Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Newtown: Not Just a List of Names

Relationship to the deceased makes a difference in how various mourners respond.

How to begin to write about what happened in Newtown? It is almost as if whatever I know about grief does not apply. And yet it does apply. As I try to find a way to talk about how I see the consequences of these murders, tragically there are also other similar occasions from which we learn.

I am reminded of the obituaries I read after what happened on 9/11/2001. What I remembered was that the obituaries were not a simple list of names of those who died. With a picture they told something of the story of those who died, and we realized that these were people who had lives to live and who were very involved in living them. We learned that it is very important to know who died, to find ways of remembering them that begins with the notice of their death. I have just read the obituaries of the twenty children and their six teachers who were killed. There were pictures and something about who each of them was. It is easier to read a list of names. In so doing, we lose the fullness of what happened. The sadness I feel is overwhelming. We know something about what was lost with these deaths. People died, children and adults died, not simply 26 names of those who were killed. It makes what has happened more real, but still we are not their families and our pain is different. It made me realize that there are many groups of mourners after what happened in Newtown. We need to recognize that each group is different. My list may not be the same as yours but it is important to realize that there are different kinds of mourning that relates to your relationship with those who were killed.

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While we talk of the country mourning, we are not a country that deals with grief very well. However, we have been hit with these deaths so that they cannot be avoided, and the country is indeed mourning. However, our mourning will end long before what families is Newtown are experiencing. Our grief is different from what the families in Newtown are experiencing and still different from that of the group of families of those who were murdered are experiencing.

The mourning of those of us who are “outsiders” looks difference and our needs are different. We are expressing our sadness and horror by becoming involved in activities to honor the dead: we are examining safety in the schools to try to prevent this from happening again; we look at larger social issues that made it possible for this kind of killing to happen: we ask what can be changed? But our daily life is not really changed. Our mourning is in a sense contained in our activities to remember those who died; and to explore how this kind of tragedy could be prevented.

Those who live in Newtown are mourning in another way. They are dealing with the death of neighbors and friends, with a disruption of their way of life. Their grief is more personal. Their lives are changed in many ways but their families are still intact. No member is missing. Their grief brings great sadness. How do they deal with this sadness? How do they explain to their children what happened. Can they talk openly to them about death? Can their children visit the families of their friends who died? Can you be patient with each other as you all find your way?

Many of these children attended the same school and heard the shooting and were themselves fearful for their own lives. Slowly they will put the pieces together. They will need help. Part of the help involves learning a vocabulary for what they are feeling and experiencing. If counselors are called in, they need to be available over time. This kind of grief unfolds gradually. Talking with children in small groups will help as they learn from each other.

There are 26 families in Newtown whose lives have been changed forever. These are the mourners whose grief and sense of loss takes over their lives. We are talking now of the grief of parents, of siblings, of children whose parent died, and their widowed parent, whose lives are forever changed by the murders in the school that day.

I was reminded of what I read in the newspapers after the 9/11 tragedy. There was an emphasis on helping mourners find closure and as quickly as possible get on with their lives. However, it didn’t work that way for those whose loss was personal. Families of the deceased told me, “maybe there was closure for those who were helping but for them their mourning did not end”. I was reminded of this conversation by what I heard on the radio, last week. People talked about helping people “heal” with a sense of urgency in their voices. What did they mean? What does it mean to heal in this context? I was put off by the use of the word “heal” because I knew that this is not possible in the way the word is used here. The mourning of these families will not ever be finished and put behind them. At this point in time they may not know that, they may not understand what they are feeling.

I was pleased to hear the comments of the Senator-elect from Connecticut, Chris Murphy. I did not take notes. I write what I remember. He said: “These families will learn to deal with their pain, with this loss but it will be with them for the rest of their lives. Mourning as we know it does not end. They learn to live with their pain, they go on living, they grow, they change so that they are not the same people they were before. There is no quick “fix””. Who was he talking to? What he said was very important to correct with those who talk about healing, in the hope that it will all pass quickly. These are the words I felt that those trying to help these mourning families needed to hear, not the bereaved famlies. Those what want to help, need to learn to simply be there for these families, to help in whatever seemed appropriate and to just listen. Not to give advice or point to a direction their grief will take. As I listened I felt as if Murphy was saying my words. These are words I use to help grieving families after some time has passed, to help get some perspective on what they are experiencing. In a sense they do heal, but not in the sense that it all goes away. There is not goinmg back too the way things were before.They learn to live with their grief, to find a place for it in their lives as they remember and honor the dead that allows them to move ahead with their lives, often in a different direction from where they were going before the death. There are no formulas for how to mourn, no right way to do it. But the death of a spouse or a child is not easy to deal with. The funeral is one step in helping families see the reality of what happened. It is a way of honoring the dead and to share their grief with the larger community.

In the long run, mourners find their way, but it is often easier when they can help each other, and learn from each other. In most of these families there were other children, some younger, some a bit older. Some of the younger children may be confused and unclear about what has and is happening. They may need to be told many times what happened, but none the less, they need to be recognized as mourners in the family. As they get older and can more fully understand what happened they will visit the loss all over again. This will happen with their older siblings as well, as they mature and revisit what they understand about death. Families will also find different ways of honoring the dead and remembering them. I think of my book that applies to these families. They are now"Raising Grieving Children", as they deal with their own pain as well.

For now I have outlined some of how I see what is happening. I hope that as I sort it out for myself I have helped the reader as well. The most meaningful help I know of comes from Centers for Children that are part of the Alliance for Grieving Children. I have talked about these programs many times in my blog. There are 2 programs in the Hartford area that belong to the Alliance. They may already be involved.

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

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