Supporting Children Grieving The Death Of A Parent: Three Steps Of Being To Guide You In Being Present With Dr. Christine Kiesinger

Widowhood Real Talk | Grieving Children

 

It’s not about having the perfect words, but the genuine willingness to share the silence and hold the space. In this episode, Dr. Christine Kiesinger discusses how to support grieving children. She shares stories of actual children who have gone through losses of a parent or loved one. The children don’t want to be treated differently because of their grief. Dr. Christine shares how there are some ways to support them and make them feel understood without unintentionally isolating them. She also opens up about the delicate topic of dating and marrying a widow, how trauma affects the professional practice of coaching, and more. Tune in now and learn how to become present for a child in need.

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others. 

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide

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Supporting Children Grieving The Death Of A Parent: Three Steps Of Being To Guide You In Being Present With Dr. Christine Kiesinger

Our guest in this episode, Dr. Christine Kiesinger is going to provide some very helpful information. Her knowledge professionally and personally is going to bring us to cover a conversation regarding supporting children who are grieving, dealing with trauma in the workplace, and other things that I know you will benefit from. Let’s get into the discussion now.

 

Widowhood Real Talk | Dr. Christine Kiesinger | Grieving Children

 

Welcome, Dr. Christine Kiesinger. We have our beverages. You look very beautiful and I’m over here in my little sports gear. I feel a little underdressed. That necklace is so beautiful.

Thank you. It’s good to be here. I’ve been looking forward to this. I want to acknowledge and applaud you for your willingness to talk so openly about what we don’t talk about.

Thank you so much. Life needs us to show up in a way that is organic, that is freeing for people. You would think as much as we transition the past, become ancestors, then we would be better at this conversation, but we’re not. After the death of my husband, I was extremely fortunate that my community not only showed up, but they brought camping gear. They were tense. They have not left. Mark died in 2017 and they are still on board and they are saying, “What can we do?”

However, I’ve realized that I’m the minority in that. Most people have come to a place a year out that they no longer feel comfortable talking about their situation. Within six months, they’ll have people ask them, “Are you done with that?” They’re muted and hurting. Also, the children don’t have a voice in this scenario. I am grateful and humbled for each person such as yourself to take your time out to have a conversation purely for the idea of sharing experiences and knowledge to help somebody else.

I appreciate the invitation. I like to talk about what I call invitational communication, and that is, “Can I communicate in such a way that I open a door for us to talk authentically and for us to talk about the hard things?” When you say something like six months out of a major loss, people wonder, “Are you finished with the grief or halfway there,” as if it’s some sort of destination. I try hard not even to use the word grief. For me, it’s grieving. I truly believe and based on my own experience that grieving is always there. It just shows up differently depending on your developmental stage and what’s happening in your life. It gets expressed differently. It’s experienced differently, but it’s not done.

I would fully agree with that and that is the reality that people need to come to terms with. Oftentimes people say, “I want to be done with this. I want this to be fixed.” The only way that it would be fixed is if the person we love is no longer dead. That option does not exist. This is not going to be fixed but I, as the person who is grieving, can learn how to manage it and as you said, with the right developmental skills.

I have spoken with people 10, and 20 years out from the death of a loved one. I know everyone travels this on their own path, but I’m speaking in regard to someone who doesn’t want to be stuck. They are stuck in a place where they feel like everything feels like it happened and they’ve not given themselves permission, the opportunity, or the knowledge to be able to say, “I can change how I manage this grief. Also, going to therapy is an option. Talking out loud to a grief coach is an option and also, journaling.

Still talking to my loved one if they’re not there, but they have stepped in inside. They show up on the outside looking like everything is fine, but they go back home, they sit, and nothing has happened. They are sad. They don’t connect with other people. They feel isolated. On the outside, they’re fine, but inwardly, they’re right there and they have not been able to unstick themselves. Those conversations that I have with people and they go, “I can do that. I can take my home that we lived in and rearrange furniture because my mind memory says they’re going to be here because everything looks the same.” These conversations are extremely helpful.

One of the things that this whole thing reminds me of is sometimes I will say to people, “You have the right to have a relationship with your grieving. You have a right to have a relationship to the loss.” Sometimes that is the question. This has happened. This is causing great suffering. Now, how am I going to come into a relationship with it? That often gets people unstuck. It’s like, “My loss, my grieving is this organic living entity of sorts that I have to come into a relationship with.”

Also, that relationship is going to change again depending on the developmental stage I’m in in my lifespan but also with what’s going on in my personal development coaching practice. I have a number of clients who are navigating some kind of loss and it may be the loss of a loved one, a child, a spouse, a dear family member, or a friend. It may be the loss of a job, it might be a divorce or separation. Often, the task at hand in the coaching relationship is, “How am I going to develop a relationship to this loss that I’m feeling?”

Also, knowing that at some level, even if I remarry, even if I get a new job, even if I’m no longer a child, but I’m a teenager or I’m a young adult, I’m going to experience that loss differently. Do I have the willingness to be okay with that and accept that there is no destination? There isn’t an endpoint, but our relationship to it changes. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes it feels very present. Sometimes it feels very muted. There are all kinds of ways in which it’s going to manifest itself.

 

 

I want to circle back to something you said. What does it look like in an example of having that relationship with your grief? I also appreciate you expanding grief to something beyond the death of a loved one because we are grieving in so many different areas of our lives where expectation is not met. I think we find that is the death of a loved one that often becomes a place where you realize you cannot manage it any longer. That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. However, if you could provide some examples or how you recommended for people to have that relationship with that grieving process.

What brought me deeply into looking at grieving was 30-some years ago teaching a course at the university level called The Dark Side of Close Relationships. It was an advanced-level interpersonal communication course that looked at the things that happened to us relationally that we don’t talk about. We have a lot of discomfort talking about addiction, chronic terminal illness, dying and death loss and grief, physical and emotional abuse, and several different topic areas.

What most struck me, especially amongst undergraduate students, was how uncomfortable they were talking about loss broadly defined. It wasn’t about the loss of someone to death. It was the losses they experienced as a result of their parents’ separation, divorce, someone’s incarceration, or a move that was unexpected that created a lot of turbulence in their lives or suddenly maybe mom’s health was lost because she had a chronic illness.

It was this expansion of how we define loss and this idea that grieving happens when mom and dad divorce. Grieving happens when we break up. Grieving happens when we lose a pet. Grieving happens when the dream I held no longer is possible because I now have an injury or a chronic illness. However, the reluctance to talk about it or to have a way to talk about it was so profound that of all of the topics we looked at during that course, it’s often the place where we spent the most time.

When students understand this is a safe place for us to name what’s messy, to have permission to say, “I don’t even know how to put words to the ache that I feel,” or, “I have been so ashamed to talk about the way I’ve been grieving the loss of my parents’ marriage because it didn’t seem as important or I didn’t know I could define it as a loss.” It created so much freedom for them but again, one of the central tasks was, “Now that this loss has occurred, how are you going to stay in relationship to it?”

That course was a very important foundation for me to come into an experience that was completely unexpected, which was marrying a man who was widowed about two years prior to our meeting. His wife died very tragically and abruptly. At the time of her death, the child who would become my daughter was two years old and the child who would become my son was only nine months old.

Serendipitously about a year prior to meeting them, I had done a certification in how to talk to children about death and three things about that course stayed with me. One of the things was how critically important it is when you’re talking about loss to anyone to consider the developmental stage that they’re in. I’m going to talk to a toddler differently than I’m going to talk to an elementary school-age child, a teen, or a young adult. Do you have a willingness to meet them where they’re at? That means you’ve got to have an awareness of where they’re at.

The second thing that I remembered about the course is how it’s our responsibility as adults around the children to create what I call intentional memorialization. How am I going to be very intentional about including in my case, their deceased mom in our lives for the rest of their lives? The third thing that stayed with me, and this is something that I fiercely believe in for anyone who’s experiencing loss. How is your healing contingent upon having a coherent narrative about what happened and how it affected you?

It's our responsibility as the adults around the children to create intentional memorialization. Click To Tweet

It’s because all too often in the shock, the destabilization, and the ungroundedness, the not feeling very anchored in the chaos of a significant loss, we don’t have a coherent narrative about what happened and what it means and will come to mean to us in our life. Those three things were incredibly helpful for me and then coming into this family and being a very mindful parent about the fact that I was parenting grieving children and would be parenting grieving children. That’s what I mean about where is someone developmentally in relationship to their loss.

Those three points are such a guide map for someone dealing with someone who is grieving. It’s extremely necessary to be mindful in dealing with children but you can also take that into any situation in any loss. Particularly, number three as it relates to parenting a nine-month-old child that the idea of being coherent to that loss and then over time understanding how that would impact. Would you mind providing maybe examples of children that you’ve been with as far as each one of those 1, 2, and 3 and how you were able to demonstrate these three items?

Yeah, I do. These are stories that I try to share as often as possible because I think they’re good ways of illustrating the ways that we mess up and the ways that we can be of help and value. In terms of developmental stages, the story that I like to share is, and people almost would get argumentative with me when they would say, “You are so lucky. Your children were so young when their mom died that they only know you as their mom.” I would say that actually is not true. My daughter who was two at the time that her mother died had vivid memories of her mom. Also, some well-meaning relative or family friend at the time of Hillary’s death said to my daughter, your mom was so special. She was so loved. She was so special that God needed her for a special mission and that’s why she’s gone.

The angels came down and they took her and she’s doing important work. Now, this sounds like a fairytale when you’re two years old. “My mom was elected by God to go on a mission and the angels came.” For a little bit, the story worked or seemed to work because it sounded like it was coming out of a storybook but as you can imagine, it backfired significantly when she became about 5 or 6. When suddenly, she was enraged at God and the idea of God. “What kind of God would take my mom to do missionary work for others in need when I need her the most?” She was terrified of angels.

This idea that angels would appear and scoop up good people, inevitably led to, “You are a good person. Dad is a good person. Am I going to lose you too?” That’s an example of how her grieving needed to be handled differently as she came into that phase of life. When you’re 5, or 6 years of age when the fairytale isn’t working anymore and being prepared, trying to be prepared in advance for all of the ways in which they were going to change, therefore their grieving would change.

I remember my children both getting to an age probably in middle school where they were embarrassed that their biological mom died. They didn’t want people to know about it because they knew they were treated differently. Their teachers treated them differently. Other parents treated them differently. “You are the kids that lost their biological mother who was running in the marathon.” There was this whole drama around the loss and these poor children.

I remember being in a grocery store and my daughter asking me if I would ever consider dying my hair blonde because she was blonde and her mom was blonde. She wanted us to look alike because she didn’t want to feel that she was different and being treated differently because her mother died. There was that phase of time when they didn’t want to talk about it. They didn’t want friends to know about it. Do you have the willingness as someone who is guiding them, parenting them, and loving them to roll with the way that it’s all changing?

Those are some narratives that I believe drive home the point of being aware of their developmental stages. I think as they get older, teens, late teens, or early adulthood, they get curious. They get curious about that blood connection. They get curious about their identity in relationship to the person who has passed or is gone, “How am I like her? What qualities do we share?” This is where saying their name is so critically important in grieving. Don’t be around me and not bring it up. My kids were very desperate for information about their mom and I encouraged them to have connections to extended family and also friends. The people who were very good friends of Hillary’s.

I remember in terms of this idea of how are we going to intentionally create memory and keep this person’s memory alive in our family. I don’t know what your experience is on this, but there are a lot of decisions that need to be made when it comes to building a different sense of family in the face of the loss without forgetting or putting the person in a drawer or burying them. Including their memory or keeping that memory alive in a way that’s helpful and functional. It creates a richness even if you bring someone new into the family.

 

 

That is a really good question. To that point, Widowhood Real Talk of Tina is my largest way of keeping Mark’s memory alive to be able to be in the spaces with other people who are grieving, leveraging my experience, and giving people permission to say their loved one’s name. To say Mark’s name and to never forget that I am who I am because of my relationship with him.

Our children are who they are because of their dad’s existence. I would consider myself fortunate that our children were adults when Mark died. The idea of wondering if they remembered their dad, wondering if they have a conscious of his presence and how wonderful he was, that that work is already cemented. My children are a big part of Widowhood Real Talk with Tina. I ended last year with a conversation with my son speaking about the death of his parents.

My daughter is one of the board members of Widowhood Real Talk with Tina and very much nitpicking all the social content that I do if she sees this show but all of those things to make it alive. You’re right about the relationships. I remember going back on the one-year anniversary after Mark’s death and going back to family and friends. I was asking them, how did they find out he died? How did that impact them? How was that day?

It’s because as you talk about what I remember, how coherent that day, that year was much of a fault but to go back to family and friends and ask them what was their experience. It gave them permission to share their mark stories because no one would try to make their experience of your loved one’s death bigger than yours but when you give them permission, tell me what happened. They have told me so many stories about Mark that I never knew because he had his own relationships with people. I wasn’t there for every one of those.

To this day, someone will call me and go, “I have a story about Mark. It’s okay if I share.” I’m like, “Absolutely.” That gives them permission to continually say his name and know that it’s something to be celebrated. His life was good and it doesn’t get put in a drawer of our memories no longer to be uttered again forever. Speaking of bringing new people into your life, I did remarry and I still have my late husband’s last name. That conversation came up with my current husband and asked him, “What do you think about the idea of me changing my name?”

It’s because someone asked me and I was like, “I never thought of that.” His response was, “Your children would not have a parent in this world with the same last name.” I said, “You understand me. You understand what is important. You understand the duality of me loving you in my heart and still being able to have space and being with my late husband.” That is so important to have as new people come into your life, to not make it weird, not make it uncomfortable, not make it seem like it’s not something you should do. This is part of my life.

I love that it speaks volumes about him because I did a lot of research on what is called post-bereaved families and the post-bereaved family system. This is about the new girlfriend or the new wife or spouse or husband that comes into the scene into a post-bereaved family. I take issue with that phrase. I came into a bereaved family. They weren’t posting anything. They were still grieving and you have to be willing if you’re this person to know what you’re entering into.

I remember having some conversations with my ex-husband about how are we going to navigate this. My role keeping Hillary part of our family and dealing with all the feelings and emotions around that. I think that there are some families, the literature tells us for whom when someone else comes in, the deceased partner is out. You take the pictures off the wall. You don’t say their name. It’s like we are creating an entirely new dynamic here. Some people do that.

The courageous thing to do and the harder thing to do is to include the deceased in the new family dynamic that you’re creating. The dynamic is going to change because there is someone new. I was a new family member so the dynamic isn’t what it was. It’s going to be something else but I very much wanted it to include Hillary. Now, what I think was interesting about this particular situation is Hillary kept journals from the time she was ten because her own biological mother died when she was ten. She started keeping a journal. In fact, I have it. She titled the notebook, Life After Mom died.

When you open up the notebook, the first thing you see is the mass card from her mom’s funeral. She wrote daily right up to the day she died. I have Tupperware tubs filled with her journals. There are people who would have tossed those, believe it or not. I took it upon myself to almost take custody of her memory. Part of that was making sure that those journals were stored appropriately in climate-controlled areas. I wanted to keep as much intact for the children when they were ready for these things.

When both of the children were born, she videotaped daily to the day of her death. The children can see and hear. They can see her. They can see them interacting with her. They can hear her voice. There’s all of this documentation and evidence of her life that I worked very hard to keep safe when they were ready to have these things. I think it’s important that in addition to having others around them that could speak to the memory of the deceased, of their mom, to also have evidence of whether it’s true. All of these journals, photographs, videos, jewelry, and as much as possible. They can come to an age where they can decide what they want to do with it but as far as I was concerned, that belongs to them.

I was going to ask you for some recommendations on how to keep that parent’s memory alive. I have a question. I want to circle back to something that you said regarding how the children felt treated differently. Do you have any recommendations for maybe someone who is a teacher now or a family member on that balance between realizing this child has lost a parent but not treating them so differently that the child now feels out of place in society?

To not treat them differently. I think it’s important that their teachers know that this is an important part of their background. It was important for me that their teachers knew that we needed to meet them where they were at with their grieving. Unless there was something going on that pointed to the fact that they were struggling with their grades or friendships or anything like that, that might be related to the early loss, to treat them just like they’re treating the other children.

That did not work for my kids. Being treated differently did not work for them. I’m not quite sure when it is. It’s probably somewhere between elementary and middle school. The primary concern for a child is being part of a social group, having friends, and being thought of in a positive light. How do people perceive me? It was very clear to me that my children did not want other children or other adults around them to feel sorry for them. They didn’t. It backfired in a very big way. That’s what I would say. If your heart breaks for a child because you know their story, just try to keep that in check because then it becomes about you. It wasn’t what they needed.

If your heart breaks for a child because you know their story, just try to keep that in check. Because then it becomes about you. It wasn't what they needed. Click To Tweet

Thank you. That is so vital for someone to hear how to manage that. You also mentioned the information and it goes back, I believe, to item number one about understanding the developmental stage. How do you know when they’re ready to receive certain information as far as the things that have been kept regarding their mother? What indications or conversations or what are some ways that you found to identify when they were ready for the next step?

They weren’t ready for the journals until their late teens or early adult years. It was critically important that I read all the journals because I didn’t know her. The journals gave me a lot of useful information like, “Did you know your mother ran track when she was in high school? She saved all of her medals,” and I started to see that there were qualities in my children that were very much coming from their mom.

Now, I would not have known all of that in such great detail. “Did you know your mom had her first boyfriend when she was in 10th grade?” It’s little things like that but those were not things that I could reveal when they were in elementary school. They always knew about the journals and the journals existed but as she got older and came into her adult years, the journaling was very raw, honest, and real which would not be appropriate for their eyes at a younger age.

In addition to reading through most of them, I also had to organize them so that the content was appropriate to where they were in their stage of life. One of the things that my ex-husband and I decided to do was that we were not going to acknowledge the date of death. We were going to celebrate Hillary’s birthday and every year, I would get cupcakes or a cake. We would celebrate her birthday and the children would write messages on balloons and send them to heaven.

That was what they thought that they were doing and that was something that they very much looked forward to as very young children. It was also a ritual that then they continued. There were things that like that but this is very intentional on our part. This was not willy-nilly. I didn’t even know that they knew the date of death until they were much older.

What are the implications of lighting a candle or acknowledging the date of death at a young age? We chose not to do that. When my daughter was 11 or 12 years of age, I reached out to all of Hillary’s closest female friends and family members. I asked them, “What do you think that they would want my daughter to know about what it means to become a woman?” I could see her body was changing and she was going to come into her puberty.

She received the most beautiful cards, letters, and small gifts because I didn’t know what her mom would want her to know. I went directly to the source of those things. That’s another example of what I call intentional memorialization. How do we keep the presence of the lost one in the lives of those who cared most, in this case, the children in a way that helps them to grow and thrive feeling very connected to, in this case, their mom?

Thank you for sharing that. That is such a wonderful example of that continual memorialization as she is living. As we said in the beginning, this is not something that’s done. This is forever her mother, forever being a part of her life in the creative ways to look and see where her mother is not there and how to insert her into her life. Leverage the people who knew her well.

That's intentional memorialization: How do we keep the presence of the lost one in the lives of those who you know cared most? Click To Tweet

Oftentimes I’ll have conversations with people who are coming into a bereaved family and feeling more like they’re in competition with the person who is deceased. Is there anything you want to speak regarding that? I saw you smile. There’s a ton in there. Any recommendations and suggestions because people need to know?

I know exactly what you’re talking about especially when someone dies young, was beloved, accomplished, and the passing was tragic and unexpected. There is this sense. I remember going through a couple of manifestations of this. One was, “I wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t passed. Am I someone she would be proud of in terms of how I am raising these children and being with these children?”

Also, there’s this glorification. We don’t know the things about this person that others experienced negatively. We all have our weaknesses and our flaws. I remember saying to my husband, “Tell me something about her that drove you crazy. Tell me something about her that makes her human because she’s angelic. She’s glorified. I will never forget that moment as long as I live because he let loose. No one had ever asked him that. It gave him permission to say, “God, she was hard to live with,” or, “She was on my back about this or that,” or, “These are the ways in which I get along with you but I didn’t get along with her.”

It was like I could exhale. That was a strategy. I remember going through a phase where early on in the marriage I would have this reoccurring dream that I’m making breakfast or doing something with the kids and there’s a knock on the door. I go to the door and she’s returned. I appreciate the question because I haven’t thought about this and I don’t know that I’ve even shared about this, but this goes on. It’s something that it’s hard to speak about. You don’t want to say, “I feel in competition,” or, “I don’t know if I’m good enough,” or, “Sometimes I get annoyed by what feels like her sainthood.”

Those are real questions and those are real struggles. Those are conversations that we don’t like to talk about, but it is so relevant. For every person who is going to engage someone who has a spouse who has passed, even if it was a bad marriage, the idea of sainthood and only talking about the positive becomes something that we default to in society so easily. I want to ask you one more question right now in this particular realm. It may or may not have an answer. If someone is considering dating or marrying someone who is a widow, any recommendations? You can go with that question wherever you want.

Speak their name right out of the gate. Open up the dialogue. It’s because I think that if you show up as someone who is afraid to speak their name, who is afraid to know, to learn who they are, who is afraid of feeling in competition, or is afraid of loving someone who very much still loves someone who is no longer here, I believe that right out of the gate we start to lay the foundation for a relationship, whether it goes anywhere or not.

To not acknowledge this happened, you had this experience. You are someone that I may connect myself with deeply who has had this experience. It is part of what I will come to love about you. It is an experience that has shaped your identity in a way that cannot be erased and that is likely very profound. It’s got to be out in the open. It has to be named.

Thank you because I feel as if that part right there is a part that people shy away from. If it was a divorce, people seem to talk about that and give people space but when someone has a spouse that has died, it seems as if they can’t broach that part of the conversation. However, it needs to be spoken about because it’s going to be forever part of the relationship. Thank you for sharing that. I appreciate what you’ve shared personally, and I think that probably has a good part to do with what you do professionally. I want to make a bit of a shift and talk about how over the last few years you’ve led different trainings as it relates to trauma and if you would speak to that.

There are a couple of ways in which this topic is still very alive in the work that I do in the world. I do have a personal development coaching practice and as I said, many individuals who come to me for coaching are navigating some major transition that’s related to a loss. Again, it might be separation or divorce. It might be retirement. The losses that are associated with retirement. It might be death. There are all kinds of losses. I find myself addressing it a great deal there.

I do leadership development trainings and organizations and again, organizations are comprised of human beings that are going through all kinds of losses. On many occasions, I’ve been asked to lead emergency training in organizations where a beloved colleague has experienced a very tragic loss and we don’t know how to talk about it as colleagues that when they come back to work all kinds of things happen that injure the person who’s experienced the loss.

Mostly it’s around, “We’re just not going to talk about it,” that we are looking for ways to not be uncomfortable around this person when the question is, “What can I do?” You can be willing to be uncomfortable. Be willing to say their name. Be willing when you see them if your eyes well up in tears to allow yourself to have those tears. Be willing to say, “I’m afraid I’m going to get it wrong. I’m afraid that I’m going to shut down. I’m afraid that I’m not going to be able to talk to you about this and I want to.” It certainly shows up there.

 

Widowhood Real Talk | Grieving Children

 

Also, I do a great deal of work with Head Start and many of us know that Head Start as an organization deals very specifically with children under the age of five. They are giving them the head start that they need educationally, socially, and emotionally. Many of these children come to school on a daily basis having lived through or are currently living through some trauma that is often related to a loss. Whether it’s the death of a parent, the absence of a parent due to addiction, incarceration, dealing with losses associated with food, scarcity, or enormous poverty.

These are classroom spaces where teachers are dealing with children who have lost or are losing in very profound ways at a very young age. I work with the classroom teams in a lot of what we’re discussing here is how do I develop the fortitude, the relational, and emotional musculature to have a positive impact on the lives of these children where there’s so much suffering.

Is there a locality in which you work with people virtually? What is the span in which you’re able to support people?

Both. I would say that the majority of the clients that I work with are not local to me. We work in a virtual format. A lot of the trainings that I do is the same thing. Talk about loss when the pandemic set in, like many people, I seriously worried about my work coming to an end but it was quite the contrary. The pandemic created an opportunity for me to be with more people globally actually around many of these issues that we’ve talked about now.

Speaking of being global, tell me about some of the books that you have been part of developing.

Of the books that I’ve been part of developing, I guess the most recent one was a book about navigating change and transition in midlife. You are making me think about the degree to which the notion of loss is pervasive along the lines of so much of the work that I do in the world. It’s because that’s a collection of essays where people are talking about the various transitions and losses that occur during midlife.

When I think about the academic articles that I’ve written and published, they’re mostly around issues like identity, disordered eating, the losses that they produce, and how we navigate those in our family systems or relational systems or don’t. I guess that the common theme in a lot of my work is addressing the things we don’t talk about. Going back to that course about, “What don’t we talk about in the relationships that matter most to us?” We know that we’d likely not experience it as a loss if we didn’t love so deeply.

If you want to stop loving, then you don’t have to worry about loss in your life but who wants that?

 

Widowhood Real Talk | Grieving Children

 

Yes. I like to tell my students and my clients, “If you’re signing up to love, you are simultaneously signing up to lose.” It’s the deal we make.

It is. We say it in our wedding vows, but you don’t think about that part. You’re just mumbling those lines through but that is what we’re signing up for. In the idea of wedding vows, I want you to talk about The Vow.

The Vow is a passion project. The Vow came out of navigating a painful and difficult divorce and my having the realization in thinking about the role that I played in it that I did not take very good care of myself. I did not have a commitment or a vow to me. I did not have what I call a very strong intrapersonal relationship.

When we do not take extreme profound, extraordinary care of ourselves, our relationships suffer in ways that we cannot even imagine. The Vow is really about what it means to come into self-devotion, to come into commitment with yourself in the same way you would commit in a marriage to another person, and the same way you might commit as a parent to your children. It came out of my looking back at my wedding vows that I wrote and having this epiphany.

The epiphany was, “What if you had vowed these things to yourself first? You might’ve had a different marriage. You might’ve had a different life.” In taking that very seriously, I took about two years where I took my commitment to myself very seriously and worked on developing a strong relationship with myself. I began to see that it’s radically changed who I am and how I show up in the world. How I lead, how I love, and how I live. It’s a keynote speech and it’s a book that I’m writing, The Vow: The Art and Science of Self-Devotion. I thank you for asking about it because it’s probably going to be my most important life’s work.

Widowhood Real Talk | Grieving Children
The Vow: How a Forgotten Ancient Practice Can Transform Your Life

Thank you for sharing that with us. A few more questions. What gives you joy?

Relationships. I think that’s why I’m so in love with my work. At a very young age, as a fairly young college professor, my work in the world was teaching students how to have better relationships. My work in the world is teaching leaders how to have better relationships and helping my coaching clients have better relationships. I am very clear that at the end of all of it, and when I look at my own impending death, that’s what’s going to matter most is the quality of my closest, most cherished relationships and that’s what brings me joy.

If you could pick any age, any time in your life, what would you pick and what would you tell yourself?

The wisdom that I’ve derived along the way through a lot of very painful experiences like the experiences that have taken me to my knees has created for me a situation where I feel so balanced and peaceful and have so much access to joy that when I look back, I cannot think of a single thing that I would say, “I wish that didn’t happen.” There are things I wish I handled differently, but had I not lived through those things, I could not be where I’m at right now.

I don’t want to be at another age. I don’t have any lament about being someone who’s in her late fifties. It gets better. I guess I would tell those previous selves and you know those moments where you were literally brought to your knees. I always say there’s a choice point that happens with those moments where life brings you to your knees. The choice point is, “Am I going to get up?” There are many people who don’t but if you do get up, what was the thought that got you off the floor? That’s the thing that brought you forward. When I look back at other ages and stages in my own life, I would tell myself, “Get up. Hold on. One step forward. If it’s one step, just step it forward.” That’s what I’d tell myself.

I’ve asked you questions in this conversation. Do you have any questions for me?

I guess I’m curious about, given what you’ve lived through and all of the people that you’ve talked with, was there something about this conversation that was new that you think might benefit your audience in a way that you haven’t heard before? I’m curious about that.

Yes, I have a passion for having more conversations as it relates to being in places with children who are grieving. When we met and had our initial conversation, I felt like it was something that was greatly needed in our society, in the spaces, where I show up to be able to give knowledge and information to people with children. We’re all someone else’s children, I get that but dealing with very small minors in this grief journey and that their grief is not recognized as much as it should be, I want to have more conversations.

You have had been through that journey and so intentionally gone there, as you say, serendipitously had the training beforehand that you were able to leverage and have that knowledge and to be able to show up that I want to empower people to recognize that children minors are grieving. What you may think is someone just acting out may be the only way that they can communicate their grief. For the people that are showing up in these families, to not put that loved one in a drawer to embrace that and don’t worry.

Yes, you have to recognize. You may feel like you’re in a competition, but serve that child that is in this relationship and show them how to love. Give them a safe place to memorialize their parents. Give their family and community space to know that they are still welcome in this family. Yes, you are there, but that husband had a connection with those friends. Those children will starve to hear from people who know about their parents and that is why this conversation, I feel is vital for the community that I serve.

In the last five years or so, I’ve been very drawn to the work of Dr. David Kessler. For your audience, he was an apprentice to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Yes. When she died, he suffered the tragic loss of his eighteen-year-old son and he decided that there was one more stage of grief after acceptance and its meaning-making. It’s not enough to accept this happened, but what do you make it mean in your life? How has that loss been made meaningful? I believe that that’s what you’re doing with this show and your work in the world. This loss happened and I’m going to make it mean something. Do you have that sense?

Thank you for speaking about David Kessler and the work that he does in the grieving community, which is so necessary. I think that the idea of making purpose, as you said, some people may never get up. Some people may never get to the place where they have made a purpose out of their pain. They may spend eternity on this side of the world trying to accept it. They may never see anything good come of the death of their loved one.

Also, because grief and that journey is on someone’s own time and on their own pace, somebody may feel like they’ve gotten this far, and then a birthday or a significant event, or you may travel someplace and it’ll take you right back to feeling like your loved one died and you are lethargic. You can’t get out of bed. You have the foggy mind and all those other different things.

I think when your loved one dies to think at that moment, “I’m going to make purpose out of that,” is maybe too much pressure. You may need to deal with the reality that you’re looking at the other side of an empty bed. You may have to deal with the reality of, “I’m going to go to the grocery store for the first time without them and we normally go through the cookie aisle, but I don’t like cookies and I have no desire to go there. I’m crying at the end of that aisle. Someone’s wondering what’s wrong with them.”

The idea of making purpose out of this, I would say put that someplace when you’re ready for it. When it seems like it fits into your grief journey but the pressure of our society to make something out of everything, as you said, have that vow to yourself that you’re going to be honest with yourself. I’m going to love myself. I’m going to hold myself. I’m going to keep getting up every day. At some point in time, the purpose may come out of your grief and that purpose may be where your mailman drops off a piece of mail and you’re having a conversation and you go past the regular pleasantries of, “Hi. How are you doing?”

You look them in the eye and say, “How are you doing?” They say, “I haven’t been on my route because my daughter died three months ago.” You take that leap and say, “My child died too.” You have made purpose because you could have just said, “I’m sorry. Have a good day,” but if you told them your journey and they realized they were not alone, that is purposeful. It’s because you’ve connected with somebody else in their space and let them know you’re going through this journey and I’m going with you.

That purpose can be that. That purpose can be praying for someone that you may never meet who’s going through a horrific situation that you’ve gone through and that can be purposeful too. Yes, what I am doing is purposeful, but I don’t want someone to think this was my intention. When my husband died, I was at the end of the hallway screaming, letting everything in the world go, and trying to figure out how not to be there. That’s where I was in 2017. This has developed into a space where I felt God leading, drawing, and calling me to show up for people because you and I both know there are so many people who feel alone in this grief journey.

My friends and family gave me space to have more love to pour out and to support people from my own experience. I wanted to just explain that the purpose part can feel like a weight that you have to because we start stuff, “I check that block.” What that block of purpose looks like may be different for every person. I feel it is fulfilling and it is helpful. It is needed, but where we show up and how we make purpose is unique to each individual.

I think it’s so important to be reminded that although that’s named as a part of the grieving process, it can’t happen until you’re ready and you may not ever be ready for it, but to carry the weight of it could make the journey heavy.

Yes, and we don’t need it to be any heavier at all. I will let you wrap up this conversation. Any thoughts or statements you feel like you may have wanted to cover that we didn’t? I’ll let you close this out.

I’ll take us full circle. I am so appreciative that you exist, that you’re creating this space, this opportunity for a great number of us to come here and to speak about issues related to grieving and loss that we don’t typically name face, turn toward, or voice. I’m grateful for our time together.

Thank you for being here. You have a wonderful day.

You too. Thank you.

Thank you for being here with me. Thank you for being part of this conversation and I am certain that it was helpful. I want to hear from you. I want to know what topics you want me to cover. I want to know if there are particular guests that you’re interested in me having and I want to know if you want to share your story. Please email me at WidowhoodRealTalk@Gmail.com. Talk to you later. Bye.

 

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About Dr. Christine Kiesinger

Widowhood Real Talk | Grieving ChildrenDr. Christine Kiesinger is the Principal of CEK Communication and regularly creates professional development training in exemplary leadership, team dynamics, workplace cultures that thrive, relational health, conflict resolution, stress, and trauma. Known for her dynamic presentational style, Christine’s trainings are grounded in the most innovative approaches to her subject matter. Christine is the co-creator and a lead facilitator of AMPLIFY: Women’s Leadership Certificate Program—the premier, innovative leadership development program for women in northeastern Pennsylvania offered through Leadership Northeast.Requests for Christine’s expertise in trauma sensitivity and competency hit an all-time high throughout the pandemic. In response, she created a unique program that emphasizes the communicative, relational, and somatic nature of trauma recovery. Over the last 2-years, she has led trainings and interventions for those in health care that address vicarious trauma, toxic chronic stress, loss and grief, and compassion fatigue. Christine is a certified Trauma Educator.

Thank you for viewing this post. I am not a licensed therapist or professional life coach.

I am sharing my experience of loving the same man for 32 years, a mother to two adult children, a retired military officer, a breast cancer survivor, and my connections with others.

Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should reach out to a suicide hotline or local emergency number in their country https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/suicide/suicide-prevention-hotlines-resources-worldwide