Most of the time when someone dies children are left behind…grandchildren, children, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends. And yet their grief is seldom validated. Why is that? Have they no feelings? Are they immune to the pain of loss? Are they self-centered and think only of themselves?
To look at a child who has had a loss, we might say that they are doing well, moving on, resilient. They seem to be back at their everyday activities; they laugh and play. So, why is that, if the pain is there?
Simply children, little ones up to teen-agers, grieve differently than adults. But their loss is as real and painful as anyone else’s.
Ron, a teenager, who’s sister was killed in an auto accident, told me that when he went back to classes after the funeral, everyone was asking about his mother. “How is your mother doing?” “Is your mom okay; this must be awful for her?” These types of questions came from teachers, staff and classmates. He told me that no one asked how he was doing…how he was surviving the loss of his beloved sister..how he felt; no one except his coach. Just that one person asked about him. It was as if only a mother/daughter relationship was worthy of pain; not a brother/ sister relationship.
I met Stephanie when she was eight years old. Her father died when she was five. I asked her how she felt when she sees her second grade classmates with their fathers. She looked up at me, straight into my eyes and said, “I feel like I have a hole in my heart.”
Yes, children grieve. Their grief is profound. It dramatically impacts their life.
So how is it different, their grief from ours? Grief is like an 80 lb. knapsack. Adults can carry it around on their backs 24/7; all day, all night for months, sometimes years. That 80 lb. knapsack is too heavy for a child to carry all the time. A child has to put it down, rest for a while before picking it up again. During that rest time they play and laugh. They do the things all children do. Then, when ready for the pain, they pick up that knapsack…they cry, they’re sad, they question. They try to come to terms with their loss.
One mother called me and told me she was very upset because her son wanted to go to the school basketball game on Friday evening with friends. Her husband had just died 2 weeks prior. “How can he do that,” she wanted to know? “Doesn’t he love his father; doesn’t he miss him,” she questioned?
This young teen certainly loved his father but needed to put that heavy knapsack down for a bit. His life had changed. Things were significantly different without his dad. He needed some semblance of normality in his life, even if for only a couple of hours. And, yes, he will pick up that knapsack and grieve, again and again, when able.
The interesting thing is that children will regrieve their loss at each stage of development. What it means to lose a parent, a sibling or any loved one, changes as the child grows older.
For example, to lose a parent at six takes on a whole new meaning at nine and thirteen, at seventeen and twenty-one. The parent is not there for those lifetime milestones…graduations, first job, driving, dating, college. Not there to cheer during sporting games, dance recitals, spelling bees and talent shows. Not there to answer questions about make-up, fashions, the opposite sex or just plain sex.
The living parent, or another loving person, may be there for them; but, children will still ponder and grieve what it means not to have their loved one in their life. What it would be like, how their life would be different, if just, maybe, that beloved had not died.
In future blogs, I would like to continue discussing children, their grieving and how we may help them along their grief journey.
May God bless you and all those you love.
Dear God, It seems so unfair that children should have to grieve. If I had my way, there would be no grieving for them until they were at least 25 years old. But it isn’t my way. So please be with them. Hold these dear ones in Your arms. Let them feel your Presence in their lives. Comfort them, give them Your Peace and, please, make things good for them again. Amen.