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Dealing With the Death of a Friend

How To Help Your Child Cope When A Friend Has Died

Samantha Greene* and her next-door neighbor, Anna Sherman*, had been the best of friends ever since the movers unloaded Samantha's toys onto the front lawn of her new home in Beacon, New York. Anna brought over her teddy bear and a tea set, and the two 5-year-olds played for hours.

"They were like two peas in a pod," says Samantha's mom, Madeline. "Since that day, you rarely saw one without the other one close by."

The girls became so tight over the years that it was almost like having another daughter in the family. "Every weekend was a slumber party," Madeline says. "Either Anna was here or Sam was at Anna's. If Sam wasn't home, I knew she was either at Anna's or somewhere with her."

The girls shared a bond so close that the thought of one being without the other was an impossible idea. But that changed when Anna and her father were killed in a car accident the day before her 12th birthday.

"I still remember the day like it was yesterday," Madeline says. "Her dad had taken her to the mall to buy something special, and they were on their way back home. I know she would have stopped here to show Sam what she bought before she even took it in her house."

Losing a beloved friend is devastating for anyone. As adults, we often find ourselves struggling to understand the "why" and "how" of such tragedies. But when it's the life of a young classmate or relative of your own child, how do you help your preteen come to grips with the loss?

Talking About It

Unlike toddlers and young elementary school-aged children, preteens have a much clearer understanding of the concept of death and all the permanence it entails. They know for example, that when someone dies, they aren't merely out of sight, but physically not around to talk to, hug and joke with anymore. That, experts say, may be one of the key components in getting your child to come to terms with his or her loss.

"Between 8 and 12 years [of age], you can have a less sheltered kind of talk with the child," says Barbara Kidney, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in family therapy in upstate New York. "With an older child, you can kind of give them space to talk about what the experience is like."

And talking, Kidney points out, is important – whether your child's friend dies suddenly like Anna did or is diagnosed with a terminal disease.

"From the get-go, it could be a good idea to offer the child an option of speaking with a professional," she says. "It could just be introduced as an opportunity to talk confidentially with an adult who specializes in helping people learn about their feelings. The general rule of thumb is that when the survivor starts experiencing grief and anxiety, you can begin with the offer of talking to someone outside of the home, be it a psychologist or clergy person."

"One of the worst things a parent can do is not talk about it," adds Barry Bachenheimer, a certified social worker. "It needs to be discussed when the child is ready, not minimized."

If your child is having difficulty opening up and has shrugged off the idea of seeing a professional, Bachenheimer says parents can encourage the child to write about the loss, either as a letter to the friend or in the form of a journal. "Also, things like holding on to a picture or a special memento of the person might be helpful as well," he says.

Emotional Fallout

"I knew Sam was hurting from Anna's death, but I never once saw her break down and cry," Madeline says. "Even at the funeral, she was pretty stoic. It worried me a bit."

However, Samantha did suffer a big drop in her grades, even in subjects that used to be relatively easy for her, which Kidney says is not uncommon at all. "Some degree of change – either in school work or social functioning – is normal, at least for a while," she says. "One thing to do is to alert a trusted person at school about what the child is experiencing."

Kidney says that notifying the school psychologist or guidance counselor should be done with the child's permission and should also be shared with someone with whom the child has already developed a rapport. "[School officials] need to be alerted so they can be a bit gentler with the child and allow him or her to cry and talk when and if needed," she says.

Expressions of Grief

Being the individuals that they are, children will express their grief in many different ways. Some children may seem extremely sad and withdrawn while others will throw themselves into activities with an intensity the parent may have never seen before.

"Not all children exhibit behaviors that parents might expect," Bachenheimer says. "But just because the child does not exhibit outright sadness or depression, it doesn't mean that they are not affected." While some children may be unable to talk about what they are feeling for a while, Bachenheimer cautions parents not to assume that their child is not emotionally "going through."

Kidney says that the grieving process may begin when the survivor accepts the idea that the person is not coming back, even if a person diagnosed with a serious illness doesn't die for a while or at all. Also, the process may not be limited to the child, but may also include his or her parents, especially if they, too, were close to the child who died.

"The parent may also want to engage in seeking individual or family help, via the family religious leader, insurance program or other employee assistance program," she says, adding that such measures might help everyone cope with the idea of not seeing the friend anymore and the new situations that may develop as a result.

For Samantha and Madeline, seeing Anna's mother sell her house and watching new neighbors move in brought on a whole new set of feelings that Madeline says she didn't really anticipate. "That emptiness that hung around once Anna's mom sold the house is what did it for me," Madeline says.

Shortly after, both she and Samantha began attending a support group for people who have suffered a traumatic loss. Madeline attributes Samantha's recent re-involvement in school, church and other social activities and her steady honor roll grades to being able to share what she was feeling with others who had experienced a loss, too.

According to Kidney, some of the difficulties that children have when coming to grips with a loss could be attributed to the ways in which our society handles the concept of death. "Part of the baggage we all deal with after a loss is psychological," she says. "We do so much shielding from sickness and death in this culture, and we live under the illusion that youth is everlasting."

In other cultures where different death rituals are observed, death is treated more as another stage of life, Kidney explains. Children who see death in such a way often use different methods of dealing with the loss. Honesty about family beliefs and what happens after a person dies are important, she says, because they can be used in constructive ways. For example, if you believe in an after-life or the idea that the qualities a person exhibited in life may live on after he or she is physically gone, it could help bridge the gap from grief to acceptance.

"Use whatever tools you need to, but know that it is necessary for the parent to be as honest as possible with the child," Bachenheimer says. "That could be the most important way to help the child deal with the death of an important friend."

"It's an ongoing process," Madeline says. "It's been three years, but I'm glad she's more like her old self again."

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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