Raising Grieving Children

How children can survive the death of a loved one.

Learning a Language For Grief

Grieving children need words for what they are feeling.

After the tragedy in Newtown we are hearing a good deal about children and their reactions to death. It is on the radio, in our daily newspapers, and in many ways all around us as the citizens of Newtown are dealing with their grief. This is quite a contrast to what was called The National Grieving Children’s Day that took place on Nov.15, 2012. As I think about it, if I had not been connected to organizations devoted to children’s grief, the day would have come and gone without my hearing a word about it. If this day happened now it would hardly have gone unnoticed.

As we find our way through the horror of this new event, we need to ask what we do know about grief in children. When I first started my research I found that it was considered important to “protect” children from the fact that people die. It was important to distract them. My research helped me see this very differently. I interviewed a social work student who told me that for many years, after hisf athr died, he was told his father was away on business. He was 7 when his father died. When he was 10 his cousin told him that is what people say when a person dies. When he talked to his mother she had to tell him the truth. I talked to a psychologist who was 13 when her mother died. Her father was advised not to discuss it with her or involve her in the funeral or the mourning process. As a result of her experience she has become a strong advocate for being truthful and involving children in age appropriate ways, respecting them as mourners. We help children by considering them and respecting them as mourners.

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There can be no deceiving children in Newtown. There was nothing private about these deaths. Yet as I hear about the concerns of the community as children go back to school, I wonder if the fact that they are grieving is being given sufficent consideration. I read in the newspapers that the teachers want to make life as normal as possible as children return to school. What is normal in this context when an entire school, in a way, is mourning? We need to consider the teachers, as well, as mourners. Would it make more sense to talk about developing a ‘new normal’ that would include helping children talk about their grief, recognize how it unfolds, and how it affects how they feel and behave? Should this be part of their education? I speak now as an outsider. I am not involved in what is happening in Newtown, but I have been concerned with what teachers need to know to help deal with the fact they have grieving children in their classes and these classes can extend from kindergarten through high school. In the Newtown schools the teachers are also mourning.

As my research has continued over the years I begin to appreciate that children of all ages do not have a vocabulary that explains how they feel after the death and over time. In several interviews with families who participated in the Harvard Child Bereavement Study this became very clear to me. When I asked a 10-year-old boy why he tore up his room when his mother died he answered that he was not sure that there would be any life now that his mother was dead. He could not imagine that his life would continue. His father reassured him that he would take care of him and that he and his siblings would continue to live as a family. He was then able to talk about his fears for the future. He needed to know that all of the family was fearful for the future but that they would work on it together. He began to understand that being frightened and worried and even angry was part of what children feel when their mother dies.

In another interview with the widowed mother of an 8-year-old I learned about how confusing the concept of mourning is, not only for an 8-year-old, but for his friend as well. This young boy came home from school and announced to his mother that he was not going back to school, “ever again." Nothing had happened at school, that the teacher knew of, that would explain this behavior. Mother spent an afternoon visiting with her son. As they talked she found out from her son that he had had a fight with his best friend. They were arguing about whether or not the grieving boy was really sad that his father died. His friend had decided that if he could laugh and play games with his friend, and not be crying all the time, then he really wasn’t mourning for his father. Mourning meant that he would be crying all the time. Mother helped her son explain to his friend about how he felt and how important it was that he could play with his friend to help him not feel sad all the time.

On another occasion I learned about bereaved high school students who were ridiculed for being able to laugh and cry and continue with various aspects of their life in school at the same time that they asked for consideration of their grief.

If children need to understand that what they are experiencing is part of grieving, that there is nothing wrong with them, then their teachers need to understand this as well. The talk about Newtown can be an opportunity to teach people, in the larger community as well, about what grief looks like and how to talk about it. We all need to help build a vocabulary of grief that we are comfortable with and that would guide our efforts to help each other when there is a death in the family and the community — not only when there is a trauma such as what happened in Newtown.

My friends who are educators tell me that dealing with death and grief in the classroom is just beginning to be part of a teacher’s training. A good deal of learning is required on all sides. I did a blog on this subject several months ago; this is something that concerns teachers but it also concerns parents who cannot assume that their grieving child’s teacher is as well prepared to help, as the parent thinks.

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

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