Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Explaining to Friends What Grief Is About

Being heard and remembering are important in helping bereaved children

The book Milo should be read by every parent raising a grieving child. It is a book written for children who are in their early teens, even those a bit younger or bit older as well. Adults, judging from my experience, can learn a good deal from it as well. The book, by Alan Silberberg, is about his experience in school the year following his mother's death when he was 11. Silberberg is a talented cartoonist and he uses this talent well in telling his story.

Silberberg describes Milo's difficulty in dealing with the world without his mother as he awkardly lives with what he sees as an empty space in his family. He writes about how children cope, that is how his friends at school struggle to deal with the reality of his mother's death. In the end, the book is about continuing bonds, as Milo realizes that he does have a mother, she just isn't in his life in the same way. All the things at home that reminded him of her were taken down by his father; this was a way his father dealt with his own grief. In the end Milo puts his mother back in his life, by putting up pictures of her as well as using some of the things she used in the house. He ends the book saying that he is happy to be in a family of three and in remembering that they were once four.

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As I read the book I was reminded of a discussion I had several weeks ago about continuing bonds. It was a meeting of colleagues who were doing research about bereavement. The subject of continuing bonds came up. The focus of the discussion was: how long bereaved people talk to the deceased, and what would be the psychological consequences of this kind of continuing connection. I was surprised to hear this kind of behavior being used as the primary indicator of a connection to the deceased. It seems to me that we are still learning about how these connections are maintained. It isn't one simple phenomenon. I recalled my experience lighting memorial candles for those in our family who have died; this is a Jewish tradition we do on several occasions throughout the year. I reminded my colleagues that I remember, at such times, those who died, but I don't necessarily talk to them. They are part of who I am and I am comforted in remembering them.

I saw Milo as a wonderful example of helping the reader appreciate how important these connections are--in living with our grief and through it as well. I wish I had known about the book when I was at the meeting. I could have used it to reinforce my thinking that we learn not only from our research but from the experience of people who have been through it. We need to learn to listen to what they are telling us. Sometimes this corrects our research and sometimes it supports it; but we won't know unless we listen.

Another thing that Milo taught me was how difficult it is for children to deal with the death of a friend's parent. This comes to a head in a school setting. Their peers want to help but they don't know how. There is no formula that will make this easier, and there is no certainty that every grieving child will have the same experience. I am always reminded of a mother I talked with about a period in her child's life when he didn't want to go to school. He was 8 when his father died. Finally he told her what happened. His best friend said that if "his" father died he would be crying all the time and since his friend wasn't crying all the time he must not miss his father. The mother listened and  realized that neither of these boys had any idea what grieving is about. She explained to her son that his friend was trying to understand how he must be feeling, the friend knew that grieving people cry and that's what should be happening.Her son  went to school and was able to tell his friend that he can't go around crying all the time. This opened a new conversation and things between them grew better from this new understanding.

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

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