NAGC’s alternate response to June 4, 2012 John Rosemond Column about Childhood Grief.
The death of a father is a lifelong loss for a child, but it does not have to “derail” his future. It is normal for a child to miss his father and for his feelings of grief to come and go with different levels of intensity for some time after the death. At the same time, it is frustrating when your child is hurting and, obviously, impacted emotionally and mentally, and you are unsure how to help him through his pain. Here are a few suggestions about how to be helpful to your son based on current practice among children’s grief support professionals.
Grief is a normal reaction for a child to the death of someone in his or her life. Grief is a reflection of our awareness that a significant change has happened. Someone who was an important part of our life is no longer here, whether the relationship with that person was caring and loving, or contentious and difficult. The death of someone in our life takes time to fully accept and even then, we continue to miss that person in our own special way. In truth, we do not “get over” a person’s death; we learn to live with it. Grief is not a problem we are trying to fix; it is an experience we are living. Your son’s change in moods, even a year out from his father’s death, is a normal part of adapting to this significant change in his world.
Each child’s grief is as unique to him or her as was their relationship with the deceased. Because of this, everyone grieves in their own way. Some people have a need to talk about that person and often retell the same story or explore the same questions, feelings or thoughts over and over. It is great that your son will be open with you and share his feelings of grief over his father’s death. When talking with him, it is important to avoid seeing the conversation as a means to “lighten” his mood, but be present with him in the moment you are sharing, talking about someone he deeply loves and misses. Quite often for a grieving child, talking about the person who died and experiencing ‘moods’ is how he is adapting to life without that person and adjusting to one of memories.
Grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood. Limiting your son’s ability to experience grief in an authentic way can send a message to that child that they are “alone” in their grief. Children cannot be “talked” out of their grief, nor can their grief be “shut down” by avoiding conversations. Current research and practice in childhood bereavement teaches us that when children have the opportunity to grieve openly and share their feelings honestly, they feel less alone and in turn fair (or fare?) better than they would otherwise. Consider the possibility that your son is doing exactly what he needs to do at that moment when he is experiencing “moods” that are not typical for him. After all, he is standing face to face with a significant change in his life.
Children will experience grief over the death of significant people at different times throughout their lives. Many times, the intense feelings of grief will last longer and come more often than we think they should. In time, as children have opportunities to express their grief and to tell their stories, share memories and process what this death means, they will find the intense feelings come less often. But, grief is a lifelong journey and children often experience their grief on different levels and different times throughout their lives. When a The National Alliance for Grieving Children P.O. Box 2373, Stuart, Florida 34995 • (866) 432 – 1542 Toll Free • (772) 812 – 9129 www.ChildrenGrieve.org
child gets his or her driver’s license, scores a touchdown, goes to prom or graduates from high school, he or she might revisit his or her grief in a very intense way. This extends into adulthood as well, when they have children of their own, or get married. Grief has no time limit. Allowing children to share openly about feelings can help to normalize this experience and help them find ways to deal with these intense feelings that will come and go and come back again.
Grieving children often experience personal “growth.” There has been much written lately about the experience of “post-traumatic growth.” These findings have come from studies showing that grieving children (and adults) develop “virtues” as a result of their struggle. Many grieving children find that they are more compassionate toward others, value relationships with friends and family on a new level or experience a greater sense of appreciation for life in general. This personal “growth” does not diminish the sense of loss or grief a person feels, nor does it imply that the death of someone in their life was a “positive” experience. Personal growth, however, is often a by-product of going through the intense grief that accompanies a significant death in our life. Actually, current research and practice teaches that being able to openly experience grief and having the understanding and support of a parent or other loving adult, gives a child a “safe place” to make sense out of the death. It is important to be patient with your son as he experiences the ebbs and flows of grief and continue to make yourself available as a good listener when needs to talk or a presence when he just needs to be with someone else.
Grieving children feel less alone when they can be with other children who have experienced the death of a parent. Greater than any education, information or advice we can give to a grieving child is to allow that child to meet others going through a similar experience. When children meet others who have had a parent die, they feel less alone. There are grief support programs, camps, groups and gatherings throughout the United States where children can interact and support one another. The National Alliance for Grieving Children has a directory of grief support programs across the country that can be found at www.ChildrenGrieve.org. Or, you can contact a local hospice program or others who provide support for grieving children and families to find out more about a support program near you.
Knowledge is Power. You do not have to be alone as the parent of a grieving child. There are many resources available via the internet and as mentioned above in the form of grief support for your child. Find encouragement and answers to some of your questions at these websites:
The above listed websites contain the most recent information about supporting a grieving child. You can find books, articles and information that will increase your understanding of what behavior is normal for a grieving child and how you can “be there” for your son at this important time in his life and on into his future.
References Silverman, Phyllis R., Madelyn, Kelly (2009)
A Parent’s Guide to Raising Grieving Children. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Worden, William J. (1996) Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Wolfelt, AD (1996) Healing the Bereaved Child. CO: Companion Press.
Schuurman, Donna (2003) Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Emswiler, Mary Ann, Emswiler, James P. (2000) Guiding Your Child through Grief. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Tedeschi, Richard, Calhoun, Lawrence G. (1999) Facilitating Post Traumatic Growth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth (1969) On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Scribner.
The National Alliance for Grieving Children P.O. Box 2373, Stuart, Florida 34995 • (866) 432 – 1542 Toll Free • (772) 812 – 9129 www.ChildrenGrieve.org