When I think about what to write in this blog I often talk to myself about what seems important to me. I have been thinking lately about how children grow and change as time passes. I want to write about this today. The murders of young children and Newtown, Conn. leaves all of us stunned and overwhelmed. I need to think about what I can say that will be helpful to the grieving parents and siblings. Some of what I say now might be helpful but here I am writing about families in which a parent died from an illness or an accident.
If children were very young when their parent died their ability to understand what death means was very limited. The very young may keep expecting the deceased to return. Their understanding changes as they get older. They begin recognize death’s permanence and are able to be more accepting of the fact that their mother or father will not come back. Older children may understand this from the beginning, but the wish that their parent could return may still there. At each age there is a change in the family dynamics, and a child is able to participate in different ways, as he or she accommodate to the changes in the way the family lives together; as they accommodate to the loss, to what is now missing in their family.
How can a parent keep track of these changes in their children as well as in themselves over a period of years? I don’t think we always appreciate how much “change” is a part of the grieving process. Is keeping track of these changes important? I think it is on many levels. One important change is our view of who died. What do we know about the deceased and what do we remember? I can think of one family when they sat down to a holiday dinner (for example, Thanksgiving) they always remembered the dead parent and how he or she liked to celebrate the holiday. In this case it was father who died and he had been very involved in preparing holiday meals. They chose a menu based on his taste in food and how he prepared the meal. Their cooking was an attempt to imitate how father would have done it, and as they ate they shared memories of what Thanksgiving was like when father was alive. They talked about how comforting it was to remember him in this way and the holiday took on new meaning to them. How do they keep track of these memories as they deal over time with the changes in how they relate to the death? There is no special formula- each child and surviving parent find their own way to give words to what they are experiencing.
One way of keeping track of memories is to keep a diary that could include thoughts about the meaning of the death in their lives, and keeping track of the changes as they are experiencing them. Families can learn to talk about what they are experiencing, and plan a time, as infrequently or as often, as they choose to share these experiences. The goal is to hear each others’ pain in a respectful and caring manner, to remember the good times and the bad times. You don’t have to do anything about the pain but simply learn to hear each other, to learn what the children miss, and they can learn some of what you miss. Sometimes we cannot talk about our feelings or our experiences. Sometimes as parents you think it is important for children to talk about their grief. This may not be true for every child. There is no magic in conversation. However, writing down your thoughts may be one way of looking at them, and when ready you can share them. When not ready they are yours to keep and reflect on as time goes by.
One thing I have become aware of recently is that children as well as teenagers are not always aware of how they feel after a death and over time as well. They may worry about what is normal or typical given the circumstances. They do not get a course on grief that explains to them how they might feel and what is appropriate. It is difficult to share what we don’t understand. In a world where there is a good deal of emphasis on what is normal and not normal this can lead to bereaved children and adolescents worrying about what they feel, and they are often fearful of what others may think about what they are experiencing. If everyone in the family keeps a diary, including you as the parent, and at regular times you have a family meeting where there is the option to share feeling, this can alleviate any fears, and help family members learn from each other and be comfortable with themselves.