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.
My grandchildren’s Grammy, in other words—my counterpart—passed away on Father’s day. Up until the last half year of her life, she was a vital woman and a go-to grandma. She and her husband were married for nearly 44 years–two months less than I have been married to mine. He wrote her eulogy, a beautiful tribute to his wife and their marriage. The eulogy was hard for him to deliver at the funeral; he did it, but broke down. My 6-year old granddaughter sat beside me, my arm around her holding on tight. She cried when she saw her grandfather cry. My 3-year-old grandson was a little wiggly in my lap; he being too young to understand.
Really, none of us “understands.” Sure we know that we all live, and then we all die. But we would drive ourselves to madness if we tried to make sense of the who’s and the how’s and the why’s, or the “fairness” of it all.
It’s also so hard to know what to say to someone who is unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and decides not to undergo treatment. So I tried to express my feelings by telling her:
“I am thinking about…
how overwhelmed you must have felt at the seemingly sudden onset of your disease;
how difficult it has been for you to decide what path to take;
the strength of your convictions in deciding your course of action;
your incredibly difficult decision and the courage of your choice;
how you are living life on your own terms;
the wonderful job you have done raising your children who have pulled together in providing support, in respecting your right to choose, and in demonstrating their unconditional love for you;
how much your daughter loves you;
how I hope my son is able to tell you how deeply he loves and respects you, but that if he cannot find his way to speak of his emotions, that you will trust me when I say that he does;
how I will always tell our grandchilden how much love their Grammy has for them and how much joy they have given you.”
And then, at a later date, when the end was drawing near, I sent:
“A Heartfelt Message”
You have given our family a precious gift—YOUR DAUGHTER.
Your kind and gentle nature lives through her.
You have instilled in her the values of love, patience and honesty.
And so it passes—from mother, to daughter, to granddaughter.
Strong women, all.
I can only hope that these words somehow helped. I think they are what I would like to hear.
In “Me and These Men” May 5, 2014, MKC posts:
There are PLENTY of ways to lose your mind once your parent has moved in—but prior planning certainly does help. I address this same topic in my book, “What to Do about Mama?” on pages 72-73 and 77-78.
Providing Care in Your Own Home
As much as you think you can look dispassionately at the situation and develop realistic expectations, frankly, no one can imagine the scope of what he or she is getting into. How can you know the unknown?
But certainly, if this is the choice you make, be sure that you and your spouse or partner are as prepared as possible. Your home needs to be made safe and handicap accessible, with equipment such as grab bars and shower chairs. Throw rugs should be removed from walkways. It is best if you can provide one-floor living capability, which can be an extra challenge if there is no bathroom facility on that level.
Discuss how responsibilities will be divided among those living in the home, as well as those providing outside support. Don’t forget to talk about finances. Bringing your loved one into your home will put extra demands on your budget. Make sure you will have opportunities for respite and time for yourself; don’t “lose” yourself in the process of caregiving.
Most importantly, consider whether your relationship is strong enough to handle the demands of living together. If you have problems historically, they will continue or even get worse. Even if you believe you have gotten along well, be prepared; there may be some surprises you just didn’t foresee. Keep all the household members in mind—are there personality clashes? Then there’s the issue of the “others,” the ones who are not taking on the responsibility of front-line caregiving. Too often, they are the ones who second-guess or criticize you. If you haven’t felt resentment before, you will now, and that emotion can really destroy relationships. Are you prepared to cope with this ongoing stress?
If you opt to bring your loved one into your home, establish an open line of communication. Talk about and listen to expectations on both sides. It is so difficult to respect everyone’s roles when the parent-child lines become fuzzy. To encourage a positive and cooperative atmosphere in your home:
Designate a personal space for your loved one that is not too isolated from the rest of the household. Fill it with his or her belongings, collectibles, and mementos.
- Talk about individual routines, and try to accommodate everyone’s needs as closely as possible without compromising your household and family values. Will you have enough time for other family members? If your spouse or children are required to sacrifice what they hold dear, the household climate will become a breeding ground for resentment and conflict. Remember that family support is vital if the living arrangement is to be successful.
Emphasize household customs, and solicit support for avoiding unneeded disruptions. Will you be able to maintain important lifestyle concerns such as employment, social life, and vacation plans? Are you prepared to make adjustments?
As a family, discuss what you each value and what causes you stress.
Set boundaries in the relationship, but make sure to schedule time together.
Help the care receiver develop new activities and friendships.
Encourage mutual respect based on communicating wants and needs, not giving orders. Stress the importance of being open and honest with each other. This is particularly difficult when your care receiver goes around you to complain to the “others,” which also sets the “others” up to second guess your actions. Direct communication is the key to avoiding misunderstandings.