Real Men Cry: Grieving the Loss of the School Year and Other Losses

I had dogs growing up and I loved them, but they belonged to the family as a whole and I never felt like I had a special friendship with them. I was 27 years old when I had the opportunity to adopt Able. Able was older, but he had an amazing personality, was very spunky, and had the worst farts. Able was “my” dog. Able cuddled up next to me at night, hiked through Busiek Park with me, and eagerly whined every night for his fried egg. (Did I mention he was spoiled?)

I loved Able, yet Able was old when I got him. Three years went by and Able was not doing well and in a lot of pain. As Able got worse and worse I realized I was going to have to make a hard decision and dreaded it.

I consider myself a strong man. I have seen and done things that tested my resolve and come out the other end stronger. But I was not ready for when I had to put Able down. Here I was, a 30-year-old man, holding Able as they gave him the shot to put him to sleep, and I could not stop weeping. I mean, deep, heartfelt, uncontrollable weeping.

Now this is not always popular to admit, especially for a so called “strong male,” but there I was sitting on the floor of the vet’s office bawling my eyes out. The important part of this story though, is that while I was sitting on the floor weeping, my dad was silently kneeling besides me rubbing my back. I knew it was okay to grieve in front of my dad because he taught me to express how I was feeling growing up. In that moment there was no shame, no doubt, only love and compassion.

Grief was something I had experienced before, but never on such a personal level. I had been very lucky up until that point to view major events from an outside perspective. With Able, however, I was right there in the middle and I did not know what to do. For a couple days after he died, I thought about Able and wanted to cry. Sometimes I did cry. Able was a special dog, and I needed to grieve his passing.

Grief can come from a great many things, not just the loss of a loved one.

You may be grieving the loss of the school year and your children may be grieving as well. You may not have thought about it in this way, but they have lost something very important to them.

Most kids look forward to August when they rejoin friends and classmates to spend hours a day in a building designed for them to interact with adults and their peers. Because of the global pandemic, this is now going away, or changed in ways that will alter the rest of their year.

Perhaps you have noticed some behavior changes or extra moodiness in your son or daughter. They may be experiencing sadness, anger, or frustration. They may be acting out, using language you find unacceptable and behaving in mouthy and disrespectful ways. People express their anger, fear and sadness in many different ways. There is not one set way to grieve and sometimes a parent can be frustrated or feel overwhelmed by their child’s mood or behavior. Grief does not happen in the same way for everyone and looks different in different people. It’s important to remember to let your children go through their process if they grieving in safe, healthy ways--even if it looks different from the way you are grieving.

Here are four strategies for you and your children to work through the grieving process together.

Create a calm, safe environment.  

This could be outside on a blanket staring up at the night sky, inside with the lights dim, curled up on their bed – anywhere they can express their thoughts, feelings, and frustrations to you. The goal of this for you is to maintain a connection, maybe with eye contact if the context allows. Practice active listening, i.e. giving your full attention to what they are saying and letting them know you want to hear what they have to say. Do your best to show them that no matter what they say you are listening with unconditional love and understanding.

Help your child say what he is feeling.

Ask your child what s/he was hoping to do in the new school year. You can even have them make a list of what they were hoping or expecting. Using descriptive words, such as “sad,” “lost,” “alone,” and “mad,” ask your child about how this event is making them feel. You might even ask them to make a list of feeling words. After they have described how they feel, have them write three things they are thankful for in that moment. This will help validate their feelings of loss, while providing them with an insight into the good they have surrounding them.

Ask about your child’s friends.

Ask your child what she thinks about her friends. What are they feeling? What are they saying? How are they handling their disappointment? The goal of these questions is to them that everyone handles things differently, yet more importantly they are not alone. This can be a scary task because we are trusting that the children our children are communicating with understand the situation the same way they do. This will require guidance and direction from you, but it can be extremely beneficial for your children to see how other children are coping.

Do something.

Find an activity, space, or group that can provide support and fun that school would have normally filled. Loneliness often accompanies grief. While it is not healthy to fill up all one’s time, so you don’t have to feel the sad feelings of loss, it is ok to fill some of your time building up your relationship and getting out of the house!

About Author

Drew Dilisio is the Community Support Specialist and Counselor at Good Dads. He is a recent graduate of Evangel University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, a husband and father. He can be reached for question or comment at drew@gooddads.com.