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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Helping Children Grieve

I have had death and funerals on my mind a lot lately, after the 1st year anniversary of my grandfather's death in April, and having attended a funeral yesterday for a couple from my church who were tragically killed last week. While I have been dealing with these things personally on an emotional level, I have been also looking at them on an analytical level ('grist for the mill', as they say in my field, which means that everything is fodder for therapy). I have been observing, and pondering upon, how people handle and deal with grief, especially where children are concerned. These are some of the things I have come up with so far. 

Beliefs change everything.
How we see the world changes how we react to the things that happen in it.
One of the things I see often in my work is parents unsure of how to communicate with their children about death. "What do I tell him?" "How do I make her understand that her mom's not coming back?" "How much do I tell him?" "Should I tell her the truth?"

One of the biggest determiners of how a child responds to news of losing a loved one is determined by their family's beliefs, and openess about, what happens to a person when they die. Some families are not very open with their children about family beliefs, perhaps out of fear of not allowing them to make up their own mind, their own uncertainty of what happens next, or just uncomfortability with discussing things they feel are very private or too mature for children to understand. This parental "mute button" can be very difficult for children because they need clear, strong answers. Better for them to have an idea to start with than a big question mark on something this important.

Another thing that begins to happen with the 3, 4, 5 year olds I work with who have lost a loved one, is they begin to display behaviors which appear to be "psychotic" to their caregivers. They talk to pictures, claim to see visions of their deceased loved ones, or just sit and talk to them. I always hasten to normalize this. I either accept the family's spiritual interpretation oif they have one, or explain that children's imaginations often compensate for loss in creative ways. The same way as that child would have had an imaginary friend, they may substitute their parent, grandparent, or other deceased family member in that place.

The only truly "bad" responses to grief for children are shutting down and refusing to answer their questions, or becoming frighteningly out of control when asked.
"I don't want to talk about this," "Not now," or just ignoring the question, can all send the message that death is even scarier than the child thought, that its something people don't talk about, and that its best to ignore and squelch grief just like mommy and daddy.
Or, if a parent responds with great emotionality ("I can't handle this!!!! Life is over now!"), a child will get the message that A. Mommy or daddy are too weak to talk about serious things and B. The event was so traumatic and horrible that life will never be good again.

Calm, honest, appropriate answers and statements will have the best effect on a child in grief. People tend to be surprised at children's capacity to handle loss when the adults around them treat it appropriately.

I was personally very blessed to have a father who, when his father died, was willing to sit down and answer my sister and I's questions when we asked what had happened to Grandad. Although it must have been painful, he explained carefully and calmly to his 6 year old daughters about how Grandad's heart was sick and the doctors had tried to help but couldn't. Before this, he and our mother had the courage to sit down with us and tell us that they had to take him off life support, and endure our questions about whether he might get better, and why they would take him off machines that were keeping him alive. I can imagine how hard it was for them to stay calm and have this conversation with us, but they did.

But the strongest, most important gift my parents gave us was faith. I remember being afraid to ask if my Grandad was a Christian, because I was terrified he hadn't gone to heaven. When they told me he was and he had, I had peace. I missed my grandad, and hated watching my grandma be sad for so long, but I knew he was okay, so I was okay. For several years after he died I would take out his picture of him in his Captain's uniform and talk to him. I would pray and ask God to give him my messages as I rambled on about my life and how much I missed him. Over time I did this less, although every once in a while I still have conversations with him, and think about him often.

I wish for the children I work with that their parents would be able to handle grief as well as mine did. I saw my father and his brothers cry, and they weren't ashamed, so I wasn't uncomfortable. I saw my mother and father sad, but they never allowed their sadness to pull them away from their job of caring for us, and they always deferred their burdens to God, which allowed them to keep going and be who they needed to be. I watched my grandmother grieve deeply the loss of her soul mate, life partner, and husband, but she always remembered our birthdays and still had us over, even when it was hard for her to smile or make conversation.

I can even say that I grew a lot through seeing their grief. It was an important lesson, learning how to grieve, and one which will be needed to be used over and over again as the people I love grow older and life leaves me with scars. I hope that one day, when grief inevitably visits my own children, I have the strength and fortitude to sit down with them and help them understand and grieve with them.

In the meantime, I encourage my client's families to talk to them about what it means to die.
"What does your family believe about what happens when you die?" I ask.
"Have you talked to your daughter about where her grandpa is now?"

If they haven't talked about it, I encourage them to have those conversations. I also encourage them to give the children closure. Sometimes children aren't allowed at funerals or viewings or graveside ceremonies. I believe children should be allowed to participate in these activities, but it is up to the family to decide if the scene is appropriate for children (if you know your family is going to be hysterial at the funeral, for example, it may be a good idea to leave them with a sitter), but some sort of closure is necessary. Visiting the gravesite after the service, allowing their child to write a letter, freeing a balloon with well-wishes for the lost person, or something else equally symbolic needs to replace that moment of final goodbyes. Something that is so important for families to remember is that children won't be afraid if they aren't. Seeing his aunt's body in her casket at the viewing doesn't have to be frightening if you are holding your son's hand and encouraging him as he says goodbye. Also, talking to him later about how peaceful she looked can go a long way to normalizing grief and loss.

I encourage the parents to talk about the people who were lost, be honest about their own sadness, but never stop attending to the needs of the living, and always be open to talk with their children about what has happened, using terms they can understand in a manner which is calm and open. If the details are gruesome or traumatizing, I tell them not to lie, but to tell enough of the truth without the bad bits ("Your mom was in bad accident", "Grandad got real sick," "Your brother got hurt in fight and he isn't going to get better" are all probably sufficient without a child needing to know about the drunk driver which hit mommy, her grandfather's long, painful bout with stomach cancer, or their brother's murder until she is old enough to ask these questions and handle the answers with her parents' support).

What about you?

Did you find anything particularly helpful with your own children, students, or clients, which helped them cope with grief? And was there anything you remember as a child which helped, or hindered you, from dealing with loss?

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