Grief is a strange emotion. It is a pain that bores down to our souls when a spouse or child, mother or father, sibling or friend is taken from our life. It is a storm of tears and anger, a string of unanswered questions. It is what remains after funeral and memorial services, when we are left to face the hole in our families. The hole in our life.
The emotional health and well-being of our children are clearly concerns that are both serious and decisive. When a death occurs, it affects every aspect of a child or adolescent's existence, the pain of grief can be almost impossible to ignore. We must assist the grieving child or adolescent in ways that will support recovery if we are to avoid the death of academic learning, of emotional growth, of personal potential, of optimism, hopes, and dreams.
Grieving children need permission to mourn. Sometimes what they need most from adults is an awareness that it is OK to talk out and play out their many thoughts and feelings. If their suffering is avoided, denied or repressed by adults surrounding them, children will be abandoned at a time when he or she most needs the presence and support of loving adults. We must also remember that children mourn intermittently. Moving at times toward and then away from the depth of the loss. Respecting children means understanding this wave-like quality in their capacity to mourn. Most important it means remaining available to a grieving child long after the event of death or separation.
Telling a child about the death or separation of a loved one is the beginning rather than the end of a long process of sharing. When answering a child's questions about death and grief be open and honest and communicate in language the child understands. It is not unusual for children to ask the same question again and again. Caring parents, relatives, and friends can help children by responding to the young person's questions in a way that shows you care.
At some point, children will face the complicated task of trying to understand a loss. As adults, our ideas about death change as we add to our life experiences. Children are just beginning this complex journey. We can help children learn appropriate responses by being open and available and by our own example.
I was still teaching when my grandmother died, when I returned to school after the funeral I asked my students if they knew why I was absent. Some of my students thought they knew, several actually knew, and there were a few students that did not realize I had been absent for three days.
I told my class I was absent because my grandmother had died. Once they got over the shock “she has a grandmother" they starting asking me questions and sharing his or her individual loss experiences. We talked for about 5-10 minutes then went on with our day. This was at 8 o'clock in the morning. At the end of the school day, a student came back to me and said Mrs. Clark my father died. I said Beth when did your father die? She said right before Christmas, December 20th. I said before Christmas when, what year? She said this past Christmas.
The day I got back to work from my grandmother's funeral was January 16th I share this because this was an adolescent who needed to talk about her dad and her emotions but was not give that opportunity “permission" until I was open about my loss. Beth was a six grader when her father died, we set in motion a long process of sharing from that moment until she graduated eighth grade.
Grief is a healthy, natural reaction to a loss. Tears are a natural part of grief, and they help relive stress. We must give a child or adolescent permission to cry. This is a part of being human. Suppressing one's tears may even be physically harmful.
We do not want to allow a grieving child to be afraid to laugh or feel guilty about laughing. Laughter is healthy and is often needed to relieve tension. Laughter is the sunshine of the soul. Laughing doesn't mean the child or adolescent is not grieving or missing his or her love one.
Let us keep in mind to allow the grieving child to feel his or her pain and accept their emotions. Pain and emotions are part of grief. The pain is part of the healing process. Help the young person understand death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship. Remind them memories go on in their mind.
Grief can be a prolonged, intensely painful experience and can result in significant emotional distress. Grieving kids need adults to give them permission to mourn. Children and adolescents facing the emotional pain and distress of grief should be allowed to talk out their many thoughts and feelings. Kids need adults who will listen and learn from the grieving child and grieving kids need large doses of patience and understanding.
Adults do not have to instantly have the answers to questions a grieving child may ask; but can find answers to the child's questions or tell the grieving child; they can find the answers together. Young people want to know the truth in age-appropriate language. As a supportive adult, accept as true the child's feelings, whatever the feelings maybe and help the child to clarify those feelings.
I believe what is most important for grieving kids are adults to validate their emotional pain. This task can be accomplished by providing a warm silence that encourages the child to do the talking. Allow the child or adolescent to be the teacher about his or her grief experience.
Yvonne Butler Clark
It's Okay to Cry, Inc.
4706 Brownstone Lane
Houston, TX 77053
Visit us at http://www.itsokaytocry.org for additional grief support books and dvd