As I sit down to write this column, the news is covering the tragic death of a young boy. It is something that is difficult to wrap your brain around, losing a child. As a parent, I become tearful when thinking about it, but as a clinician, it makes my head spin for the process that is left for the grieving family, friends, neighbors and community.
Journeying through the grief process is grueling and overwhelming at the worst of times and confusing at the best of times. It is even harder for a child to navigate such a complex journey. Helping children understand death is not an easy task. Many times parents have a difficult time even saying the words "death" or "died" to kids. As adults, we prefer to use words like "passed away" or "lost." For children, however, it is important to keep explanations about death as age appropriate and concrete as possible. Using the correct words is important. Children can get confused with our grown-up language and may think that if our family "lost" a relative, they will be found and eventually return. Basic and true language is important: "Grandma died today." It is enough and it is honest.
Of course children will have a lot of questions about death. Sometimes I think that is what makes explaining it so difficult, we aren't sure we can answer all of their questions. But that is okay. It is okay to answer, "I don't know," for questions you truly don't know the answer to.
To help parents with this difficult task, there are coloring/activity books that are an excellent resource helping children learn and cope with the many different aspects of death and grief. You can find these books here: http://www.barklayandeve.com/store/ . These books are narrated by two Portuguese Water Dogs - Barklay and Eve - and tackle difficult topics such as cancer, death, funerals, organ donation and the death of family pets.
Children may not have the reaction adults expect when talking about or coping with the death of a friend or loved one. It may take them a little longer to understand the finality of the death. It is common for children to ask unexpected questions, days, weeks or months after a death. They may ask when Grandma is coming back, even though you have explained that she is not. This can be difficult for the adults who are continuing to grieve their own loss. It helps to keep in mind that children process things differently and in shorter time spans. Although they may remember that Grandma died, they may need repeated or additional explanation as time goes on. They also may surprise you with no reaction at all. Or a reaction you don't expect. For adults, this can be difficult because we give their reaction (or lack thereof), a meaning that it doesn't necessarily have. It doesn't mean they don't care or lack empathy. It more likely means that they do not understand what you are explaining. Continue to share your feelings about the death and encourage them to share their feelings. Children learn everything from their parents and other important adults. If they are experiencing a death for the first time, it is also the first time they are learning how to react to it or the emotions that can come along with it.
Children who may be prone to anxiety may grow anxious about themselves or their direct family after a death. Children may worry more, have difficulty separating or sleeping at night as a result of worry that one of their parents may die. This is not uncommon and will subside in time with reassurance and nurturing. If significant time and your child is still struggling with anxiety connected to a death, it is important to seek assistance through a therapist who works both with children and grief. The Cove Center for Grieving Children has a branch in Mystic and provides programs and support for children coping with grief. http://www.covect.org/
Lastly, be aware that future losses will trigger previous losses. In life, we experience many types of losses, death being the most final. Divorce, moving and school changes are also losses for children and families. It is very common for one loss to trigger the effects of a previous loss, therefore compounding the reactions children may experience. Your child may start talking about Grandma when they are processing a family divorce or the death of a pet. Grief is a complex and complicated issue and even moreso for children. Here are some more resources to help you and your family navigate through death and other losses.
Hospice Bereavement Services: Programs for adults, children and families
PBS Special: When Families Grieve
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement: www.aplb.org
Beverly Carr is a licensed clinical social worker based in Norwich. She can be reached via http://beverlycarr.vpweb.com/.