A wee voice is heard asking, "Mommy, why did our baby have to die?" The sound of that voice, and the question it asks, resounds in our brains. We have asked the same question ourselves, and we have sought an answer only to find there isn't one. In our own confusion and frustration, we have two choices in responding to the wee voice of the child-we can ignore and deny the need for an answer and disregard the importance of treating children with respect, or we can muster our strength and our compassion and answer the question in the best way that we know how. I hope that the majority of adults will choose the latter as their only option.
As a parent, teacher, and counselor of children of all ages, I have heard many questions concerning loss issues and I have observed many grief related behaviors. I have also observed too many adults who were so tied up in their own grief and denial that they made large mistakes in dealing with children and loss issues. One of the biggest and in my estimation most unforgivable mistake is to not allow a child to grieve in a developmentally appropriate fashion. Based on this observation, I wish to state loud and clear to adults, if you cannot be supportive to a child in his/her grief, get out of his/her way and find someone who can. You do not have the right to impose your own fears and denial of grieving onto the children who need to grieve.
A very important aspect to acknowledge is that children experience the emotions of grief just as adults do. They experience anger, denial, and depression just as we do. They experience anger, denial and depression just as we do. These emotions are displayed differently depending on the age of the child, but they are real emotions and should be honored as such. Children experiencing loss who are pre-verbal understand the loss in their emotional self and will re-grieve that loss again and again as they grow and gain different and more complex coping skills. Language will come first in the stages of development and understanding of loss. We need to define, to understand, and to apply meaning to all that we learn in our lives, and we attach verbal definition to these experiences. We use terms like, "I am angry. I am sad. I am devastated." Children use verbal definitions also, although they may sound a little different than the terms used by adults. When someone says to a grieving person that the grieving process never ends, this phenomena of finding ways to understand the loss based on what we know is what they are referring to. We all will re-grieve our losses as we grow and change.
Remember that loss to a child does not always mean death. A loss is any occurrence in a child's life when something of significance to them has been removed from their daily living experience. A parent leaving through divorce or job demands, a change in living environments, a pet that dies, grandparents dying, a friend moving, etc. are all examples of loss. Let me state again that children know loss even if they cannot define it in our adult terms.
Well then, how do children grieve? Children grieve by crying which is a fairly easy cue to understand! They also grieve through their behavior. A normally talkative child may become quiet and withdrawn. Aggression towards another person or destructive behavior are fairly obvious behaviors to identify. But there are going to be some children whose grieving is subtle and difficult to identify. My suggestion to you is to be aware of any variance in behaviors and allow them to happen unless the behaviors are violent and abusive to another person or themselves. Be with the child in the "acting out" time and do not run away emotionally from the child. By being supportive you are giving the child permission to grieve. Be physically close to the child and touch him, hold him close to you. Sit in silence with the child. Usually the child will start talking about his thoughts if given enough time. You might begin a conversation by stating how you dealt with loss; how you grieved. These statements open doors to discussions. If the child is not ready to talk, just say something like, "If you want to talk about your feelings or thoughts, I'll be here waiting for you when you are ready." Never impose your timeline on another's grieving process. We all move in different rhythms.
Do not be alarmed if a child who sustained a loss at age nine years begins exhibiting behaviors of grief at age fifteen years. It is very common for children to express their grief when they feel the most able to cope with loss. Once again remember we re-grieve at different developmental stages in order to attach meaning to the loss.
You may have heard that the greater the loss, the process of grieving is more intense. This is true. These two factors are equal. The death of a parent will evoke much more substantial grieving than the death of a goldfish, but always remember, they are both a loss to the child. Never disregard the importance of the loss. You may find the loss silly and of little consequence but to the child, it may be monumental.
When a child asks questions, give clear, precise, honest answers. Do not give answers that will evoke confusion. When someone dies, they die. They do not go to sleep; they do not go away to live in the clouds; they die. Children are literal thinkers. When we give answers that are meant to soothe our own fear of death, the answers cause great distress in a child. I once knew a family whose young baby daughter died. They told the older four-year-old brother that she went to live with the angels in the clouds. Every time a thunderstorm happened, the little boy became very distraught. He thought his sister was going to fall from the clouds to earth. Only give the correct answers. This does not mean that you need to give a complete medical definition of the cause of death to a four year old-that would be developmentally inappropriate. Give answers they can understand on their level of awareness and knowledge. By answering openly and honestly, you are accomplishing several things. You will be giving permission for the grieving process to continue, you will be validating their questions and you will be promoting your own healthy response to grief and loss. Model to the children with your own permission to yourself to grieve. Cry with them, discuss your anger (appropriately) with them and be honest.
In closing here are the critical points of the interaction of adult/child in grief:
- Be there physically and emotionally for the child.
- Do not hide your feelings, be hones; model
- Give clear and honest answers to the child's questions
- Give "permission" for the child to grieve
- Know the child's pain by not numbing your own
Always honor your own emotions in the process of grief, and honor the children in their process of grief. Be gentle with yourself and know in your heart that grieving is a process that moves and changes; it is not stagnant. And through that change and growth will come healing and peace, but only if we allow the process to happen. Just as the river flows to the sea, we must allow the pain, anger and tears of grief to flow unhampered so the haling of a broken heart can begin.
Patti Fochi, M.A. Ed., is currently a teacher with Jefferson County Schools in Colorado. Patti has extensive experience in teaching adults and children about the grieving process. She wrote and published a book after the death of her son titled, The Promise of the Rainbow . . . after a child dies which is available by contacting Patti at 303-421-8517. She is available for speaking on the subject of grief and loss as well as facilitating workshops.
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