Death in the Family

Coping with loss and helping kids to grieve.

We all have dates in our lives that we will never forget. For me, other than my birthday, the day that most impacted my life happened on April 25, 1991. That was the day my mom, Audrey Atwood, lost her six-year-battle with breast cancer.

Until that late April day, I only knew of two other people whose moms had died: Cinderella and Snow White. That will tell you pretty much all you need to know about how my mother’s death affected my life. Here I was, a young girl about to experience the most important years of my life, and I could only relate to fairy tale princesses.

What I didn’t know then is that the loneliness and despair that would follow would ultimately form the foundation of a healing place not only in my life, but also in the lives of so many other people. That healing place is Kate’s Club. I founded this Atlanta-based not-for-profit organization to support and empower children facing life after the death of a parent or sibling. Kate’s Club brings kids and their families together to learn invaluable lessons about grief as well as life. It’s a place where family members discover that they deserve the happiness they fear has been lost forever, and a place where kids can stand on common ground with peers to find the hope and connection they desperately need.

I feel extremely fortunate to have used my experience to help hundreds of families at Kate’s Club. Here are three tips I advocate to help you in building a healing place in your home and life.

1. Don’t forget to take care of yourself.

I often meet parents who are deeply concerned about the well-being of their children, and they should be. I tell them what I will tell you— that you cannot truly support your children’s grief until you take steps to support your own. Reach out to those around you, make time for healing activities in your own life and understand that as much as you want to focus entirely on your children, a stronger you is best for them in the long run.

2. Take measures to maintain communication.

Grief isn’t readily visible, and it can easily hide behind the mask of a child searching for one’s child-like ways in the midst of a mature life experience. As hard as it seems, be active in maintaining communication as your family copes with a loss. Start by asking questions and sharing stories about the person you are remembering. You’ve all lost a different relationship with that person. And by opening this door, you allow your children the comfort of understanding that their emotions are valid. Your acknowledgement of your children’s grief goes a long way in helping them process the loss and move forward in their lives.

3. Pay extra attention during the “firsts.”

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are just around the corner. Be aware that these are potential times when your child’s grief may be more intense. Make these days special even though mom or dad may not be there to celebrate. Create a family activity that honors the family member you’ve lost on these days. This goes for all holidays. Your traditions will change. Work with your family to be the guardians of some old traditions and the architects of new ones that will be part of your new history.