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Family and friends, neighbors and acquaintances shuffled into position around the freshly dug grave. The young daughter stood closest--only inches from the open earth. Her father stood behind her, hands on her shoulders. After the short ceremony, the 5-year-old girl turned to her father and whispered, "Now what do I do?"
What will she do? What will she do when she seeks the comfort of a mother? When a new friend asks what her mother does? What will she do on each Mother's Day? At her prom? Her wedding? At the birth of her child? Her major emotional connection is gone. She must heal the severed emotional tie to her mother, strengthen some existing bonds (father, grandparents) and, over time, create new relationships and make new connections. In this way, she will reshape her emotional landscape, slowly smoothing the jagged fault lines left by her mother's death.
Loss from death or divorce
The pain of loss is related to the nature of the transition. The sudden death, the precipitous move, and the unanticipated separation all shatter existing emotional connections and cause fear and intense emotional pain. When loss is sudden and unexpected, there is much less time for the child to begin adjusting. The anticipated death, separation, or move is easier because there has been time to think, review, mourn, and slowly reshape relationships. Gradual, predictable transitions, though painful, make loss easier to deal with.
The pain from loss is also related to the nature of the relationship. If a child is close to and dependent upon the lost loved one, he will experience the most distress. If the move or the separation takes the child away from the loved one, he may experience the same intensity of pain as if this were a death. In other cases, such as with separation, the parents are able to preserve the time, context, and essential nature of the parent-child relationship so the loss is not as devastating.
Children may not understand the finality of death or what divorce means. They will seek explanation, guidance, and comfort from adults. Yet parents may feel overwhelmed by the loss, as well, and helpless when faced with the challenge of supporting the grieving child. Caregivers need not feel helpless. There are some simple yet powerful things they can do to help children cope with loss.
Grief: Reshaping the child's emotional world
There is no "best" way to grieve, and there are no cookbook approaches to taking the pain away from children. Children of different ages have different styles of adapting and different abilities to understand abstract concepts such as death, love, and marriage. The 4-year-old may have little appreciation of the finality of death or why divorced couples do not take vacations together. It is not unusual for a 3-year-old child to ask, "When is Mommy coming home?" despite having her mother's death explained several times. In addition, each child has an individual style of coping. While children will not talk much, others will even talk about their loss to strangers. A 5-year-old may announce to her new kindergarten teacher, "My mother is dead," but another child may refrain from talking to any adults about his parents getting divorced.
Grief is normal, but if emotional or behavioral problems seem extreme, if they persist beyond six months, or if they interfere with any aspect of functioning, consider contacting a professional. As your child slowly reshapes her emotional landscape, you can help by listening and talking.
The father knelt, held his daughter close, and rocked slowly. Then he rose, took her hand, and said, "Let's go home." As they moved away, the contours of their emotional landscape shifted under the weight of their grief.
Tips For Coping With Loss
Do not avoid the topic when the child brings it up. Be available when the child wants to talk, but avoid probing. This may mean struggling with a very difficult question. "Did it hurt when Morn had cancer?" "Did you love Daddy when I was a baby?" "Why do people fall out of love?" Don't be surprised if in the middle of your struggle for the "right" answer, the child returns to play and acts uninterested.
Be prepared to discuss the same details again and again. Expect the child not to hear things the first time. Patiently, repeat facts for her. The child has, in some sense, a lifelong task of working and re-working, experiencing and re-experiencing the loss. The missing family member shadows each holiday, each "family" event. Always try to bring positive memories, images, and recollections into the conversation.
Take care yourself. Children look to adults to understand and interpret their own inner states. Younger children will even mirror the nature and intensity of an adult's emotions. If you feel you will be unable to control your emotions when you are trying to help the child, take a few moments, collect yourself, and then try to help. it is only human to lose control and be very emotional at these times.
Help children keep part of the loved one with them in rituals, habits, special memories or traditions. The formal mourning rituals and beliefs of your culture or religion are very important for children.
Reflection Exercise #4
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