Parenting Forward after Grief with Michele Benyo
February 14, 2023
Parenting Forward after Grief with Michele Benyo

Imagine the two most difficult things that you could possibly go through happening simultaneously. Parenting a child, and the grief of losing a child. Now imagine parenting a surviving child after they lose their sibling.

Surviving children need unique care to work through their grief, in the midst of the parent sitting in their own grief. And while there are many grief support groups out there, parents need help in working through the day-to-day trials and tribulations that happen as the surviving child hits milestones that their sibling never had a chance to experience.

This week’s episode is for parents who have lost a child and caregivers of the surviving children. Because, like any aspect of child development, the more who can support the child the better.

Listen in to a sad but heartwarming story about why play matters to grieving children, why language and vocabulary is so important to grieving children, how to manage your own grief while parenting, and why grieving adults need to take care of themselves first.

About Michele Benyo:

Michele Benyo is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist®, early childhood parent coach, and the founder of Good Grief Parenting. After her 6-year-old son died of cancer, her 3-year-old daughter said, “Mommy, half of me is gone.” This heartbreaking statement focused Michele’s career as an early childhood parenting specialist on the impact of grief on young children, particularly after child loss. Michele equips parents and other caring adults to recognize young children’s grief and to provide the support children need to build resilience and cope well with any loss. The desire of Michele’s heart is to see families thrive after loss and live forward toward a future bright with possibilities and even joy.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:27] – Michele’s catalyst for Good Grief Parenting
[3:01] – Michele’s case study about how deeply children are impacted by trauma and loss
[4:18] – Would not have recognized the impact if not for the experience
[5:50] – Founded Good Grief Parenting to help parents find hope and encouragement and goodness in grief
[6:15] – How Good Grief Parenting is unique, especially for formative years
[8:23] – As parents, we can grapple with loss of child, but the sibling left needs support
[9:11] – What adults need to know about how children grieve
[10:19] – Kids need a chance to tell us how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking
[10:46] – Encourage kids to talk about their grief and loss
[11:20] – Parents need to learn how to say that a child died
[12:47] – How parents can manage their own grief and support other children
[14:20] – Be the parent that’s grieving child at the same time as taking care of living child
[15:32] – We can find goodness and bring it into the family
[16:35] – Childhood is best time to learn grief coping skills
[18:10] – 3 ways to support grieving children
[19:55] – Turbo Time
[24:55] – Michele’s Magic Wand
[27:29] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:00
Hi, Michele, it is so good to have you on education evolution.

Michele Benyo 1:11
Thanks, Maureen. It’s really good to be here. Thank you.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:16
And listeners today I’m chatting with Michele Benyo of good grief parenting. Michele, your catalyst is a sad and powerful one. How did you get started on this path?

Michele Benyo 1:30
Oh, you know, I, I became a parent in my mid 30s. And I had a career in public relations communications and but I had been a teacher in my first life. And when I had my first child, I loved it. And in Minnesota, we have a program called early childhood family education. So I went back, when I became a mom, I thought I want to do this I want to go back to teaching as a parent educator, I went back and got my master’s and family education and was teaching family education classes with parents every day of kids, my children’s ages, by the time I started the work, I had two children, my son and my daughter, and I thought my world was perfect. What fun to spend my days with parents of young children while I was raising my own and just loving it. Yes. But then, in that first year of teaching, my four and a half year old son was diagnosed with cancer. And his his sister was 15 months old. And that was something of all the things I was prepared for I wasn’t really prepared for this child who had that suddenly was not carefree and innocent. The way that you know that we want of course, childhood really never is that. But we want it to be that and believe that it’s that. And my daughter at the age of 15 months, the first night that her brother was in the hospital away from home with his dad, I was home with her. She wandered around the house that night making a sound that was in human, she was just wailing. And I would go to her and try to comfort her and she pushed herself pushed away from me and throw herself on the floor. And for the next two and a half years. She made it clear to me that very first night, that she was deeply in this to that this was an experience that was really deep for her. And two and a half years later, after we went through this horrendous journey as a family. Her brother died. She was three and a half. And she said to me, mommy, half of me is gone. Oh, so yes. So this, I say she was from the very beginning my little case study about how deeply these really young children are impacted by, you know, trauma and by loss. And as I say I was in the field before I became a parent. And before I became a parent educator, I would have been like so many adults and I would not really have recognized how deeply she was impacted by this. And so it really became my mission. And I thought you know, I’m in this field, I’ll find the help she needs. I don’t know how to do this. I’d never done really that kind of grief for anyone. I’d never lost anyone really important to me before and so it was all new to me. But especially having to take a young child through it who said to me, mommy, half of me is gone. I couldn’t find resources I should say this was One to two years ago, that little three and a half year old is now 26. And I couldn’t find resources then to help me parent her. I didn’t need therapy, I, you know, we did a grief support group. And that gave me a good grounding in how to how to try to cope with my loss. But it was the parenting forward and having her whole lifetime ahead of her was half of her gone, that I didn’t know how to do. And when I had to figure it out on my own, I knew I was someday going to have to share what I learned, I went through my own journey, just really paying attention to what I needed, and what others may need, and certainly what my daughter needed. And eventually, really, not until my daughter was graduated from high school, I founded Good grief parenting for that purpose, to help parents find hope and find encouragement and the goodness in grief because we don’t want to believe it. But there’s goodness in grief. And how can we bring that into our families and live forward in spite of the something that many of us consider just really the most devastating loss we could experience?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:17
So yes, I like what you say about parenting forward, live forward with in a crisis, I think people are thinking survival, not future. So is the work you do with grieving families unique.

Michele Benyo 6:31
It’s unique, because I help parents understand and I focus on the early childhood age, that’s really my heart because we know how significant those formative years are. And boy, that was an eye opener for me, when I went back and got my, my master’s and family education and really learned about early development, which I otherwise I would have been a parent, like so many other parents who are just marveling at this little person growing, and not really grasping the import of everything that’s going on in that little brain. And so I just really got this, and knew that the experience she was having was going to impact her for years to come. And not just at the point of loss, there was all this development that was going to evolve from there, that was where she was going to process, her loss and her experience, and this void in her life differently. And as a parent, I didn’t know how to do any of it. And it wasn’t just at the point of loss it was when she went to kindergarten, I got a call from the teacher saying she was really, really having a hard time getting her picture taken. Because her brother was thin kindergarten when he died. And she was connecting with that. And her little kindergarten picture, I can’t look at it without seeing this little girl who was grieving her brother when her picture was taken. And through the years, there were a number of points where that part of her identity just really was front and center and impacting what was going on with her. As parents, we, you know, we can grapple with our own loss of our child, and we’re adults, and we have our capabilities, and we have our understanding, but this child continues to reprocess and refocus and re grasp and we have to, we have to walk with them through all of it and how on earth do we do it? So what I do is help parents with that longevity of parenting and that it’s, you know that it’s gonna evolve.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:55
Yeah, so I hadn’t really thought about I mean grief that I have as an adult. I’ve gone through most of my developmental stages, but how a child carries that through developmental stages. So what do we adults need to know about how children grieve?

Michele Benyo 9:13
We need to know first and foremost that they do grieve, whether we see it or not, and that the way that children process grief is through play. We so underestimate the power and the impact of play for children. My daughter said, unequivocably, half of me is gone. But when I observed her in her environment, most of the time she looked she looked like a typical three and a half year old claim. I could count on one hand the number of times in those early years where I just really saw her showing her grief because normally it was in play. So I had but I had to just know Oh, that she really was grieving. And if I tuned into her play, I might hear her singing about her brother. But otherwise she looked like she was just playing. And parents will often say they look like they’re doing okay, so I think they are, and then we don’t want to bother them. And we really do need to give children a chance to tell us how they’re feeling. Tell us what they’re thinking. We, in my family, what I learned from my first, you know, grief support group was yes, talk about it in your family, you don’t hide your grief from your child. So I learned to do that to share my own grief with her. But the thing I would also tell parents is, say to the child, I could say, I’m really missing David today, I feel really sad. When do you miss Dave? And the most? How are you? Are you thinking about David today, too? What are you thinking about? Give them chances to talk, don’t be afraid of it, don’t tuck it away and allow it to become this elephant in the room. Because we none of us grows up very well, with an elephant in the room. The other thing I really had to learn, and I think I’m a typical adult in this way, I really had to learn to be able to say that my son died. And to use that word to describe what happened to my beloved child, two, my daughter’s best friend and beloved brother, he died. And when I when I told her the word, she didn’t know what it you know, she couldn’t grasp it the way I could as an adult. But it was the only word that accurately told her what happened to her brother. So we give them that word, we tell them, when someone dies, their body stops working, they can’t do any of the things that they used to be able to do. They can’t play, they can’t sing, they can’t talk to you anymore. And we’re not going to see them again. And the child will have to process that. And as they get older, they’ll learn more about death. And then they’ll come and say, Tell me about when David died. What happened, how? Tell me about it, mom. So that is I think the thing for adults to know is that your child is grieving. They don’t need to be protected from it. They need to be given opportunities for it to be in the open, they may not want to talk about it when you ask them. But we give them opportunities. And at some point, they will have questions and they will want to talk.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:42
Absolutely. Michele, how do parents manage their own horrific grief? And try to be present for their child? Was there any way to kind of make that happen?

Michele Benyo 12:56
Two things that you know, two things I would say about that? Because that really is the million dollar question you are doing when you’re bereaved parent, raising a child, you’re doing the two hardest things that you’ll ever in your life have to do. Parenting, under the best of circumstances is the hardest thing you have to do. As an adult, when you’re a parent and grieving is something that is hard for all of us, when you’re doing them both at the same time. Remember two things. One, you do need to take care of yourself. And you need to do that. First. You can’t if you really have you do when you’re aggrieved, or if you really have these painful needs, you need to identify what’s really going to help you not with some what someone else thinks, you know, you should do because that may or may not be the right thing for you, but figure out what will be helpful for you. And make sure that you get your needs met by enlisting the help of others. And it’s good for your child to see that mom is feeling this to this big thing I’m feeling and she’s taking care of herself. She needs to do things to make herself feel better. So do I It’s okay for a mom, it’s okay for me. The other thing I would say to adults is that you go through it together as a family. And that’s why that being willing to talk about it really is a good thing because it makes it easier for you. You don’t have to be strong and you don’t have to be one or the other. You can be the parent who is really grieving your child at the same time that you’re taking care of this living child and you can those two things can go together. That’s good modeling for your child and it really makes it easier for you as a family to go through it together. And then I do help parents kind of know how to do that, you know, what are the ways that we talk about it? What are some of the things we can do and the and the tools that we can use in our family to make this process of grieving and healing to gather, be something that’s manageable and something that we can go through as a family and know that we’re going to come to a better place? Absolutely.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:25
Well, not everybody that might need your resources lives in Minnesota. How do you connect with families to offer your supports?

Michele Benyo 15:36
I actually do my work online, virtually, my website is good grief parenting. And what I do is coaching group and individual coaching, I have a program that does a lot of educating around grief, because I found that I really need to start with helping adults recognize how they themselves see grief. For me to call it good grief parenting required a learning curve for me, because none of us thinks of grief as good. But grief is it’s a normal, ordinary, albeit painful part of life and loss and living and dying, but it carries goodness with it. And we can, we can find that goodness and bring it into our family and help our child learn how to cope with losses and hardships and become resilient and have coping tools. That’s why say, childhood is even the best time to learn about grief because then we don’t grow up to be an adult like I was who, who really had no tools. When I went into it, I would rather now my daughter is much better prepared than I was. And so so families can find me at Good grief parenting, I have a link tree link, if, if your listeners are familiar with Link tree links, they’re the thing now where there’s one link that people can visit and find a lot of resources, you can find my good grief guide, and the link tree link is just with a dot between the R and the E you’ll you’ll put this link in the show notes. Oh, good grief, parenting, good grief parenting on any of the platforms is where you’re going to find me. I’m on Instagram and Facebook as well and have a Facebook group. So yeah, wonderful.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:37
I love that you’re both group and individual. And that you’re accessible online means accessible and easy to have transportation maybe not having to have babysitters just, it means a lot of different advantages. So thank you.

Michele Benyo 17:51
Absolutely. And I am available for people to talk with me one of the links you’ll find at link tree is a link to make an appointment just to ask me questions just to pick my brain a little bit. And I’m available for that for anybody.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 18:05
Wonderful. So kind of pulling it together, what are three ways that parents can best support grieving children?

Michele Benyo 18:15
The first thing I would say is to take care of yourself and to be open and invite conversation with children. Be willing to ask them, you know, when kids are acting up and they’re grieving, chances are it’s that behavior and that and that feeling are connected and talk to them about you know what they’re feeling open that conversation, be honest with the information you give them, don’t give them something fluffy that we like to tell kids to make it you know, feel better, that can be very confusing. So be honest, use the word died. Honor grief when they experience that they’re going to experience grief. And for a lot of different things. It may be you know, the caterpillar that died that they thought they had as a pet and we’re excited about that could be grief, honor it. And the way we honor it is to recognize that yes, you lost something important to you. And that doesn’t feel very good. Don’t try to make them feel better. Let them learn that. Yeah, sometimes it’s normal and natural to feel bad. And we don’t always have to feel better. We will feel better. Eventually. We’re capable. We’ll get through this. But yes, of course that makes you sad. That’s honoring grief. And that’s giving them permission to share their grief and their difficult feelings with you as they grow up so that they can get your support and the support of other adults around them. So those would be my tips.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:50
Wonderful. I love to wrap up with turbo time questions just to get to know you better when But that connection is important, not just the amazing work you’re doing, but who you are. So can I ask you a few questions?

Michele Benyo 20:07

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:08
Okay, what’s the last book you read?

Michele Benyo 20:11
Oh, you know, I tried to read novels, but I never get through them. The last one I read actually was atomic habits by James clear, yes, I had ignored that book for a while thinking that it would be like, you know, other books that try to tell you how to make better use of your time, but at some point, it struck me to read it. And I just thoroughly enjoyed the information in it. I thought it was kind of a fresh take on how to make small changes to get big results. And I just yeah, it was a very good book. I enjoyed it.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:49
I agree. I’m with you on that. Yeah. How about a pet peeve of yours?

Michele Benyo 20:54
Oh, well, I’m kind of a grammar geek. And one of my biggest pet peeves is misuse of apostrophes. And the two, two biggest ones are when people put apostrophes in plurals that don’t belong there. And even autocorrect does it. It’s infuriating to me when autocorrect makes errors in my text, which it does from time to time. And the other pet peeve is the misuse of the apostrophe in the word, you’re when they say, you’re, you’re going to love it, and they spell it while you are without the apostrophe R E like it’s supposed to. So those are really common errors that I see. And they drive me crazy.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:45
So I should rewind, and I should have asked you, may I ask you a few turbo time wishes instead of can I?

Michele Benyo 21:53
Oh, well, you know, I didn’t even catch that. The same about grammar. I’m an old school, I came out of college back in the 70s, an English teacher because I loved grammar. At my age now what I have to learn is to relax a bit. Because the culture is relaxing in the use of language. And so I’m, I’m not I try there, those comma things, bug the heck out of me. But there are other things where I say them that way too, because that people just are relaxing. And I think it’s important to do that as well except language, as it’s used in many ways. So you can say cam when you should say me, I’m impressed that you knew the difference.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:42
Oh, I love grammar. I love conventions, saying this. I can picture it. What’s your favorite thing or fun fact about Minnesota?

Michele Benyo 22:52
No, I I’m a Minnesotan. Who’s supposed to be a Minnesotan? I don’t like Minnesotans who complain about the snow. I grew up on in a small town up on the Canadian border where we always had piles of snow and I grew up out in the snow. And I love the snow, the more the better for me. So I think Minnesota is a best kept secret. We’re beautiful state. Were Beautiful in the summer. But I also love our winters.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:24
Yes. And what is something about you that most folks don’t know?

Michele Benyo 23:30
The thing they don’t know, that is probably the most monumental thing that ever happened to me. And that was when I was in high school and I and my English teacher knew I wanted to be an English teacher. And yet I could not get up in front of people. I was so scared. I grew up as I said in this small school in northern Minnesota and have wooden floors in the school building. And when I would give up Get up for a speech class to give a speech, I would shake so badly that the floor would shake. And this English teacher of mine in 10th grade got me into speech. And I used to practice to the back of his head because I wouldn’t let him look at me. But I went into speech I went to state the finals in state in speech, I came out able to speak not only able to speak but loving to speak and to this day, I don’t have stage fright. Even when the audience is big I just really don’t have stage fright. And and so people would find it kind of hard to believe that once upon a time I really really did have stage fright, but

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 24:46
wow. Yeah, that’s a good thing. Yeah, I’d like to wrap up the podcast interview with a magic wand moment and sadly there is no magic wand that can prevent childhood death or deeply traumatic and grief filled experiences. So with your magic wand Michelle, what would you wish that adults could know and do to support families who have lost a child or gone through some horrific trauma,

Michele Benyo 25:20
I would make people unafraid of grief, and willing to tap into it tap into their heart, to extend themselves to the family that has had the loss and the children who have had the loss, because we all experience grief. And we all know that it feels horrible. And we are so uncomfortable with other people’s grief. I just wish that we could be comfortable with it. And standby, we don’t have to do anything. There’s nothing we can do to make a person’s grief better, or go away. So just be willing to say, I, I’m sorry, this happened to you, I’m here for you. And just let them know you’re there. Just be willing to give people your presence and a voice to tell you what’s on their heart. That’s what I would wish that simple, different difference in our society would make such a difference if people just realize they don’t have to do anything, because they can anyway, just be present.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 26:35
That is beautiful. Michele, thank you for taking this horrible bundle of lemons and turning it into lemonade, turning your urine, your grief into something that serves others, and for all that you’re doing to help us all understand better the natural experience of grief and not to fix it.

Michele Benyo 27:00
Yes, well, thank you marine for the opportunity. And I love you mentioning the lemon because that’s the analogy I use a lot. You know, it’s a common analogy. And it works so well for grief. Let’s make some lemonade or lemon bars or something out of that lemon.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:17
Absolutely. Thanks, Michele.

Michele Benyo 27:19
Thank you Maureen.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 27:29
Wow, I am so impressed that Michele has taken something incredibly painful and very personal, and used it to guide other families dealing with the grief of losing a child. Parenting is the hardest thing in the world. And losing a child must be the hardest thing in the world. Combining these together, I can’t imagine the difficulty. Her strategies really challenge our culture that wants to bury uncomfortable emotions or fix awkward situations, to us honest talk and share our emotions transparently. This takes courage and to sit with someone in their grief and just say I am present. I am with you is a stretch for many of us. I appreciate the Michele gave us a script that we can use like I am missing my son and when do you most missed your brother to help us know what this conversation could look like with our children. Or you lost an important person. And yes, that doesn’t feel good. Just to name things simply. She’s not using language to explain anything, rather, to validate that child’s feelings and experience. Interesting. I know most of us are aware that children process and learned through play it’s a very important part of childhood. And so much structured time is worrying many early childhood experts that our kids are not getting that time to play. And we all have seen I know I saw this as a kindergarten teacher when kids are using dolls or playing make believe or having puppets talk that they act out scenarios from their life. So it’s really important that we let them play and we listen in to understand what they might be going through.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 29:28
Also, Michele told me offline that she does trainings for preschool teachers. With all that we know about early childhood trauma and acute childhood experiences. It is really important that we have this resource available for those who are working with and teaching our young learners. Michele gave us a big challenge with her magic wand. She is encouraging us to be present for another person who is in deep grief and to become comfortable being in the moment with that person. Without doing or fixing anything, we can give this gift to others. As always, thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 30:20
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in shownotes go to education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education.

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