A parent’s guide to childhood grief

By Tracy Lee
Special to the Sun

My youngest grandson died one and a half years ago. His birth date was also his death date. This journey of being a survivor has not been an easy one. Although, we were blessed with his birth, his eyes closed, and our hearts were broken.

His siblings, babies themselves, have had a rough go of it. At the time of his death, his older brother was only three years old and his sweet sister was only one. Although we explained death to them, they initially did not understand what was going on. Over this past year and a half, they have come to realize more and more the tragedy to their family.
I have learned many lessons through this experience, most of all, that I don’t like it. Being a surviving grandmother is painful to my soul, it is confusing to my mind, and above all else, it is an open wound that disrupts my happiness.

I don’t know how my daughter and son-in-law carry on. Their hearts carry a burden of grief that is crushingly invasive. They put on a strong face, but, in times of silence, grief ebbs forward, and I can see their pain.
As my grandchildren grow physically, they also mature psychologically. Each day they learn and understand more about science, mathematics, the world around them, and yes, even death. My grandson, now five, understands more deeply his profound loss. He misses his little brother, particularly in the quiet moments of the day, and as he drifts off to sleep at night. When something wonderful happens, it is overshadowed because he understands that he is unable to share it with his baby brother.

He has become very watchful over his baby sister. He is protective and loving toward her. He doesn’t seek moments away from her, as some siblings do. He does not try to take his toys away from her when she is playing with them. He lovingly shares everything he has and every moment he can with her. He is a wonderful, loving, and compassionate big brother.
Little sister is now two. She misses her baby brother and speaks of him daily. She asks questions to understand better why he is not at home with them. She wants to share her moments with him, her toys, and her love. Watching my two grandchildren grow up without their little brother is heartbreaking.

I have learned so much about the way children grieve over this past year and a half. I have also learned that most adults, if not all, are ill-equipped to assist children who are surviving loss. Moreover, if the surviving child is the deceased child’s sibling, their parent(s) will most likely be lost in a tsunami of grief and utterly incapable of assisting the surviving child through the experience – especially at the onset. This is unacceptable. A person should never survive loss without understanding and assistance from others. This is most profoundly applicable to families who have lost children.

My life’s work is to comfort the bereaved and help them live on. This past year, I have realized that my mission has grown. The death of my grandson has shown me that my grandchildren need uniquely targeted recovery assistance as they mature through the stages of childhood development. Therefore, my life’s work has expanded to include helping adults understand that children need unique, targeted, and ongoing assistance through their years of development and growth.

I am a certified grief counselor. I have received extensive education on how humans grieve. A portion of my training has included the grieving processes of children. I understand the confusion of a grieving toddler, the struggles of a grieving preschooler, and the complexities of a grieving preadolescent/adolescent. Unfortunately, society does not recognize a child’s grief. Our culture validates our ignorance of the reality of their needs, and our fears render us ill-equipped to assist them through recovery.
My personal loss has broadened my knowledge of childhood grief beyond my formal education. I have learned through the sufferings of my grandchildren that children need assistance through each stage of development, not only at the onset but perhaps years beyond. As a child matures, he/she develops a more profound understanding of the realities of loss. Their deeper understanding brings on more complex psychological struggles, which, if left unattended, may result in negative consequences (physically and mentally) up to, and including, premature death or suicide. Their loss is relived at each stage of development, relative to his/her cognitive advancement. Therefore, recovery must be addressed and nurtured as the child’s mind matures, understands, and experiences – more realistically – the consequences of loss.

During loss, adults are grief-stricken. They are overwhelmed in fighting their struggles of grief while they seek recovery. Their consuming struggles leave their surviving children unattended at a time when support is crucial. Automatically, others will step in and see to the physical needs of minors. Sadly though, caregiving adults will most likely be unable to attend to the spiritual, psychological, and emotional needs of the surviving children. This situation leaves the door wide open for maladjustments. Intuitively, without grief support, a child will begin living in silence and fear resulting in devastating feelings of abandonment. Naturally, they will start seeking a significant person to whom they can become attached to in order to preserve feelings of security, love, and acceptance. More times than not, these relationships significantly draw the attending adult away from his/her life’s responsibilities. Eventually, the attending adult must return his/her primary focus back to his/her responsibilities of work, duty, and survival. This necessary adjustment results in an abandonment of the surviving child. Unfortunately, the child’s future relationships will most likely adopt this debilitating template of dependency with a dysfunctional attachment/abandonment pattern.

As parents, we try to shield our children from the realities of grief; this is a disservice to them and quite impossible. As adults, our judgments are based on facts, so too are those made by children. We must be honest and deliver absolute truth to children based on their level of understanding. As their understanding expands, so too must the information upon which we deliver.

As parents, we are the role models for our children’s methods of mourning. We must not abandon them in their need for crucial support. We must allow them to ask questions about their thoughts, feelings, fears, and interpretations, as well as enable them to openly and honestly express their grief. If we fail to do so, their lives will be filled with debilitating anguish. They will most likely seek to either end their lives or inflict their pain on others. Neither scenario is fair to the child nor desired by their parent(s).
In expressing their grief, children must be allowed to ask questions with an expectation of respect and receiving a truthful reply. They must be enabled to display their sadness, cry, and express their anger and frustration. They must be assured of their security, and at all times, receive nurturing love and respect.

Unlike adulthood, childhood is the appropriate time for developing and mastering the skills of proper and respectful behavior. Therefore, an adult may find a surviving child in need of gentle guidance in anger and frustration management. This need does not justify punitive or disciplinary abuse. Additionally, under the pressures of grief recovery, the adult may find that their skills of anger and frustration management are somewhat compromised. If you find that you lack the necessary skills to control yourself or to gently assist the child, seeking professional guidance is essential. Immediately separate yourself from the child before you inflict any physical or psychological harm.

Many adults believe that children do not mourn, or that they may be shielded from death. This is untrue; it is a myth. Death is a part of life, and whether you like it or not, your children will experience it in varying degrees. Children mourn and need understanding, guidance, and assistance during recovery. In the event of familial or significant death, adults cannot shield children from their reality. Children will suffer grief regardless of our actions to spare them from it. We may, however, positively affect the outcome if we adequately address the occurrence. If we fail in this sacred calling, our children will suffer devastating adaptations and dangerous consequences.