Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Using Your Own Experience

What happens when a loved one dies?

Perhaps the most challenging thing about writing a blog is the opportunity to reflect not only on our academic interest, but also on our personal feelings and experiences. This makes the blog more interesting and more real. However, it also brings to the fore our own limitations and abilities to write about our own experiences. Two events over the past month have made this an issue for me.

The first event occurred at a meeting of a local School of Social Work Alumni Association. I was the keynote speaker and my mission was to provide information on the issues of grief in children that would help the social work audience introduce these issues into their practice. For me this was straightforward, sharing my own research and what I had learned in a way that would be relevant to clinical practitioners. I hope I was successful. That afternoon, the teenage performance group from The Children's Room was featured on the program. The performance by grieving teenagers gives the audience an introduction to the work of the Children's Room (www.childrensroom.org). I have mentioned the Children's Room before in this blog. I saw the performance group last year. This is a new group for the most part and a new scenario. The teenagers themselves wrote the performance and they act in it as well. They have created a show by interweaving their stories about the death of a teenage brother, the death of a very young sister, a mother's death and the death of two fathers. As the performance began, I was not prepared for what happened next. The teenage performers came on the stage carrying what seemed to be posters. They then turned them around and these were pictures of the siblings and parents who had died. Unexpectedly, I began to cry, and none of my efforts to suppress these tears worked. I was not alone in the room. I sobbed through the whole performance as did others. As we watched the teenagers, their pain and their stories came home and I became a mourner. I have no words to explain why I was embarrassed. Could this be a clue about why we have difficulty dealing with grief in our world? I wasn't feeling sorry for them. I was sad with them, I hurt with them, and I knew I could not ask them to comfort me. Is that the danger? Do mourners think when we cry, we are not crying with them? We certainly aren't crying for them. Do they fear our tears because they think we want them to comfort us? I hope not. Why should I have been embarrassed about my loss of control? Was I grieving something in my own life? When it was over, most of us in the audience simply commented to each other on our unexpected feelings, but we had no comfort for each other. I didn't talk to others except to say how surprised we all were at our tears. Did we expect that as professionals we should have better control? In part I guess I did. But is that realistic? Maybe if we work with the bereaved, we always need to expect and accept that we might feel their pain and their loss, and that it is okay to express this feeling when we need to. I once thought that if I couldn't sometimes cry with people when they told me their stories, maybe I shouldn't work with them. I also realized that I don't have words to explain my feelings and my being embarrassed. One thing that did not surprise me: the teenagers in the performance group had words for what they were experiencing. With the support they received from each other, they could tell us what they had experienced and what it meant to them.

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The second event that gave me pause was a request from a reader of this blog. I was asked to recommend a book that would help parents help their children when a parent dies. Oxford University Press has just published such a book, written by me and a colleague Madelyn Kelly. Its title is: A Parent's Guide to Raising Grieving Children: Rebuilding Your Family after the Death of a Loved One. I bring to the book my many years of researching this subject and listening to people's stories, and Madelyn Kelly brings her experience as a widow whose husband was the first reporter who died in Iraq. The book deals with the death of a parent, the death of a child, a sibling, and the death of a friend. I was invited by Psychology Today to write this blog because they thought this would be an important subject for their readers. I agree, but what is my problem? I once told a colleague that if I was meant to be a good marketer, I wouldn't be doing the work I am doing. And so I can tell you about my book, but I can't sell it to you. We think we did a good job in providing parents with the information they need to help them through this very difficult period. However, we didn't provide them with any formulas. We had no easy answers to what is probably the most difficult event a young family faces. Just as I am always learning about how my own experiences affects how I react, so I know that I am always learning more about how people grieve and how they manage this in their lives. If our book helps, we need to hear about how it helps from our readers.

Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.

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