Susan is a 40-year old mother of two sons and she is at a loss about how to help her 9 and 7-year olds understand that their father will never play ball with them again. She has to tell them that they will never see him again, because he died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive heart attack. She is the midst of her own long, dark tunnel of grief but her first instinct is to take care of her children. “I don’t know where to begin” she says, “and I don’t even know what I don’t know. I’ve never been through this before.”

Susan is postponing her own grief work in order to be available for her sons and their needs. We talk about how the children will need support working through the reality of their father’s death. The boys will need help understanding the five primary concepts of death. Children have different levels of understanding because of their age, experience, and cognitive development. They will need to understand that death is universal and happens to all living things at unpredictable times; that death is irreversible and Daddy cannot come back; that Daddy's body no longer wroks and is nonfunctional; that there are both external and internal events that bring about death. Children also grapple with the concept of what happens after death, or their personal views and beliefs in an afterlife. Susan will most likely answer similar questions repeatedly as her sons strive to understand and make meaning of their father's death.

Susan cannot make the pain of loss go away; there is no formula that will simplify this painful reconciliation of the most stressful change in their lives. Susan cannot fix this heartache for her children. Her children’s grief is complex and unique to each of them in different ways.

Listening deeply to her sons will be the key to helping them in the most profound ways. Though she can not change the reality of their loss, Susan can help the boys find ways to create meaning from their pain. One healthy, significant adult relationship will create the foundation of resiliency. The changes in their lives are significant and everyone must learn to find ways to adjust, and it is the context and the social network that will make a significant difference to how the boys develop resiliency. Susan can locate and enroll the boys in a grief support group where they will find that they are not alone; their feelings and reactions are normal; and children can serve as role models of resiliency.

When her sons are feeling supported, Susan will then turn to her own grief and begin accepting the support from social networks that are helpful to her. She may join a Widow-to-Widow program so that she, like her sons, can learn from others who have coped longer than she. She will discover the strength that comes from sharing feelings and experiences in a group, of sharing about the deceased loved one, and supporting each other by acknowledging their pain and loss. Susan and her sons will find that the grief treatment of choice is peer support.

The most valuable level of support comes from the companionship of those who have had personal experience with loss. That is why peer support and group therapy is the first line of reparation. Children's grief groups utilize play and art as modes of expression; children act out their feelings in a safe environment where other children have similar feelings. Adult support groups provide a place to share stories of their loss, to remember, and to support each other. When grief is problematic, it is often because there is a lack of social support or a frail social network in which the person lives. In cases where a person is having trouble after an extended time, it is often not the death itself that is most troubling, but the context and an inept social system. When a death is not validated or there is judgment against the person, relationship, or mode of death the grief becomes disenfranchised and much more difficult to work through. On the other hand, role models and mentors can make a significant and long-lasting difference in how a person finds their way back into a full experience of their life.

Who in your life has shown you the way back after a loss? What did they model or say that made a difference? What form of support has been most valuable to you, and what has made your grief more painful?

About the Author

Lani Leary, Ph.D.

Lani Leary, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist specializing in end-of-life issues, bereavement, and trauma.

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