By Jayita Ekta
Death of a loved one or a family member can be a traumatic experience for a child. Here are ways in which we can understand the grieving child and exercises that can help her overcome her sense of loss and fear
Have you ever encountered a child who has experienced the death of a close family member? Most children are unsure about their feelings and in these situations, it is difficult to fathom what they are going through. The best way to help them is to explore their feelings with them and enable them to accept and embrace their grief. In most cases, adult family members are also grieving, and the child’s emotions are not taken into account immediately. If only one pays attention to them one will be amazed at the understanding they can arrive at with just a little help. However, their feelings of apprehension have to be done away with initially.
Books like What Color Is Death, Daddy? and Kaleidoscope Of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore-Garard, A Taste Of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith and Melvin Morse’s Closer To Light aim to aid young children when a core family member dies. They also include exercises that could be used as a tool while handling post-death situations at home.
Kaleidoscope Of Grief provides insight into the feelings of children through real life examples. “My father died in a car accident, the other driver was drunk,” says Derek. “I feel so angry. He was only 54—too young to die.” Sean says: “I’m not sure how I feel. Sometimes I wonder if it was my fault.” Talking to children is important as it helps bring them out of their shell. We then know what is troubling them and can work things out accordingly.
Talking is also a way in which memories of the deceased loved one can be kept alive for children. Memories are precious because they can help one get through the darkest times of sadness. “When I had a new toy, my little brother wanted to play with it first. I tried to give him other toys, even candy, but he always wanted my new toy. Dad made me share. Even though I got mad, his cute smile always cheered me up,” remembers Sean about his father. Communicating through photographs and sending air balloons to heaven and talking with other family members should be encouraged. These help the child come to terms with reality and loss lessens.
A primary adult must assist younger children in articulating their feelings and offer support and sympathy in their saddest times. A word or two, letting the child know that it was nobody’s fault and that every body is sad because of what happened, can release the tension from the child’s mind. “It helped us a lot when the hospital counsellor spent some time with us after dad died. She hugged mom and said she knew dad was special because we love him so much,” says Derek.
For children, small gestures like hugging and spending time provides a sense of security. “My best friend sat and cried with me. He said he was really sorry,” said Derek. It is nice for the children to know that there is someone who shares their emotions.
It is important to tell children that if they have lost their father, mother, brother or sister, their parents have also lost a husband, wife, son or daughter and that they are also upset. Sharing your grief with your child could prove to be cathartic for both and lead to both making an effort to come out of it together.
Sometimes an adult might say something that confuses or hurts the child. For instance, Derek says: “My aunt said that dad was in a better place. I got mad and walked out. I just miss him.” Children should be told that adults are really trying to help and that it is okay to nicely tell them if they have said something that was hurtful. And if children don’t understand what adults are trying to say, they should ask them to explain.
People can change a lot when someone close dies. But children do not understand this, and can interpret different behaviour from the adult wrongly. The adult can, in this situation, confess to the child how exactly he or she is feeling. Involving children will draw the family closer and make it less difficult to face the loss.
Many children also wonder if things could have been different. A lot of them wish they had said or done something different. “I wish I had told my father that I loved him. I think he knew, but I wish I said it. I just never expected him to die,” says Derek. Adults can assure children that the person was aware of the deep felt emotion and that they should do everything to strengthen their love for him or her.
Children must be introduced to different processes of healing, like painting, reading, writing to express their feelings, karate or gymnasium, and so on. Joining a support group and discussing with other children who have had the same experience helps them relieve their pain.
Children need sufficient time and space to grieve. During this period, the following exercises could be helpful in allowing them to get in touch with their feelings and an outlet for their emotions. An adult will have to accompany the child in these exercises:
◊ Tell the child: it is sad when someone we love dies. We need to talk about the person who died. It might make us cry, but crying is okay, and so is talking about them. Write about the person you loved and died.
◊ Feelings about our sadness can change. How do you feel about your loved one’s death right now?
◊ Remembering the times you had together is good. Share your favourite memory. Draw a picture of your favourite memory or the feelings you had then.
◊ Reminders can be bitter or sweet. What reminds you of your loved one? Draw a picture of what reminds you of your loved one.
◊ Who makes you the most comfortable and how do they help you? Draw a picture of a person (or people) who help make you feel good.
◊ What was the most helpful thing someone said?
◊ Has anyone said hurtful or confusing things to you? If so, what did they say? How did it make you feel? What did you say to them at that time and what would you say now?
◊ How have people around you changed? How have you changed?
◊ Draw a picture of how you felt before your loved one died and how you feel now.
◊ Most people wonder if things could have been different. If you could say or do something different, what would it be?
◊ What helps you the most when you are sad? Draw a picture of what you do to feel better.
◊ Our loved ones teach us a lot about life and death. Often they leave us with wondrous gifts to discover as we go through life without them. Write about the gifts you feel your loved one gave to you.
◊ Maybe you did not get a chance to say goodbye to your loved one. How would you like to say goodbye?
◊ Do you have any questions for God? What do you think about heaven?
◊ Does anything really scare you a lot? Do you have any questions about death?
◊ Draw some things that you feel in your heart.
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