When a child’s feelings make a parent uncomfortable, sometimes that parent will try to talk the child out of those feelings. For instance, the child says, “I’m angry,” and the parent says, “Really? Over such a tiny thing? You’re so sensitive!” Or the kid says, “I’m sad,” and the parent says, “Don’t be sad. Hey, look, a balloon!” Or the child says, “I’m scared,” and the parent says, “Oh, honey, there’s nothing to be worried about.” But you can’t make feelings go away by pretending they aren’t there. In fact, the more you try to quash them, the stronger they get. That’s why explaining to your son that he shouldn’t be angry with his father hasn’t helped.
What will help is for you and your husband to model healthy grieving for your son. That means that if you’re sad, instead of holding back your tears, as you did when you learned of Lager’s death, let your son see you cry—this will send the message that it’s okay to cry when he’s sad, too. It means that your husband embraces his son in all his anger and grief, and talks to him about how bad he feels about his role in Lager’s death, how sorry he is for the pain he has caused, and how much he misses Lager too. He might even talk to your son about how he’s working on forgiving himself while also holding himself responsible for his mistake, and that even though that is very hard, he hopes his son learns to do the same when he makes mistakes. He might also add that even though he’s trying to forgive himself, his son does not have to.
Then, once you’re able to grieve together, you might create a goodbye ritual for Lager. That could be a small memorial service at which you share happy memories of Lager and say what you wish you’d had the opportunity to say to him before he died. You might plant a tree in his memory. Or perhaps you’ll create a video or photo collage, or a book of your favorite Lager stories, or a box of items that belonged to Lager that would be comforting for your son to hold on to. And even then, remember that just because Lager died, he’s still very much alive in your son’s memory, and likely always will be, so he should feel free to talk about him as much as he wants.
Going through this process will not only help to heal the wound between your son and his father, support your son in his pain, and honor Lager—it will also do something just as important: set the stage for navigating loss with grace, empathy, and resilience, which is a gift that your son will carry into the future.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.