Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

Raising Grieving Children

Grieving Parents Accompanying Grieving Children

sharing grief with children, grief is changing as children mature

Posted Jun 21, 2010

One of the most difficult problems for a grieving parent is knowing how to share their grief with their children, who are also grieving. To do so requires a kind of self control at a time when the parent's own pain over the death may be very acute as well. The parent also needs to recognize that his or her child is also grieving. . This requires an understanding of the child's age and ability to cope with these feelings. In my experience talking with grieving parents, I find that parents worry about how their children are dealing with their grief regardless of the child's age. It is not always clear to them what grief should look like in a child. Perhaps that is part of the problem. There is no one way a child grieves.

I was chatting with several mothers at a Children's Room
gathering last week. We started talking about their concerns that their teen age children were not willing to talk with them about their feelings about the death of a parent and a sibling. These were not new deaths. Both of these children were involved as volunteers in the Children's Room. Clearly they were not running away from the reality of the death in their lives. They were simply choosing to talk about it in a different way than what their mothers expected. We talked about how difficult it is to step back and give children the space to find their own way of dealing with this death, in an age appropriate way. They worried that their children's reluctance to talk with them was a sign of a problem. We talked too about how parents have to change with their children over time as children mature and deal differently, at each stage in their young lives, with their grief. One of the mothers finally observe that she worried so much that her father's death not damage her daughter, that she can't step back and appreciate what her daughter is doing, not only for herself but for others and for her mother as well.

I was reminded of an encounter I had with a widower, many years ago, who was very worried about his teen age son who talked very little about his mother's death. Father was worried whether his son would be alright. I asked about what the boy was doing. He was graduating from high school with honors, he had many good friends and he was accepted to the college of his choice. Father persisted that his son is not talking about his mother and kept asking " how do I know he will be alright?" I told him about a young woman who would not talk with her mother about her father who had died when she was 5 until she went away to college, and began to wonder about who this man was. She, for the first time, met other students who had similar experiences and were talking to each other about what it meant to them. This young woman was ready in her own time to talk about her deceased father and what his death meant in her life. She described how her mother was so pleased that she finally was ready and reassured by the fact that her daughter could now talk about what she had lost and how she had grieved in her own way over the years. The daughter explained that she did not feel alone in her grief after talking with her peers at school. She always knew mother was there, but she didn't have the words to explain what she was experiencing and this experience kept changing as she grew up. This vignette seemed to help father relax. Only later did I learn that father was influenced by a brochure available at the meeting that explained that unless his son was getting help (counseling) he would be in trouble. Father was looking for reassurance that his son would be alright since his son was not seeing a counselor.

The kind of help that I would like to see available for all bereaved parents raising grieving children is in a setting like the children's room
Here they meet other parents and other children. They do not feel alone and different but become part of a caring community where they learn from each other.

One of the difficulties parents often have is how to share their grief with their children in a meaningful way. In response to earlier blogs people have shared the feeling of their roles being reversed and they end up caring for their grieving mother or father. While grieving may be difficult with the needs of children putting an extra burden on parents, letting children fill the gap is not acceptable. However, this does not mean that children can not help. They can offer comfort and be helpful as a member of the family, in age appropriate ways. I think of a family I talked with whose 7 year old daughter died and they had a five year old who was naturally very upset, especially when she saw her parents crying. They did not try to keep their tears from her. They explained that they were very sad and they knew she felt the same way. They suggested that when she saw them cry she could come and give them a hug to make them feel a bit better to be near her; and when they saw her crying they would hug her so she could be near them at such times. They also suggested that she could help a bit in the house. At meals they suggested she could put her own dish in the sink. They thought this would help them and she was pleased that she had a job to do as well. They also explained that over time it might be a little easier but they would always miss her sister. They gave the 5 year old permission to talk about her sister and to remember her with them. I see this as an example of a reasonable solution to this very difficult period in a family's life that is not going to end in short order.

As children grow they have new questions, they experience the loss in different ways, and this becomes part of a family's life together. I have begun to think of how I would characterize this evolving process. I think of it as a process in which a parent or parents ACCOMPANY their child (ren) as they grow and mature after a death, for example, of a parent or a sibling. Parent and child walk together. They talk, they listen, they can laugh and cry together as they remember things that they did together and thereby connect with the deceased. The parent is always there to lean on and to offer a helping hand.

About the Author

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

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