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Helping Children Say Goodbye

Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss

After the news of an upcoming loss or change has been introduced and explored, children need to be given the opportunity to say whatever good-byes are involved. Having the chance to say actual thought-out good-byes to people, places or a familiar family structure is among the most healing things a child can experience. Not only do such good-byes give the child a chance to review and acknowledge the good things that will be lost, they also allow the child an opportunity to express those feelings face-to-face with the others who are involved. Wishes and blessings can be exchanged, and the child can be given loving permission to have a successful, satisfying life. A thoughtful good-bye visit leaves less unfinished business to complicate the grief that follows the loss. Youngsters who do not have the chance to exchange good-byes or to receive permission to move on sometimes are more likely to sustain additional damage to their basic sense of trust and security to their self esteem, and to their ability to initiate and sustain strong relationships.

Acute Grief

This second phase of mourning has several components: yearning and pining; searching; dealing with sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, and shame; experiencing disorganization and despair; and finally beginning the job of reorganization. Each helps the child recover from the loss, accept what has happened, and move toward healing. Although children may have a mixture of these feelings, shifting among them over time, it is not unusual for one reaction to predominate at first and then for the child to begin work on another as the first subsides. Some children feel overwhelming anxiety or sadness first, while others begin with anger or guilt. Whether the feelings are mixed or successive, each component of grief must be worked through, and none suppressed. This can be a lengthy though intermittent process, taking as much as two to three years in adults and longer in children. Older children may need more time than preschool children, and adolescents can be especially vulnerable to separations and losses, because so much in their lives is already in flux. In addition, research indicates that serious ambivalence or internal conflicts about the relationship with the lost person severely complicate the grief process, extending the time it may take to move through it. When there is no physical body to take leave of, this, too, tends to prolong the grief process.

Children need to know that their feelings and reactions are common and normal to grief, that the return to creative, healthy living involves pain, and that there is no short cut -- the greater the loss, the longer it takes to get over it. Unfortunately, in these days of fast food and instant gratification, many adults as well as children have had little experience with tolerating discomfort patiently. Children should be reassured that they will feel better eventually, although they may not believe it. It is honest to tell them that crying and hurting are part of the cure, though they may not understand how that can be so. Often it helps them to know that what they are experiencing and feeling is normal, so that instead of trying to fight their feelings they can become more comfortable expressing them.

The outcome of children's grief experiences hinges to a large extent on whether adults are able to tolerate their expressions of strong feelings about what has happened. Complications seem most likely to arise in children who have not felt permitted to let themselves know and express their genuine feelings or have not had their awareness and expression of these feelings encouraged and supported. Remember that when the loss has stricken the caregiving adult or adults deeply, children may be reluctant, resistant or unwilling to share and process their feelings at home. In such cases, it is important that children have supportive adults to talk to and that their need to keep their feelings separate and private from their caregivers should be respected.

Whatever their age or their circumstances, grieving young people need authentic empathy, respect and support from caring adults. Give children as much time as they need with all their feelings; don't try to rush them into "more productive" emotional states or urge them to speed their reactions up or tone them down. Feelings are, after all, just signals of an emotional state -- our response to something that has touched us, like the itch that results from a mosquito bite. To say to a child, "Don't be sad (or angry or upset)" is as useless as saying, "Don't itch." Be firm, however, about not allowing children to discharge their feelings in hurtful or destructive ways.

Here are some suggestions for the adult who wants to provide encouragement and support to a child who is experiencing or dealing with acute grief:

  • The child's feelings and concerns should take precedence over almost everything else. As soon as the child tries to share feelings, stop what you are doing immediately (or as soon as you can) and focus on the child. It is important to send the message: "Your feelings are important to me, and I will find time to listen to them. You are not bothering me."
  • When the child shares sadness, anger, guilt, or shame, whether verbally or physically, don't ask that those feelings be postponed, denied, or concealed. Stifling grief requires precious energy better used to deal with all the changes accompanying loss; moreover, grief driven underground can return months or even years later to haunt the child.
  • When the child's feelings or the duration or timing of those feelings differ from your own, respect the differences, and don't criticize or appear upset by the child's statements and feelings and actions. It is the recognition, acceptance and validation of each emotion as it occurs that lets the child move from one emotional state to another so that grief can be completed.
  • Remember that children often just want someone to bear witness to their pain and grief. If you have a close relationship with a child, what you say may not be as important as what you do. The touch of a hand on a knee, an arm around a shoulder, a lap to sit on or a shoulder to cry against can offer profound comfort.
  • If a child seems to be playing up grief for attention, this is a signal that some other need is likely not being met. Giving extra support and showing ample authentic positive interest will usually make the problem disappear.

If caregivers are inclined to encourage the suppression of feelings, sending the message, overtly or covertly, that some feelings are good or right and others are bad or wrong or responding to expressions of feeling with recrimination, withdrawal or retaliation, then the child will need to have another trusted, supportive person to talk with.

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