Grief in Children Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD- Guest Blogger
The above post struck me to my core–and this is why:
Nearly sixty years. It never goes away. It formed who I became. In the late 50’s and early 60’s my father’s lymphoma was a “secret” that only his wife and children knew. After informing her 11 and 15 year old children that their father had a fatal illness, our mother rarely spoke to us about it—except, for an example, in retort to my question, “Can we have another baby?” “You know your father is going to die!” Bottling up became so profoundly painful, that both my brother and I became outspoken adults. For me, that doesn’t always have good results, but it is better than the alternative. The writing of my book, “What to Do about Mama?” and my blog of the same name, have brought my formative years into even greater focus. This article has made me wonder how I made it through adulthood without more “pathological developmental distortion or arrest.” Also see my blog post for more on the topic of grief: Different Perspectives on Grief
Here are some excerpts that really hit home:
- It seems senseless to debate which types of grief are the worst. Which are the hardest to bear. Every form hurts so very far beyond normal limits, beyond ordinary words. Profound sadness. It takes our breath away. It aches that much. Every form requires extraordinary coping skills. Every form holds its hazards. However, this childhood form does appear to be among the very worst.
- Only in childhood can death deprive an individual of so much opportunity to love and be loved and face him with so difficult a task of adaptation….The death of a parent engenders a longing of incomparable amount, intensity, and longevity.”
- The child’s loss of a parent is one of the most difficult forms of bereavement.
- Recovery is arduous, exhausting, and hard to accomplish. The death of a parent is life-altering on a permanent basis. It is a severe emotional wound. It is traumatic.
- “Although we know that, after such a loss, acute mourning will subside, we also know that a part of us shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what we believe may fill the gap…we will nevertheless remain changed forever…”
- From their many experiences with children, child psychotherapists tend to agree that the child’s mourning process never does entirely end, nor should it. The mental representation of the lost loved one, the memories and an accompanying degree of longing, remain with the child through childhood and adulthood – throughout his lifetime.
- The child is indeed bereaved, but he himself is in need of a caregiver.
- This troublesome outlook for the child can be mitigated by the understanding and compassionate presence of the other parent or another adult. Even an older sibling can soften the hardship. Someone must be there to receive and relieve the child’s distress. The child cannot be left alone to cope with loss and still remain healthy – both in mind and in body. Sorrow must be shared. Every person needs to know he is not alone with grief. The child is especially vulnerable and needy in this respect.
- Children draw great strength from their caregivers. The child needs the love and gentle guidance of a perceptive, patient, and capable caregiver.
- We know from those studies that children were least traumatized when the primary caregiver – usually but not always the mother – remained close, loving, calming, and comforting. Children’s reactions to loss depend mainly on the reactions of the primary caregiver.
- The interaction between internal and external forces decides between the possibility of normal developmental progress and the incidence of pathological developmental distortion or arrest.”
- If the child’s caregiver is the other parent, we have come full circle, returning to the bereaved caregiver. Grief is not optional. The caregiver must attend to his own grief and to the grief of his child. Perhaps, in some important sense, parent and child comfort, soothe, and reassure each other. They support one another. The feeling of deep sorrow is shared. The process and progress of the caregiver’s bereavement is then highly significant not only for himself but also for his child. The child’s mastery of his situation depends substantially on the caregiver. It is a large responsibility. Honesty and openness are virtually always good policy with children. The subject of death will carefully follow this pathway – when the caregiver is strong enough and wise enough to pursue it. He will know intuitively how to listen well and respond to the child’s expressions of grief.
- No hurry to heal. No pressure to “snap out of it.” Honesty and openness. Love. Memory. A firm, soothing hand to hold. Talking. It takes only one human being who cares. That is the route to strength and growth.
Everyone has different perspectives; they are formed by our own personal histories. When it came to the topic of “grief” my co-writer and I discovered we have very different perspectives. Writing about grief caused some stress in our book-writing endeavor. What follows describes my point of view.
My father was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1958, at the age of 44. As was common during those times, the doctors advised my mother not to tell him. But, after a crisis hospitalization, she did tell my brother (age 15) and me (age 11). This became a family “secret” that was never discussed. Four years later, Dad chose to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, because he did not believe (accurately) that his physicians were telling him the truth about his diagnosis. There he was told that he had lymphoma. He died within a few weeks, never having returned home.
When my mother passed away suddenly 35 years later, all that I could think was, “She’s finally with him again; she has waited so long.” My father’s early death did, of course, have a profound impact on me. When I grieve for my parents (which I seem to do more the older I become), it is always in the context of the times our family lost with him—things like his never knowing his grandchildren.
In my husband’s family, grieving was more intense when their mother was alive and rapidly disintegrating day by day. It is not uncommon for children to struggle with facing their parent’s or parents’ deterioration—whether it is cognitive or physical—and grieve for the loss of the person they once knew even while that person is still living.
My husband and his siblings seemed to have a value about death that is similar to mine: As sad as it is to lose a parent, if that loved one has lived a long and good life, as my mother-in-law did, we didn’t look at death as tragic—just the natural end to living.
In truth, whenever I know of someone of advanced age who is sick and suffering and heading toward life’s end, I always say this little prayer: “Lord, take this soul quickly and gently into the night to be with You in your heavenly kingdom and in Your perfect love.”
It’s normal to feel loss when someone you care about has Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also normal to feel guilty, abandoned, and angry. It’s important to acknowledge these emotions and know that you may start to experience them as soon as you learn of the diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s gradually changes the way you relate to the person you know and love. As this happens, you’ll mourn him or her and may experience the stages of grieving: denial, anger, guilt, sadness, and acceptance. These stages of grief don’t happen neatly in order. You’ll move in and out of different stages as time goes on. Some common experiences in the grieving process include:
- Hoping that the person is not ill
- Expecting the person will get better
- Convincing yourself that the person hasn’t changed
- Attempting to normalize problematic behaviors
- Frustration with the person
- Resenting the demands of caregiving
- Resenting family members who can’t…
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