It was Spring in Michigan. Spring means change. Change in the rising and setting of the sun. Change in the morning bird song. Change in the temperature. And for the Jamieson family, that spring meant a big change in our lives.
My wife and I accepted a call to serve as pastors at a church in California. We were thrilled about the job change, but it meant moving. Moving meant listing and selling our first house, taking our daughter out of school part way through the year, and saying goodbye to so many good friends. It meant the future we had envisioned in Michigan wouldn’t come to pass, and we had to reimagine what our future would look like in the Golden State.
Meanwhile, I worried for my daughter. Everyone told me that kids are resilient and at her young age, the move would hardly even phase her. I believed them and for the most part she has shown incredible resilience. Shortly after arriving in California, she started at a new school and within a matter of days had made friends with many of the girls in her class. Our neighbors had a boy around her age that she went on to spend all summer playing with. She seemed to be doing better than expected. In fact, she seemed to be doing great!
Until, that day when she said, “Dad, I miss Michigan…” Maybe she wasn’t doing as well as I thought.
She recently facetimed with her best friend from Michigan. They laughed, told stories, and played games just like they did when they lived down the street from each other. They met on the first day of kindergarten and bonded over their unicorn and sparkles backpacks. These two were made for each other. So, when my daughter expressed her sadness about the move, I realized that kids may be resilient, but they still feel every emotion that comes with being human.
The Grief Recovery Method teaches that grief comes up anytime we experience loss. Grief is the conflicting emotions we feel after a loss. A loss might be something as life changing as the death of a parent or as seemingly small as a change in a daily routine. A move is a significant loss. It’s an opportunity for something new, but a letting go of what was. Among other emotions, the loss from a move can bring up happiness and sadness or joy and regret at the same time.
My daughter was grieving the loss of her life in Michigan. So, the question for me was, how could I support her as she navigated this grief? I’ll be the first to admit I was far from perfect in this process, but here are few strategies that I've found to be helpful.
I gave her the space to express and feel her emotions. My goal wasn’t to make my daughter happy instead of sad. My goal was to accept her in whatever emotion she was feeling. Kids need to know that their parents are okay with their sadness and anger as well as their happiness and joy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s so difficult to see my daughter upset, but if she can’t be upset with my wife and me, then who will she be able to be upset with.
When she said, “I miss Michigan,” I didn’t shut her down by telling her how great her life is now in California with her new friends, home, and church. Instead, I responded by saying, “It makes sense you miss Michigan. What do you miss about Michigan?” To which she would often respond by naming one or two people or things she missed. Often times, kids don’t need a long conversation, just an acknowledgment that their emotions are valid and they have gone through a real loss.
I’m honest with my daughter about why we moved. I don’t focus only on the positive reasons for moving, but I also share about the negative reasons. For instance, I was thrilled about the opportunity to pastor in California, but I was also moving because the job I had in Michigan had become too difficult for me to manage. I needed a change and I let me daughter know that.
Getting hands on often helps the young ones in our lives to process grief. I spend time praying for people in Michigan with her, so that she knows we don’t have to forget them. We tell stories about our lives in Michigan--the pets we owned, the swing set we built, the neighbors we had. We look at pictures together of our old house and neighborhood. We write letters and send packages to old friends. We reminisce and give thanks for the many good years we had.
I try to make the most of the spiritual conversations and prayer times that I share with her. I talk to her about the incredible reality that God is with us every moment of every day no matter where we are. I also remind her that God will help us through our painful emotions and we are never alone.
It seems to me that her refrain, “I miss Michigan,” is like a lament from the Psalmist. The psalmist writes in Psalm 6:3, “My soul is deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?” As parents, we have all kinds of things that we long for God to bring to an end, especially painful emotions. So, when our children express their grief to us, let us be reminded that God hears their laments too and does not leave us alone as we seek to be the best parents we can to our children. Maybe, God is using our children’s laments to remind us that we too have a Father in Heaven who makes space for us to share our grief and name our losses as well.
Rev. Joel Vande Werken
Rev. Joel Vande Werken