menu/ HELP BEREAVED CHILDREN RECOVER
It is said that grief is the price we pay for love. How do you grieve? Do you ignore your losses? Bury the feelings? Stay busy? Talk about them? Probably you will use the same method with your children. The following suggestions may help:

- You may want to think about doing things differently with your children so that they can have a healthy experience. If you express your feelings and accept support when you need it, your children will learn from your behavior.

- We adults are important role models for our children.

- Accept and acknowledge the reality that grief hurts! Don't try to rescue the child or yourself from the pain hoping that it will go away.

- Grief work is a healing process and it is work.

- At a time of the death and well beyond, children may feel frightened, insecure, and helpless. They need love, support and structure in their daily routine. Firm, caring rules should not be abandoned. In fact, a routine provides that sense of security and stability in, what to the child may be, a crazy, scary and mixed-up world.

- When children experience a death it is common for them to think about it happening again, either to themselves or to another important person in their life. Especially in the case of one parent dying, they often question who will take care of them if the other parent dies.

- Children need information given to them that they will understand at their age level. They need an explanation of the cause of death using the words die and/or dead. In trying to protect our children, we may use vague terms like going away or asleep. This only adds to their confusion. Honesty is the best policy.

- Do not tell a child something he or she will have to unlearn. Children will sense it when something is not true and will be reluctant to trust an adult who they think is not being truthful.

- Listen to children's responses to your explanations as well as to the questions they ask. Ask them what they understood; ask for feedback about your explanations, especially with the older children; and ask them what they need.

- It is important to listen and respect their feelings and experiences. Do not close the door to doubt, questioning, and differences of opinion.

- People within the same family will have different ideas, attitudes and opinions about what happened. This is all right as long as people have the truth.

- Watch out for kids trying to protect grieving adults by assuming the caretaker role. Children can be quite supportive. They also seem to know instinctively that the adults are suffering too and may be reluctant to make the adults suffer more by being sad themselves.

- Children will often need help in recognizing, naming, accepting, and expressing feelings. It is helpful to suggest physical or creative activities. For example, kicking boxes, tearing up paper, writing, painting, yelling, throwing dishes (preferably ones purchased at a garage sale!).

- Children can learn about death and grief prior to the actual death of a loved one, e.g. death of a pet - how is this handled? Is the pain unbearable and the puppy replaced quickly? What does this teach the child about life and death?

- Share personal religious beliefs carefully. Children may fear or resent a God that takes to Heaven someone they love and need. This discussion within the family is very important so the children are not confused or frightened.

- Realize that a child's grief may be difficult to recognize. Feelings may be expressed more in behaviour than in words. Helplessness, despair, fear, and anxiety may be acted out with aggressive behaviour. Sometimes anger is directed at the safest person, often a surviving parent. It may not be conscious or rational, but the child may feel that the parent should have prevented this tragedy. Talking about these feelings openly usually will mean that the child will work things out.

- Some children may go back to earlier behavior, such as thumb sucking, bed wetting, and clinging to parents. This is because the earlier time was a safe time, and when they feel safe again they will no longer feel the need to do these things.

- Anticipate and discuss possible strains on relationships with family and other children. Individual family members, and the family as a whole, most often are establishing a new identity without the person who died. The other children may be uncomfortable with your child now as they are forced to think about death when your child is around.

- Reassure children, especially younger ones, that they are not responsible for the person's death. All people die. Just as thoughts or words cannot bring the person back from death, so thoughts or words do not cause death.

- Parents need to know that once death is explained, it is not a closed subject. The topic will surface at very interesting times.

- Plus, grief lasts longer than anyone expects. Children continue to deal with grief as they grow and mature. Significant rites of passage, such as entering school, puberty or graduation, can be triggers for emotional reactions.

- It is a good idea to establish lines of communication with everyone involved with the child. Keep each other informed; for instance, grief usually causes difficulty in concentrating so school work may be affected. The balance between understanding the effects of grief and setting realistic expectations should be discussed with teachers, caregivers and other family members.

- Recognize the importance of rituals. Rituals allow you to channel your feelings and thoughts into an activity. They can make your feelings more manageable. It is often helpful to plan something at significant dates, like during a holiday season or on a birthday. Rituals can take several forms and can be done individually or as a family. For example, hanging a special ornament, lighting a candle, or setting aside a special time to remember.

Copyright 2002 Griefworks BC

Access Griefwork's excellent archieve of articles on grief!

stewarding children's grief - helping families heal together

There is tremendous diversity in the way we choose to heal from grief.

We each have our own path and gender is, of course, just one of the many factors involved in the direction that path may take. The question arises, "How can we honor such diversity within a family unit at a time of great loss?"

Each person within the family may very well have a different way of healing themselves. Some persons may have a great need to talk, others may need to connect their grief with action, while another might be quietly healing in his or her own private manner. This diversity can often lead to trouble in the family with barbs being thrown or held in consciousness about some other family member not grieving in the "right" way.

The following is meant to get us started in examining some ideas about healing grief within our family.

My son and I were playing a friendly game of catch. As I tossed him the ball, I noticed the mitt he was wearing. It had been my father's baseball glove which he had used when I was in Little League. I remembered the many times my father had gone to Little League practice and coached or hit fly balls to us. Sports was not really his forte, but he made sure to be a part of my life. A scientist and researcher with NASA, he was a dedicated father who enjoyed spending time with his three children and involving himself with their separate interests.

Luke, my seven-year-old son, had chosen that particular glove as his own, perhaps because it was old and very flexible and perhaps due to its having been his grandfather's. This glove has given us many opportunities to talk about my father and his death last November.

As we toss the ball back and forth, it is a link into my father and his history. Luke and I have had many of these conversations, usually quick and to the point. Luke might make a particularly good catch and then say it was the glove that helped him with such a spectacular play. I then might say, "Yeah, that's a special glove. I sure do miss granddaddy." Luke agrees and points out that he misses his sense of humor; the game goes on.

These short interludes serve us both as a way to remember and honor our pain at the loss of my father, and his grandfather. Healing grief is a matter of chipping away at the potent feelings over and over again. Taking small chunks during an activity such as playing catch is certainly a valid form of healing.

My daughter Julia (13 years old) has a very different way to approach her pain.

Julia will approach me and request "special time" meaning we are to sit and talk about something. She says, "I miss Granddaddy," and proceeds to talk of her feelings of loss. She already has the agenda and will happily orchestrate the conversation. This too, is a valid form of healing.

A part of the reason for the difference between Julia and Luke is their age. Julia is more developed physically / psychologically and has a more sophisticated understanding of her emotions. But there is also a difference that has to do with gender. Luke loves to do things and maybe talk some while we are actively participating together.

I learn more about Luke and his life while we are wrestling than any other time. We will be grunting and groaning as we push at each other's body and all of the sudden he will stop and say something about his day. Just as quickly we are back at it again. This pattern continues with brief flashes of self-disclosure during activities. Julia, however, doesn't seem to need the activity. She needs the emotional contact and attention.

Both ways are healing, both need to be honored. Although I believe this is a gender difference, it could easily go the other way, with my daughter preferring activity and my son more inclined to talk. It is not that boys do it one way and girls another. It is that as parents we are responsible for finding our children's individual gifts in healing themselves and then helping them use it.

Grief is a potent force and we need to find ways to steward our children's connection with feelings of loss and their healing. Grief is no different than any other process that children learn. As parents we steward our children's anger, homework, sexuality, social skills, bathroom behavior, and a long list of many others. We tend to be more active in our assistance with the younger ones and expect more from children as they grow and mature. We make decisions about what the child needs to know at any given time and find ways to teach them the next level when they are ready. Homework might be a good example.

Think of a very young child and how you help them with their studies. Usually we tend to be more active in finding an appropriate place for them to work and are also active in our help with their learning. As the child grows older we expect and teach different things. We do less of the actual work and more teaching skills in how to work.

This is stewardship. We give to them what they need at any given time based on our understanding of their individual qualities and their level of development. Stewarding a child's grief is the same. We adjust our approach to their pain based on their level of development and our assessment of their needs.

But stewarding grief is a tough task for parents who are actively grieving. It is often a time when our "parent" energy to teach, help, and engage our kids is at an all time low. We too are in need of healing. The saving grace, however, is that by stewarding our children's grief we ourselves heal.

Each time I have a burst of a conversation with Luke about my father or each time Julia asks me for "special time," I get in touch with my grief and loss related to my father's death. By stewarding I am also healing.

Sometimes parents want to hide their feelings of grief and loss from their kids.

Occasionally this can be appropriate, but usually if the parent holds back it stops the healing for both parent and child. The kids sense that there is something not being said and will pick up that this "holding back" must be the adult way to do things. We need to be open with our kids about our grief in a way that helps them to see that we are grieving. When we allow our kids to see our grief we give them the best teaching we could give: a role model. This can be helpful to both parents and children.

This said, let's look at a couple of ideas of ways families can heal together.

The first idea is to make sure that the name of the person who died is spoken in your household. Speaking the name of the person has a powerful effect. If the name is not spoken, it sets up a situation where it seems that the topic of this person (or pet?) is not one that is open for conversation. Saying the name out loud states clearly that the topic is indeed open.

Children will respond to this in their own way. Watch carefully how they respond and you will learn their ways of healing. Speaking the name can manifest in a number of ways. It does not have to be on a rigid schedule or formally spoken. The best ways I have found are to bring up my father's name in spontaneous situations. For example, as we are having dinner I might mention my father's love of something related to what we are talking about. This gives a green light for the kids (or the adults) to speak up if they wish, or to remain silent; both are acceptable.

Sometimes kids have very introverted ways of healing and can benefit from listening to another's conversation. We need to honor all ways. Another way of speaking the name is to include the person's name in the prayers you use, such as requesting special blessings for this person or using a prayer that may have been a favorite of theirs.

A related idea is to have pictures of the person who died in different places in your home. In my house we have pictures of my father on the refrigerator, stuck to some cabinets, and in some other spots. This has a similar effect as speaking the name. It includes and honors the person who died and gives a similar green light for discussion and healing.

Creating family activities in honor of the person who died are a great way to accomodate all of the differences within your family. The activity allows both a place to talk about the loss and an opportunity to connect one's action with the grief.

Let's say the person who died loved fishing. In this case you might plan a family activity for everyone to go fishing. You make it clear that this trip is in honor of the person who died. On the trip you make sure that the person's name is spoken and that the participants know the nature of the honoring.

If conversations come up about the person then that is great; if not, that is okay too. Doing something together as a family in honor of the person who died is healing in itself. What generally happens is that the kids get into it in their own ways. I know in my family, Luke would say that he is going to catch the biggest fish for Granddaddy. In that way he connects the trip and his action (fishing) with his grief for his grandfather. There is healing in this. The activity provides a "ground" in which the entire family can plant the seeds of their grief in their own way.

Some family members may talk and cry about the loss while others, like Luke, may connect their pain and tears with their goal to catch the biggest fish. This same idea is important with regard to holidays and anniversaries.There are many ways to honor the person who died and you can use your creativity to find an activity that fits your family.

A traditional form of the activity idea is that of visiting the grave. But often this is impractical due to distance or other reasons. The kids also sometimes think it is "dumb." A variation on this is to create a place that becomes linked to the person who died. Maybe that person had a favorite spot, or maybe your family has a beautiful spot that everyone enjoys visiting. As a parent you can link that spot with the person who died. You can declare it a spot that the person who died loved (or would have loved) and your family visits there can include the memories of this person. It might be a waterfall, or like a family I know, an amusement park. No words need be spoken as long as the family knows the link has been made. Most times I think you will find that the person becomes a topic of discussion when visiting that place.

Another family I know created a needlework (counted cross-stitch) memorial in honor of a family member who had died. The father laid out the pattern and the mother and children did the sewing. With the help of the kids the father made a frame, and the needlework was dedicated to the person who died and put in a place of honor in the family home. It was a family project that used everyone's energy and involved everyone in the healing process. The examples could go on and on: one family put together a video, another created a sculpture for their yard.

The important point is that these families found a project that could be used as a means of honoring the person who died while at the same time giving the family a joint space to honor their grief. By doing things together as a family in honor of the person who died you are creating a healing space for the whole family.

As parents we need to find a variety of ways to help ourselves and our family heal our grief and pain. By doing it together we not only heal, we come closer as a family unit. Let me know if you have some ideas about ways families can heal together.

Copyright 2002 Tom Golden

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author of Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing, and therapist who specializes in healing from loss and trauma. Tom's workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom by clicking here for inquiries about speaking or training for your group.

experiencing the death of a sibling as a child

A child's experience of losing a sibling depends largely on their understanding of death, which is associated with age and developmental level. These age ranges are approximate, and you (as a child) or your child may have a broader understanding than those described here. Children suffer not only the actual loss, but a lifetime of living in a family which may have become dysfunctional after the loss.

infants

Infants suffer from the grief of caregivers. The grief stricken family members are not as attuned to the baby as they were prior to the loss. An infant who has been cared for by an older sibling will feel the loss. Toddlers think of death as temporary and reversible. They say things like "Well if Susie is in heaven, we can send her letters, can't we?"

They think in concrete terms (what they can see or touch) and may not comprehend why their beloved sibling is lying in a box, or why he or she isn't at home waiting for them when they come back from the funeral.

toddlers

Toddlers grieving the loss of a sibling have been known to become mute for a period, or to regress to an earlier stage of development, such as wetting the bed. Children in the younger age groups may have thought about an older sibling as a parent figure who took care of them, and wonder who will take care of them now that he or she is gone.

children aged 6-8

Children aged 6-8 have seen dead birds and bugs, seen people die on television, and heard it talked about. They think of death as a scary thing that they can hide from, by hiding under the bed, for example. They say things like "When your hair gets white, you die, right?"

They associate death with ghosts and skeletons. They know what it is, but not that it is going to affect them personally. They may ask questions about the death over and over. It is as if they have to learn the lesson of death many times for it to sink in.

At these young ages, children engage in what is called "magical" thinking. They may believe, for example, that their anger can kill, and that they cause the events surrounding them. They are still the center of their own universe and may take the blame for the death. Adults bereaved in childhood have often suffered for years, believing that they were responsible for their sibling's death.

ages 9-11

Children change at sometime around nine years to a more realistic understanding of death. They know that it cannot be reversed, that it is permanent, and that everyone dies. Parents can mistakenly assume that their child understands more at this age than they do. Research shows that bereaved children at this age act out by misbehaving and trying to get attention.

Parents and others might get mad at the child because they are behaving this way, but in reality, this is the child's way of mourning! Many adults look back on the way they behaved when a loved one was dying, and suffer more from guilt about their misbehavior than they do from the loss itself. (That's like blaming your toddler self for not knowing how to read.)

ages 11-13

Like the younger group, these children do not always behave like adults when they lose a loved one-instead they may act out, or simply act as if nothing happened at all. They may fall asleep or want to go outside and play when everyone else is mourning.

Again, they are mourning in their own way, a way that is associated with their age more than their level of caring for the deceased. These older children may have helped with child care a great deal and some have thought of their sibling as their own child.

For further information, call (USA) 314-941-3798, or email the Sibling Connection.

LINKS ON THIS SITE
Grief: different experiences, different expressions
Anger and depression
Trauma + recovery
Illness: a new perspective
Suicidal urges
Learn more about Antonella Gambotto-Burke ...
A healthy life
The healing power of hope
In debt?
The laughter page
Find your own North Star
Optimism - the key
How to feel better about yourself
Feel like a hug?
An inspiring interview with Louise Hay

LINKS (GENERAL)
A superb site for grieving teens and children - Julie's Place
Email Deb about deceased brothers, sisters, or friends ...
Write to Reese - he will help
Create a memorial for your beloved
National Center for Victims of Crime
Neighbours who Care
Compassionate Friends
Free memorial page for your murdered beloved
Great free guided audio online relaxation exercises
Message boards for all survivors - siblings, parents, grandparents - online NOW!
Murdered siblings
Crisis intervention
Overcoming Sleep Problems, by the father of a murdered girl
Helping Someone When a Loved One has been Murdered
Excellent books that deal with those who are murdered
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation
Why the death penalty is no solution
Suggestions for Survivors of Murder
Compassionate Friends
Survivors' newsletter
Trauma and Grief