them be aware of that, how to reframe their ideas about grief, and what’s healthy grieving and helpful. I then do some things differently.
Once they get grounded in what I call those Good Grief Beliefs, you mentioned the Grief Recovery Institute. That is where I have my certification as a grief recovery specialist. They talk about those myths about grief that most of us are very familiar with. I help people reframe those. The other piece is a common thing that well-intentioned people do with grievers. It is to try to help them move on from the relationship and get over it.
Sometimes, if you’re carrying your loved one forward, remembering them, or talking about them, people around you might interpret that you’re not healing. A huge part of healing is to carry that relationship forward. That’s that continuing bonds theory of grief. That is a newer theory that says Freud wasn’t right when he said you need to move on from that relationship and leave it behind. I talk about the bonds that we have with the person who died and how to continue those bonds and carry that relationship forward. Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship and all of the other relationships that we have that we need to navigate in grief.Death ends a life, but it doesn't end a relationship. Click To Tweet
The third heartbeat is essential messages, which I mentioned. This is a parenting-focused heartbeat where we’re teaching our kids the things about grieving and processing that are essential for them to grow up feeling affirmed, capable, and well-prepared to face the losses in life. The last one is what I call Choice Actions, which is all those decisions we make based on those first three heartbeats. How are we going to function in our family? What are the choices we’re going to make about conversation, behavior, limits, discipline, and all of those parts of childhood that are informed differently? They are when there has been a loss and grief in the family.
How is parenting going to look different, and how are we going to be intentional about it? I work with parents in virtual coaching and some teaching videos. We do that as a group as much as possible so that they have other parents to get support from. In the ECFE model that I came out of, a huge part of the support that parents got was each other. That’s important as well.
What does ECFE stand for?
It is Early Childhood Family Education. It is the program that we have here in Minnesota for parents of early childhood-aged children. That’s where I was a parent educator where I would come and bring the topic, but all of the parents around the table brought the wisdom. We met every week and supported one another. That’s the model that I have for good grief parenting as well.
How do people reach you if they want to learn more or work with you?
They can reach me through Good Grief Parenting. If you look that up, you’re going to find me. That’s my website, www.GoodGriefParenting.com. It’s also my Instagram. I have a Facebook group and page there. It is also my Linktree link. If people are familiar with Linktree links, which are the thing that a lot of us offer where it’s one place to go and get, they can get my Good Grief Guide there. It is an excellent resource for any adults wanting to help kids grieve.
They can schedule a time to talk with me and pick my brain about whatever they’re experiencing with children in grief. I should also say that I do a lot of training for childcare providers, preschool staff, and people like that. I do workshops for them, coaching for the parents, and workshops for others. They can reach me at Good Grief Parenting.
Before we wrap up, take a moment to center yourself and think, “What’s something that Dr. Tim didn’t even mention that I wanted to bring up?” or, “What’s something we’ve talked about that I want to go back and highlight?”
The one thing that didn’t come up was where I had to start way back when. It is the fact that there is no prescribed way to go through grief. When I lost my son, everyone started telling me about the five stages of grief, which I’d never heard of. I was not doing that. I thought, “I’m doing grief wrong.” I thought I was doing it wrong. I was concerned because I had this daughter to raise.
I’ve since learned that those are not stages of grief at all. They’re stages of dying that we expect a person to go through when they themselves have gotten a terminal diagnosis. Grievers don’t go through five stages. They may and probably will experience some of those emotions, but there is no particular way to go through grief.
In a family, it is important to know that everyone is going to do it differently. If you have more than one child, they’re going to each do it differently. Be gentle with yourself as a griever, knowing that whatever you are feeling and needing to do for yourself and your family is appropriate. You’ll know if you need more help if you’re having a problem.
Normal, ordinary grief can look so many different ways. A lot of times, people who experience it at the outset are intimidated about doing it the right way. There isn’t a right way to do it. That’s what I would share and let people know. Trust your own instincts and your own wisdom. Be willing to talk about it and share with caring people and listeners in your life. That’s the first step to healing for everybody.
Thank you so much for sharing with us, making yourself available to people, and turning one of the worst things that can happen to a parent into a blessing for yourself and others.
I hope so. That’s the whole point. That’s the hope. Thank you. I appreciate having the opportunity to talk with you.
It’s been delightful. I look forward to following you on the website. If you come up with another program or a book, let me know.
We’ll have another conversation.
- Michele Benyo
- The Good Grief Guide: www.GoodGriefParenting.com/GGG
- Caregiver Letter: www.GoodGriefParenting.com/caregiver-letter
- Talk with Michele: https://Calendly.com/ggparenting/talk-with-michele
About Michele Benyo
Michele Benyo is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, early childhood parent coach, and the founder of Good Grief Parenting. After her 6-year-old son died of cancer, her 3-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, half of me is gone.” This heartbreaking statement focused Michele’s career as an early childhood parenting expert on the impact of grief on young children, particularly after child loss.
Michele equips parents and other caring adults to recognize young children’s grief and to provide the support children need to build resilience and cope well with any loss. The desire of Michele’s heart is to see families thrive after loss and live forward toward a future bright with possibilities and even joy.
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