When children lose a loved one their world is turned upside-down. Predictability of everyday life is gone. Their sense of security is gone. They become acutely aware of the ramifications of illness and accidents on their young lives. Most have no idea what to expect when death knocks on their door and the feelings it brings are beyond what they are familiar with. They have limited resources to cope.
Children, as many adults, feel that death is to be endured alone and in silence. They are fearful that sharing their feelings with their family will further upset and cause more pain to those family members. Sharing with friends and classmates, especially those who have not experienced a loss, may make them seem different and alienate them from their peers. Without support and being able to share their thoughts, feelings and ask questions, children stifle and bury their emotions. This stops them from working through their grief.
Matthew was 5 years old when I first met him. His mother died after a short illness. His father would bring him to me weekly. About 6 years later, I met the principal of his school. She asked if I remembered Matthew and told me the following story. Matt was in 7th grade at the time when a 6 grader’s father died. Matthew went to the principal to ask for permission to talk to that student about her loss. He said that he understood her sadness and wanted to help her. He wanted to share his experience of the loss of his mother and assure her things “will get better.” The principal wanted me to see how well Matthew had worked through his grief. I always told my bereaved that their loss will make them either a bitter person or a compassionate person. The choice was theirs. Matthew became that compassionate, caring person who reached out to another in pain. How proud I am of him!
Grief must always be resolved; and, if it isn’t, will expose itself at a later date. Perhaps at another death, even a less significant one. Understand though, that children will revisit grief at each stage of development to see what it means at that age not to have their loved one with them.
Children need supportive and compassionate people at this time, sometimes adults and sometimes peers. They need role models to help them understand grief and to see how others work through their grief. They need to see that grief, with its pain and sorrow, is a normal process. They need to be assured that slowly things will return to normal; different but normal.
Children, during these ages, need a great deal of reassurance. They may experience separation anxiety. If one loved one died, another can die, too, they think. A young widow of mine told me that her 6 years old was terrified when she was gone for short periods, even when left with a loving family member. When she needed to leave the house, she would call him frequently to tell him where she was and when she would be home. Slowly the phone calls needed to be less frequent. Slowly he realized that she would be coming home. It was worth the effort to her to reassure her young son that she was fine. She accepted his fear. She did not ridicule or criticize him for it. She lovingly worked with him to overcome it.
Children need love and affection, but may be embarrassed by it. Sometimes they emotionally separate themselves from loved ones as a defense mechanism.
Boys seem to loose some manual skills and may not be as coordinated as they were. This sometimes shows up in their handwriting. They may not do as well in sports and their grades may fall. With the loss of a loved one and then not doing as well in school and sports, it seems to them their entire world is crashing down around them.
If asked about children attending viewings and funerals, I always say that it is a good idea. They are included in that family experience and will not feel isolated or abandoned. They see what actually is happening and their imaginations will not run wild. Explain what they will see, who will be there, and what they will be doing. It’s a time to cry and a time to reminisce about the deceased which, many times, brings laughter. Tell them that there is a lounge they can sit in with other family members, if they like. Ask them to help choose pictures that will be displayed at the funeral home. Age appropriately, encourage them to be part of the preparations; but, respect what they are emotionally capable of doing.
I remember 5 year old Will at his grandmothers viewing. He stayed pretty close to his mom but was talking to others there, receiving hugs and kisses from all. He was an important part of that day, of his grandmother’s funeral. He saw how sad people were, he saw them cry and he saw them laugh. He saw how much everyone loved his grandmother. Most importantly, he saw that family and friends were there to help each other through this difficult time. How blessed he was to have the love and support of family and friends and to have parents to walk with him through the loss of his beloved grandmother.
In my next blog, I will talk about grieving children and their feelings. Please know that I welcome comments and will answer any questions to the best of my ability.
God bless you and all those you love.
Dear God, Help us to embrace our grief, to tear it apart and look closely at it so that we can move through it to better days. Help us as we lovingly guide the grieving children in our lives. Amen.