Our hamster died last night. And while we didn’t necessarily want a hamster (we got him in a white elephant gift exchange at a Christmas party) he was a sweet little part of our family. He came with all the fixins- a cage, food, bedding and a name. Stan. In honor of our beloved leader at the camp where we all worked together. When the hamster was “opened” at the party and our kids realized they could steal him in the exchange, it was all over. He became Stan Spiderman Day and we loved him.
So this morning we had to sit the kids down and tell them. They cried. They wanted to lay on their beds alone for a while. They wanted to see him in the little box we made and they want to bury him in our yard. They wanted to pray. They suggested we put a picture of him on the wall. And then they proceeded to have a grouchy sort of day where they didn’t want to do anything hard.
Losing your hamster when you are 8, 6 and 2 is heartbreaking. But as we were talking to the kids this morning, I was keenly aware that this is just the tip of the iceberg. They will experience much greater loss in their lifetimes. Much much greater.
I’ve written about grief before and have experienced some painful loss of my own. I know that grief is unpredictable and often overstays its welcome. I know that it shows up in much less glamorous ways than you expect. Like lots of grouchy days where you don’t want to do anything hard. Days when you feel so heavy and empty at the same time. Days when you can’t imagine how people around you are going about their daily lives. Angry closed off days, open-hearted ugly crying days, days when you can almost imagine a future when you won’t hurt so badly.
I have dear ones in my circle who are in the midst of trying to find life after big time loss and it is grueling. Loss of a community, loss of a marriage, loss of a parent, loss of a spouse, loss of a child, loss of hope. The kind that makes you wonder if you can survive and if real joy will ever return.
And although everyone grieves differently, there are some universal things to know when supporting people who have lost big.
- Give them the freedom to feel how they feel even if it doesn’t make sense to you. The sting of it can well up at any time, even if there is no obvious trigger. And their sadness will likely last far longer than you’re comfortable with. Encourage them toward healthy help if you see the need, but don’t try and control it.
- Be bold enough to bring it up. Ask people how they are doing and if they are not comfortable talking about it, they will tell you. Ignoring it feels more painful somehow.
- Let them know you are thinking of them on the obvious hard days. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays.
- Encourage them to find (or gift to them ) ways to remember. A friend of mine swims in the ocean every year on the anniversary of her mom’s death and invites people to join her. When we lost our baby Judah at 16 weeks, we received some timely and meaningful gifts. A tiny Christmas ornament, an engraved wind chime, a handmade blankie, a box of daffodil bulbs, and more. On his due date we took the kids to the beach and made an Ebenezer, we wrote Judah’s name in the sand and on some rocks. And then the following year on Mother’s Day we bought a necklace for me that has 3 birthstones- one for each baby we lost.
- Don’t wait for them to tell you what they need. “Let me know if you need anything” usually ends in us doing nothing. Just start doing things. Bring them flowers, invite them out, cook them dinner, send them a gift. They can say no and if they do, don’t be offended. And if they ever express a specific need, do what you can to meet it. It probably took a lot of energy for them express it.
So we’re headed to the backyard with the kids to say some words about our hamster friend and pray over their little hearts. I think I’ll print a picture of Stan Spiderman and put it up so we will remember his cute face. And I’ll hope that the little ways our kids are learning to experience loss now will help them sort through their future grieving processes with less fear and more freedom, knowing that Jesus holds their hearts.