Last week, I assisted a family to bury their patriarch. Three months prior, they had buried his son. Two deaths so closely connected create a nightmare grief experience for their loved ones. In this family, a young grandson suffered immensely.
The visitation took place the evening before the burial. The young grandson was very upset, and his mother comforted him numerous times. At the graveside, he was inconsolable. His heart was broken. He was young, but old enough to realize from the previous experience of losing his uncle, that this experience would be devastating, and that it would sting for a very long time. He grasped at time and would not leave his grandfather’s casket. Eventually, with a sobbing heart of her own, his mother pulled him away so that the grave could be closed.
It was a brutal winter’s day in East Texas. The icy rain pinged on the steel as his grandfather’s casket lowered out of view. As the mother pulled her son away, he fought to stay with his grandpa. With arms outstretched toward the casket, he cried, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready.”
His face was drawn with pain, and every fiber of his body fought to keep the reality of time still. He dreaded that moment when the earth would settle over his grandpa’s grave and seal their separation for the remainder of his days. He could not bear it, yet was forced to surrender to it.
I fear for this young boy. His father is very ill. The closeness of significant male deaths in his young life has brought a reality that most are ill-equipped to endure. Were his father to suffer grave consequences, he would be in danger of unbearable pain. My fear would be that should his body endure the stress, his coping skills would fail.
At this point in his young life, I would suggest professional grief counseling. Without it, his recovery is bleak. He is too young to have significant loss experiences from which to draw, and with his father’s looming ill health, he needs immediate assistance.
Children are not immune to grief. By virtue of their youth, they lack life’s experiences and are, thereby, less equipped to successfully traverse this trial. It is, therefore, incumbent upon parents, and other adults vested in the child’s welfare, to step forward, and through example and counseling, assist the child through the rigors of grief recovery.
SUPPORTING A CHILD THROUGH GRIEF AND BEREAVEMENT
After a loss, children need support, stability, honesty and reassurance that they will be cared for and kept safe. As an adult, you can support children through the grieving process by demonstrating that it is okay to be sad, and helping them make sense of their loss.
Always answer a child’s questions as truthfully as you can. Use very simple, honest and concrete terms when explaining death to a child. Children often blame themselves for what happened, and the truth helps them see they are not at fault.
Open communication will smooth the way for a child to express distressing feelings. Sometimes, as adults, dialogue can be difficult when we have suffered a loss. Encouraging the child to express themselves through stories, games and artwork promotes free expression that a parent or other adult may evaluate for clues about how they are coping.
EXPRESSION OF GRIEF
The range of reactions that children display in response to death may include one or more of the following.
Emotional Shock – Allows the child to detach from the pain.
Regressive (Immature) Behaviors – Indicate extreme stress, frustration and trauma.
Explosive Emotions and Acting Out Behavior – Reflect the child’s internal feeling of anger, terror, frustration, helplessness and insecurity.
Asking the Same Questions Over and Over – Indicates the information is shocking and difficult to believe or accept.
HOW TO HELP A GRIEVING CHILD
Allow your child, however young, to attend the funeral if he or she wants to.
Convey your spiritual values about life and death, or pray with your child.
Meet regularly as a family to find out how everyone is coping.
Help children find ways to symbolize and memorialize the deceased person.
Keep your child’s daily routine as normal as possible.
Pay attention to the way a child plays. Play can be a child’s primary source of communication.
HELPING CHILDREN COPE
Allow children to talk about their grief. Be a good listener.
Not every child understand death in the same way. Each child is different, and their views are unique.
Allow children time to grieve in their own way. Pressing children to resume “normal” activities before they are ready may prompt additional problems.
Do not lie or tell half-truths. Lies do not help children heal or develop effective coping strategies.
Help children understand loss and death. Give the child information that is age appropriate, understandable and simple in nature.
Encourage children to ask questions. Be respectful and help them find their own answers.
Children may not grieve in a predictable way. We all grieve in our own unique ways.
Let children know that you want to understand their feelings and needs. Sometimes children are upset but cannot tell you what will be helpful.
Allow children to formulate conclusions. Giving them time and encouraging them to share their thoughts and feelings may help them organize the information and develop understanding.
Allow children to cry. Scientific studies indicate that crying may have healing potential. The chemical imbalances caused by stress may be leveled out by the removal of toxic substances through tears.
Long before we realize it, children become aware of death. They hear about it in fairy tales, see it on television and act it out in their video games.
Not talking about something does not mean we are not communicating. To a child, avoidance can be a message, “If Mom or Dad cannot talk about something, it must be really bad.”
If we permit children to talk to us about death, we can give them needed information, prepare them for a crisis and help them when they are upset.
Tracy Renee Lee is managing funeral director for Queen City Funeral Home in Queen City, Texas. She is an author, syndicated columnist and Certified Grief Counselor. She writes books, weekly bereavement articles, and grief briefs related to understanding and coping with grief. She is the American Funeral Director of the Year runner-up and recipient of the BBB’s Integrity Award. She delivers powerful messages and motivates audiences toward positive recovery. It is her life’s work to comfort the bereaved and help them live on. For additional encouragement and to read other articles or watch video “Grief Briefs,” visit www.MourningCoffee.com.
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