By Tracy Lee
Special to the Sun
When a death occurs, curious children are naturally curious. At the onset, they want information. The information delivered to them must be truthful and delivered on each child’s level of understanding. In order for children to feel safe during a time of loss, we must give them the information they seek.
FOUR GRIEF RECOVERY TASKS FOR CHILDREN
TASK ONE: CHILDREN MUST UNDERSTAND THE DEFINITION OF DEATH
Without an understanding of the definition of death, a child will not be able to decipher what has happened to their loved one. Without this knowledge, the child will remain confused and in a continual state of fear, confusion, and agitation. The child will want to know what has happened to their loved one, how the death happened, and why it happened.
Adults should use correct language surrounding death. For example, one should say death rather than loss or sleeping. Although it may seem kinder to use softer words, these words do not encourage understanding. Telling a child that a loved one has been lost might confuse the child and cause him/her to search for the loved one. Telling a child that a loved one is sleeping or resting, might cause him/her to try to wake the decedent up. Elusive terms might make this conversation easier on the adult, however, it will cause great confusion for the child.
Children use magical thinking to rationalize death. Their reasoning to justify or make sense of the death is often unrealistic. A child might hear a derogatory comment about the medical staff at the hospital where their loved one died, and from that time forward, be terrified that getting a shot might kill them. Adults must be aware of the effects brought on by their comments surrounding death in front of children.
TASK TWO: CHILDREN MUST GRIEVE OR EXPERIENCE THE PAIN OF LOSS
A child’s level of suffering is dependent upon their level of attachment to the decedent. The suddenness or anticipatory nature of the death, as well as the child’s developmental stage will affect their grief recovery needs. Children will grieve and re-grieve their loss as they grow and more fully understand death and its consequences. Although adults should not hide their grief experience from children, they should be aware that children are not psychologically mature and that intense grief can frighten and damage children. Adults need to be responsible stewards of children witnessing death and experiencing grief.
TASK THREE: CHILDREN MUST BE ALLOWED TO COMMEMORATE THEIR LOVED ONE
Commemorating a loved one helps children process the reality of death. It is a vehicle for expressing, understanding, and working through the experience of loss, and moves a child in a more healthy grief recovery scenario. It assists the child in remembering their loved one and valuing their shared experiences. It presents the reality that death has occurred and facilitates the movement toward memorialization.
Although a child should never be coerced to attend final services, should they express a desire to attend, a parent or trusted adult should explain the rituals associated with burying or cremating a decedent. Explanations should be kept short and age-appropriate. Adults should be aware of their own beliefs regarding the physical and spiritual consequences of death before engaging in the narrative. Children should be allowed to ask any questions they have, to comfort them and calm their fears, with the expectation of honest and sincere answers.
Establishing new traditions or embracing existing ones is a good method for moving children toward recovery.
TASK FOUR: GRIEF RECOVERY
Recovery involves the transformation of excruciating pain into loving and treasured memories. The depth of a child’s relationship with the decedent will determine the length of his/her adjustment. Children who do not receive grief recovery assistance rarely resolve their grief. In such scenarios, children with unresolved grief, as well as those asked not to express their grief, generally suffer persistent nightmares, sleeping and eating disorders, a decline in school performance, depression, suicidal tendencies, physical ailments, and emotional and psychological disorders throughout the remainder of their lives. These consequences are dangerous, debilitating, and life-threatening.
No one considers these consequences for children as acceptable, however, in the case of significant loss, a parent often finds him or herself in a state of emotional distress. Such distress often renders a surviving parent incapable of delivering the level of care needed by their child. Therefore, as a grief counselor, I suggest that a carefully vetted and deeply trusted friend, relative, clergy person, or certified grief counselor be enlisted to help grief-stricken children in their recovery experience. I do not suggest that you turn your children over to someone without monitoring and actively engaging in their recovery process; however, until you are able to regain your emotional strength, an assistant is a blessing for both you and your child. I call this trusted person a “Grief Caregiver.”
GRIEF CAREGIVERS FOR CHILDREN
A Grief Caregiver should have a clear understanding of their role and responsibilities regarding their relationship and duties toward your child. They need to understand your beliefs and boundaries and respect them at all times. Your child’s safety; physically, emotionally, and psychologically should always be paramount. The person accepting this responsibility should observe the following three goals.
THREE FUNCTIONS OF GRIEF CAREGIVERS FOR CHILDREN
Foster a safe, open, and honest relationship with the child.
Provide a safe and secure space in which the child can explore and understand death and grief recovery.
Explain and display appropriate methods for healthy grief recovery.
Grief for children is a serious experience with serious consequences. Without proper recovery assistance, your child may suffer grief-related ailments for the remainder of his/her life.