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
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,