Grief's Student

by Wendy Young, LMSW, BCD

“Am I still a sister?” asked the young girl who sat before me, her eyes pleading for an answer.

"You will always be a sister,”  I responded without hesitation.

Pleased with my answer, she nestled deeper into her chair. “Then I guess that settles it,” she responded. “I won’t have to worry about that anymore.”
 
This child, six months into her grief journey, would challenge me to stretch the limits of my knowledge, and question what I thought I knew about children and grief. She would force me to exit my own comfort zone, in order to join with her on her path of grief. Never mind that I had painstakingly thought through the “best” activities and approaches to help her navigate the raging waters of bereavement.

She seemed to have charted her own course. She, and she alone, knew just what it was she needed to process the death of her only sibling, her younger brother. It was a short learning curve for me, thankfully, to see that I was but a witness to her grief … not a conduit for it.

I sat at the ready, week after week, waiting to see what direction our session for the day would take us. And each week, this young girl bravely forged ahead, exploring every nook and cranny of sadness that occupied her mind, heart and soul. At times she would laugh and appear like any other kid, yet her tears betrayed the facade she tried so hard to maintain.
 
Over time, she trusted me enough to clue me in on her “game plan” for grief. Her rules seemed simple enough…
 
• Keep smiling
• Act like everything’s okay
• Don’t upset the others around you
• Don’t be one other thing for your parents
  to worry about
• Keep your tears in check.

But, for a 50-minute period, one day a week, she could touch the pain that she worked so hard to avoid the rest of the time. From that hurt stemmed drawings, collages and sculptures … pieces of art that served as tangible reminders of the loss that she had sustained. Abandoning the “rules” for those fleeting moments each week got her out of her head and into her heart … a heart that spoke of the loss of her brother, as well as the loss of a father and mother as she once knew them … a mother and father that were previously untouched by the clutches of sorrow.
 
She pounded clay, smashed blocks, drew pictures, told me stories and sometimes sat in silence. She made it clear that she would call the shots, and I was pleased to let her. She was my teacher and I, her willing student.

what kids say:
The child depicted in the prior scenario portrays the experience of many grieving children. Children will often minimize their grief so as not to add to the burden of those that grieve around them. It is not unusual for children to say something similar to the following:
 
• “I didn’t want to say anything or mention anything that would make my parents even sadder.”
• “I wanted to pretend like everything was fine…that if I acted that way long enough, maybe it would come true.”
• “I didn’t want to see my mom cry anymore. She was sad enough. I didn’t want her to worry about my grief, too. I just kept it to myself.”

what parents say:
It is not uncommon for parents to want to also shield their children from their grief.
 
Parents have said such things as:
 
• “I don’t want my kids to see me crying all of the time.”
• “They deserve to have as normal a childhood as possible.”
• “I need to give them a sense of normalcy.”
 
Here’s what the kids have said in response:
 
 • “I wish my mom would cry in front of me. Then I could hug her and tell her I was sad, too!”
• “I feel like I’m supposed to be done with the crying already. I never see my mom or dad cry anymore and I think that something must be wrong with  me.”
• “It’s like everyone else forgot about my sister, but me.”

help your child open up
Let your child know that he/she will experience many different feelings when it comes to grief.

Tell him that he may feel sad, mad, relieved, scared, lonely and lots of other feelings. She may feel more than one feeling at a time. That is okay. Let your child know that grief is confusing even to adults. Keep reminding your child that you are there to talk whenever he or she needs.
 
Don’t expect your child to come to you.
 
Keep opening up the door to conversation with your child. Just because your child says he has nothing to say one day doesn’t mean he won’t another day.
 
If your child is hesitant to open up, ask more specific questions such as:
 
• “What’s been the hardest thing for you since your brother died?”
• “What do you miss the most about your dad?”
• “What’s one of the silliest things you remember ever doing with your sister?”
• “What’s one thing you would want to tell mom if you could?”
• “What helps you the most when you are feeling sad?”
• “When you feel angry, how can I help you?”
 
Share your feelings with your child.
 
This will help normalize that grief stays with us for a while. There is no “appropriate” timeframe for grief.
 
Give lots of hugs.
 
This is good for your child and good for you!
 
Finally, remember what William Shakespeare had to say about grief: “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

Wendy Young is the founder of KidlutionsTM : Solutions for Kids and is the clinical director of Comprehensive Counseling & Consulting, LLC, in Bessemer, MI. She previously developed grief and loss programming for 13 school districts in the eastern Upper Peninsula and was the social work supervisor for the LMAS District Health Department/Home Health and Hospice. For more grief resources and FREE printables, visit her site at: www.kidlutions.com.