A loved one has died.
What can I say? What can anyone say? Nothing very much that will make a difference, really. In the first few days and weeks, you barely realize that the person is gone. This, despite being in the midst of grieving family and friends, and busy with all the rites and rituals attending the death. Everyone offers you their condolences – no one says anything to your child (especially if he is little).
People (including perhaps yourself) don’t say much to a child who is bereaved for a host of reasons:
1. They feel the child does not, or will not, understand – “He’s too young…”
2. They feel the child will not miss the departed person as much as the ‘adults’ will – “Children are so young, so resilient; they will ‘get over’ the grief quickly. Their very youth insulates them against feeling so deeply.”
3. They feel a child, by virtue of not being an adult, does not need condolences – “This is the ‘big, important people vs. silly little kids’ argument.”
4. They don’t know what to say to a child – They don’t know the child’s vocabulary level, her comfort with strangers talking to her, her relationship with the deceased, how deeply or lightly she is affected, what she thinks of the whole thing, whether she will accept their condolences or not, how she will react to what they say to her…”
All these reasons are bosh! They are just convenient rationalizations by adults, because we’re so thrilled – worse, we’re so self-righteous! – we’re following social norms ‘correctly’, that we couldn’t be bothered to think about what we are (or are not) doing.
So how can you help your child cope with the death of a loved one?
You’ll be happy to know there is no complicated process or procedure involved. There’s just one thing that you need to do – over and over and over again. Okay, make that two things.
Let me give you some instances of how these two things could be used.
If your child has lost his other parent, you are probably in emotionally dire straits yourself. You feel bereft of your partner, lost, rudderless, maybe even abandoned – whether you are a man or a woman doesn’t enter the equation at this point. A part of you may feel very strongly that now, you need to ‘be both parents’ to your child (yet another ‘weird’ commonly-held notion – one of only a few million! 🙂 ) As a result, you may keep grabbing your child in an emotional manner, squeezing him to yourself, perhaps in an attempt to show him affection as your late partner would have done, or perhaps showing your child that he is doubly loved even though there’s only you in the parent role from now on. Your child may shrug off these hysterical embraces – it doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the parent who’s gone. Maybe it’s just that on top of everything else, this over-protective behavior of yours is simply too much for him to take.
1. Stop. Stop doing the first thing that comes into your head. Yes, you are bereaved too, but you’re supposed to be the adult here. And you want to know how you can ‘help’ your child cope, not give your child more to cope with, which is what you may well be doing (unknowingly, but still – )!
2. Think. All the times you’ve grabbed him in a bear hug in moments of extreme emotion, how has he reacted? Has he shied away? Or leaned into you? Or not let you go? That’s your answer! Doing as your child wants to do is the way you’ll help him cope with the death.
Maybe it is a grandparent who’s gone. And this grandparent baked your child’s favorite chocolate chip cookies every Sunday. It was ‘their’ special time together. And now, Granddad is no more. Instinctively, wanting to ‘make up’ for the gone-forever Granddad, wanting to ‘make sure your daughter doesn’t miss him’, you begin mixing the ingredients for the cookies, asking her if she will join you in a faux-cheery voice, trying to imitate late Granddad’s accent, voice and manner.
1. Stop. Your daughter may think you are infringing upon her relationship with her grandfather. She might prefer having him dead and missing him, to playing the pretend game of normalcy with you, while she inwardly cringing at making a mockery of a relationship that was (and might well continue to be) almost sacred for her!
2. Think. If that is her special ‘thing’ with Granddad, don’t take the special-ness’ away. Maybe she misses both the activity and the person with whom she shared it – and missing both make his death ‘real’ for her. Let her go through the loss – get yourself out of the way. Take your cue from her.
Your child may want to ‘talk about it’ all the time. And your instinct is to be quiet. Before you forbid him from talking about the dead person for fear he’ll turn morbid,
2. Think. Let your child know that any reaction he has, is okay. If he wants to talk non-stop about the person who has passed on, that may be his way of grieving. Let him grieve. Let him know it is okay for him to grieve the way he wants to.
You child may refuse to discuss the person’s dying. You don’t know what’s going through her head. She may be afraid that talking about death might ‘spread’ it, taking away yet another person from the family. Before you give in to your instinct to force her to talk about the person who has died (‘so that she should not keep her feelings bottled up but should give vent to them; she will feel relieved, she will begin to heal,” you feel…),
2. Think. There’s a good reason she’s not talking about the death or the dead person. At least, it’s a reason good enough for her. Try and find out what’s going through her mind before you jump in like a bull in a china shop. Not that you mean to, of course…
1. Stop your instinctive reaction.
2. Think about what your child wants, thinks, feels. Think about what impression your instinctive reaction might create in your child.
Now that you’ve stopped and you’ve thought, decide on a course of action, and follow it.
I know – it feels like you’ve decided to jump, and when both your feet are in the air, you’re wondering whether it’s a good time to be landing on the ground in the near future. You’re on shaky ground, always tentative, unsure, lost and confused.
This is good. Because it tells your child it’s okay to be unsure, lost and confused – about the dead person, about the ones who are still alive, and about everything else as well. You don’t have to say it. He will understand from your manner.
And you would have helped more than you’ll ever know.