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Should Children Gather at the Deathbed? What to Do For Kids When the Family is Grieving

Should Children Gather at the Deathbed? What to Do For Kids When the Family is Grieving
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I am not a child psychologist.

Phew! I’m glad I got that off my chest, because I want you to understand my observations about grief in children come not from a book or from earning a degree,  but from years of raising my own children followed by years of raising other people’s kids. I started noticing how differently children grieve when my son was murdered. My thirteen-year-old daughter seemed to have the capacity to grieve and to still enjoy her surroundings. If I hadn’t seen her at her saddest, I might have believed she did not grieve at all.

But she did. She grieved deeply, and the trauma manifested itself in life-long fears and dislikes. Children just don’t grieve the way adults do.

Very little children catch on quickly to sadness and stress in the air. They may react by being louder and fussier or wilder than usual because they don’t have the words to express verbally how they are feeling. Because they don’t have the emotional resources or capacity to deal with deep, persistent grief, they deal with it a little at a time. It’s as if they have a “disconnect” button that allows them to walk away from the pathos, and play, then later to rejoin the grief around them. That’s a good thing. As children get older, their capacity to do grief work increases. They can spend more time pondering their feelings and pulling out positives to hang onto in the loss.

Knowing this will help adults plan for the way children grieve. During a prolonged illness of a loved one, or a funeral, It is essential to have somewhere children can play and release energy. We tend to forget, at a hospital room or a church service, that kids need that distance to protect them. We give them “quiet toys” and expect them to respect the gravity of the situation. But hushing them, relegating them to a chair in a corner with a book, is not helpful to the child. And having a place where they can go to disconnect serves the adults well also.

If the adults in the family want to stay near the sick loved one, maybe a babysitter could be hired. Teen family members should not be counted on for child care unless they want to do it. They need that space as well.  So hiring a babysitter who will stay at the church nursery or at someone’s home, with the smaller children makes sense. Then, perhaps for thirty minutes at a time, the little ones can be brought into the family circle to deal with some of the grief.

Older children and teens might bring DVD players to the hospital and spend time in the waiting rooms, or they might go somewhere else altogether. They have the language skills to tell us what they want. They need to be included in the family gathering and in the planning, but we should remember that they are not yet adults and cannot process feelings the way adults do. So giving them space, but asking them to come back once in a while makes sense. Kids need to realize the reality of the situation, but not be overwhelmed by it.

And allowing a child to stay in the sickroom for hours on end, or relying on them to help in the care of the sick person, is not a good idea. That isn’t to say they can’t fluff a pillow or read to the person, but leaving the child ( even the teen) to care for someone who is gravely ill, or expecting them to keep a vigil with the adult members of the family does not allow them to get that essential disconnect.

There will be time later to delve into feelings and to work out the relationship questions that always accompany loss. We cannot, and should no shield children from the reality of death, but we have to let them work out things at their own pace. Society’s view that, after a week or two of mourning a loved one, we adults  should be able to get on with life is as unrealistic as expecting a child to shoulder the burden of constant grief.

Life drops things onto us out of the blue so when we can plan for  the way we as a family will approach illness or death, we should take advantage of the opportunity. If someone is gravely ill, and the possibility exists for their death, begin thinking about how the children will spend the mourning time. If a prolonged hospital stay is in the offing for a serious condition, find someone who will agree to help you care for your children while you keep the hospital vigil.

But remember, they will eventually need to process the grief. Be available for smaller children, taking your cues from their play or artwork. Teens and adolescents may temporarily need a grief group or counselor. You might, too.

But I’m not a psychologist, you know.

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