By Susan Isaacs Kohl
While I was writing this column about helping children with grief, my brother died unexpectedly. In the midst of our family’s shock, a question arose about how to tell his grandniece and grandnephew, ages six and seven, as we were preparing for a family gathering. Out of protectiveness, one relative suggested avoiding the subject altogether, but the parents decided instead to break the news gently, providing time to talk about feelings.
The traditional idea of simply not talking with children about a sad event belies the reality that children know when something’s wrong. They overhear what people are saying and pick up on troubled emotions. I still remember the mom who was so upset when her children noticed a dead bird in the road that she said it was just resting. None of us wants to interject sadness into our children’s lives, and it’s only recently that an understanding of what children need to process grief has emerged as part of the field of child growth and development.
In an affluent community such as ours, where crime is relatively uncommon and an emphasis on health is strong, it’s easy to view loss as a rare occasion in a child’s life. In my work with families, however, I see how losses of all kinds weave themselves naturally into everyday experience. Grandparents die, pets pass on, friends move, adults separate and divorce, parents travel for work, teachers leave their jobs, and playmates go on to new friendships. In the past decade [at White Pony preschool], I’ve worked with three children whose mothers died. With each of these tragedies, the experience affected everyone in the class.
“I’m missing my mother right now, and she’s missing me,” a three-year-old boy told me, suddenly tearful. This burst of emotion came after days of play, days when he didn’t mention his mom, who had just died. The boy’s father, a counselor, coached us to validate his son’s feelings without pressing him to talk more or interjecting our own ideas. If tears came to our eyes, that was OK.
Walnut Creek psychotherapist Cynthia Pastor says adults play a crucial role in helping children understand that their feelings are normal. “We are their role models for mourning. We don’t want to overwhelm them with our feelings, but acting like nothing’s happened leaves children feeling isolated.” Pastor speaks from experience. When she was 10, her mother died. “No one explained why my mother was going to the hospital or prepared me for her death.” The adults around her didn’t ask about her feelings or talk about their own. The process of having to struggle through her own sorrow left Pastor with a desire to help others with grief and led her into a career in counseling.
Pastor urges her clients to be aware that even when children function well, it doesn’t mean they aren’t grieving. Grief that appears resolved will also spring up during different stages of development. The little boy missing his mom didn’t understand at three that death isn’t reversible; moreover, the egocentric thinking of small children often leads to self-blame. Even at older ages, children can easily feel at fault when they sense family disruptions, especially when parents deny anything is wrong. Pastor says, “We don’t need to give a lot of information—just acknowledge reality: ‘Dad and I have been arguing a lot. It would be natural for you to be angry or confused about it. I just want you to know you can talk to me.’ ”
Adults also need reminding that grief has its own timetable and isn’t extinguished after one good cry or talk. Walnut Creek mother and teacher Ann Reed contacted her daughter Laura’s teachers and counselors at Acalanes High after Reed’s husband died. They allowed 16-year-old Laura to leave class when needed and provided a comforting presence whenever she wanted to talk. Ann and Laura also worked together on family photo albums during the first year, and found talking about memories helpful.
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That kind of memory work is vital, says Linda Goldman, a Maryland-based therapist and international consultant on children’s grief, and the author of several books, including Children Also Grieve: Talking About Death and Healing. “Memories contain emotions and help children to do the work of grief rather than just carrying bottled up feelings around with them,” she says. Goldman, who works with families affected by 9/11 and the war in Iraq, suggests creating memory books or memory tables at home or in school. She says, “Parents who are grieving themselves can help their children by providing memory activities.” She also recommends setting up a list of people kids can call whenever they need to talk. She reassures parents that sometimes they are in too much pain to attend to all of a child’s feelings, and the best thing they can do is take care of themselves so they can revive more quickly.
We also need to remind ourselves that strong emotions about loss are natural at any age. It’s normal for us to feel bad when our children hurt, but it helps to see their experience as necessary. My friend Susie Smart, a parent educator who lives in San Ramon, was surprised at the anguish she experienced when her then 10-year-old son was suddenly rejected by his best friend. She responded by putting all her learning about children into action: “We arranged other playdates, but I didn’t try to fix his feelings. I just kept validating that it hurt, and over time he moved on.” Smart says the experience taught her son not to treat anyone else that way—which illustrates the wonder of grief. The process not only heals us but expands our compassion for others.
Center for Grief and Loss Provides support groups for children ages four to 18, along with a parent or caregiver. Pleasant Hill, (925) 887-5178.
Contra Costa Crisis Center Provides support groups for school-age children and teens. Walnut Creek, (800) 837-1818,
Jacqueline Golding, psychologist For a link to her guide to picture books about changes in a child’s life, go to www.healing-stories.com. Pleasanton, (925) 484-2237.
Linda Goldman Goldman has written two books focused on children’s grief, one geared to kids and the other to parents and caregivers. (301) 657-1151, www.childrensgrief.net.
Published: Diablo, March 2008
Author bio: Susan Isaacs Kohl is the director of the White Pony School in Lafayette, California, and has been a consultant to parents and teachers for more than 30 years. She is the author of The Best Things Parents Do.