Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

Raising Grieving Children

Invisible Mourners

There are many mourners whose needs should not be ignored

Posted Apr 16, 2013

I finished writing this blog at the same time that the bombs went off in Copley Square at the end of the Boston Marathon. Our sense of safety in the world has again been challenged. What follows is a discussion of what I call Invisible Mourners. What I write was stimulated in part by what happened in Newtown. Now we have a city of mourners and as I think about it, in many ways our country is mourning as well. I didn’t try to change the blog in light of what is going on around me. I think it still applies.

There is a chapter in both my books that I titled “Invisible Mourners”. I am referring to children and young people who have experienced the death of a friend. They are often overlooked amongst those who are grieving. As I think about what happened in Newtown I think about who else is mourning in addition to the families of those killed. I think of the entire school as mourners. Who are they? What do they need? What lessons are there to learn about helping when a death occurs from natural causes? I have written about the importance of recognizing that there is also a community, that is the world in which the deceased was embedded that is mourning. These can be young children who often do not have a vocabulary for what they experience. Older children may have words for what they are experiencing, but may have no way of helping themselves be seen as mourners, or have the help that recognizes their needs (Silverman, 2000).

Using Newtown as an example we read in the newspaper about some of the activities of the parents of children who were killed. They are finding many ways of helping themselves cope with their grief. One way is a group where they come together to share their experience, where they feel understood and talk about how no one who hasn’t been through it can understand their pain. They recognize the special value of a mutual help group. Some may have sought help with individual counselors. Some have also found it helpful to get involved in advocating for better gun control legislation, as community activists. I am sure that there are other things that people are doing that I am not aware of. Would it be useful to other mourners, in other places, to know more about what has helpful to these Newtown parents?

Who else are mourners? There are the families of the adults who were killed. There are their siblings, spouses, children. However, when I begin to ask about invisible mourners I think too of the grandparents who are mourning the death of a grandchild; or of their own child amongst the adults who died. They need to be heard, they need to be honored. I then think, especially, of the friends of those who died. In some way this involves the entire school. What did they lose? They lost friends, playmatest, a sense of safety in their school. Their own sense of beng safe in their school has been challenged.

I have wondered about the value of replicating Sandy Hook in their new school but eliminating the first grade classroom where the killings took place. In many ways the life that they knew before no longer exists. Part of making an accommodation to a death is learning to live in a changed world. Is making the new school like the one they just left ignoring what these mourners are really dealing with? Is it in a way ignoring the fact that they are mourners?

I know very little about what went into the decision to replicate the school. How has it worked? I am reminded of a book titled MILO that I wrote about almost a year ago in this blog. Milo, a young adolescent could only make peace with his mother’s death when he was able to honor her presence in his life and placing back in their home many of her things which brought his memories of her back, and allowed him to find a place for his memories of her in his life.

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