CHILDREN AND GRIEF: 5th in a 7 PART SERIES
By: Patti Doumany, MEd, LPC-S, RPT-S
Many children will experience the loss of someone they care about. Although grief is a natural part of living, few adults in our society are prepared or knowledgeable in how to support bereaved children. Facilitating healthy mourning can make the difference in a child growing up to be an emotionally healthy adult or a maladjusted adult. Therefore, adults who come in contact with grieving children have a responsibility to be prepared and to support these bereaved children. Children who are shown comfort and reassurance, listened to, whose feelings and thoughts are accepted and respected, regardless of the adult’s point of view, are free to do the work of mourning. We can not we take away the pain of suffering due to death, but we can offer patience, a listening ear, and a safe place for children to freely express themselves without fear of judgment.
I have previously addressed the first four central needs of mourning. (As outlined by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition) They are 1) acknowledging the reality of death, 2) embracing the reality of the loss by moving toward pain, 3) converting the relationship from one of presence to one of memory, and 4) the developing a new self-identity.
The 5th need of mourning is: Search for Meaning in the Loss. You can tell when children are searching for meaning. They may ask questions such as “Why did Daddy go to be with God now?” “Why couldn’t the doctor make mommy better?” “How can a baby die in a mommy’s tummy?” Children will ask why and how questions to adults they trust. In my experience, children often search for meaning through their play and acting-out type behaviors. A common myth associated with this need of mourning is, adults need to provide answers. However; we do not have all the answers. By acknowledging that you do not know all the answers, you actually help the child to search for meaning. When you act as if you have all the answers, you only complicate the child’s mourning. This does not mean you don’t answer questions such as, “How did Daddy die?”, when you know that he died of cancer. In those instances the truth is what the child needs to hear. I know one parent who would not tell her son that his father had committed suicide. Instead, she simply said, “Your daddy got sick.” The child, who had developed extreme anxiety, was in therapy with me, and asked, “Are you going to get sick too?”
Children do not ask questions all at once. Something may trigger a grief response, such as a song, eating a food they had eaten when they were with the person that died, a smell, etc. By creating quiet or ‘un-busy” time for children, we allow for crucial thoughts and feelings of the heart to surface. It is important to talk openly about the child’s feelings or fears without leading the conversation or burdening the child with your own needs and fears. Another common myth found in our culture is the advice associated with avoiding the pain of loss, “You need to stay busy so you don’t think about it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The work of mourning is tough, but is necessary for healthy development and reconciliation. You may know teens or adults who have postponed their grief. They repress unpleasant feelings, by self-medicating through drugs, alcohol, food, sex addiction, etc.
Children and adults learn many important lessons in searching for meaning. They are reminded of the preciousness of life. They drop petty differences, observing the similarities in people of all cultures and walks of life. They adjust priorities, extend forgiveness, and learn compassion toward others. Children learn faith, hope, and that “the little things” in life are what matters most. Although I do not wish for any child to experience the pain associated with death, children have taught me that they have grown in ways they would have never grown had they not experienced the pain of grief.
Lastly, if you are grieving along with your child, searching for meaning in your own life, seek a trusted companion who can offer a listening ear. This person must be able to listen without judgment, giving advice, or offering solutions. Only when you have taken care of yourself can you be available to your child. A fitting analogy is the flight attendant who instructs parents in the event of an emergency. First place the oxygen mask over your own face, and then place the mask over your child’s face.