The Power of Words to Heal in Times of Crisis and Pain
As the leaves collect in tatters red and gold around the front porch, Eric, only 4 years old, sits on the rocking chair without moving, too small yet for his feet to reach the floor. “When’s Grandma coming home?” he asks. His father, sweeping a clean floor to keep busy, wants to say more, but only mumbles, “I don’t know.”
Death as the Last American Taboo
It is the last great taboo in our culture. We talk about breast implants, Viagra, and politics at the dinner table and no one blinks. We are a people obsessed with safety and, as such, Death is still the silent and dreaded specter-we speak about it only in whispers, tipping our heads towards corners, avoiding eye contact, hiding our ill and dying away from sight.
With the best of intentions, often in the hopes of protecting our children, many of us avoid discussing the death of a loved one. We want to shield them. They’re only children, we say. Let them have good childhoods, good memories. However young they may be, children are just like us in that they, too, sense the loss whether or not it’s discussed. Though small, they require the same things we do to get closure: to talk, share, and mourn.
The one thing we need to do, then, is the one thing that makes us most fearful and uncomfortable: talk.
Avoidance is not Protection.
Avoidance, on the contrary, can lead to heightened anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and unresolved anger. Unanswered questions and distraction techniques leave a larger vacuum in the child’s mind, prompting his imagination to fill it, often with fantasies far worse than the truth.
To help you speak to your children about death, there are some simple guidelines to remember that can make the process a great deal more comfortable and productive.
Grief is Real.
Most of us have little preparation for death. That is especially true for a person who has only lived a short time. In all likelihood, it is their first experience of deep, inexplicable loss. Even with terminal, chronic disease, we all are left with the inevitable sense of powerlessness in the face of its final moments. This is no different for a child and grief takes on its own life in all spheres: mental, physical and behavioral: tightness in the throat and chest, hollowness in the stomach, jaw clenching, muscle fatigue, anger, guilt, fear, yearning, numbness, withdrawal, over-activity, crying, appetite loss, repetitive behaviors, confusion, disbelief.
There is no need to dramatize or trivialize. Simply telling the truth is the best answer. If a loved one or friend of the family has died, we are smarter telling the child what has happened quickly and simply. When possible, it helps to refer back to past experiences that were successfully resolved, for instance, “Danny, you remember when Aunt Maggie had to go to the hospital…”
Keep it Simple.
Giving a child facts doesn’t mean overwhelming him with details. If you are asked, answer. Otherwise, the simpler the better. A young child may respond to the death of a more distant family member initially by saying something like: “Oh, okay, but I want to go out and play with Mollie!” In a situation like that, it can be best to let the subject drop. If the child is interested, they will usually let you know and bring questions up later, when you are least expecting it. Be prepared to respond calmly, and again, truthfully, keeping your explanations age-appropriate.
When the timing is right, there is nothing more reassuring than a loving touch. A hand on the shoulder, an embrace, a hug, holding the small child on your lap as you watch a movie together can speak volumes when words fall dreadfully short. When affected deeply by a loss, children can often slip back to earlier stages of development and act out their neediness and fear with whining, incessant requests to be held, and sneaking into the bed of their parent(s). Like adults, when frightened and depleted, children are more likely to be intolerant of frustration and disappointment. Stress takes its toll by making them more anxious than perhaps they’ve been in a while. Unless other factors complicate the case, this is a very common response and will usually fade with time.
Let your child know that you’re there for them. Death makes us all afraid and that fear can project itself anywhere. This is especially true for children who don’t yet have the means to take care of themselves. Take note to let your reassurance be timed according to your child’s needs.
Be A Power Of Example.
Take the initiative in expressing your grief, fear and pain in loss. Accept your child’s feelings and help her express herself even if he or she is angry at the deceased for leaving. There is no “right” way to feel, though it is right that we do feel.
Most people have some sort of belief about death, whether that is a religious one or a general sense of continuity and purpose. When a family suffers a loss, this is often a good time to share those beliefs with even the youngest children in the household. What we do want to avoid is saying something like, “Grandpa’s just gone to sleep.” All that does is make bedtime a terrifying affair.
It has been my experience professionally and personally that nothing supports, reassures, or strengthens us through these dark valleys the way faith does. All psychological and humanistic techniques aside, knowing that there is a Creator who not only imbues this existence with meaning, but who genuinely loves us makes all the suffering that life brings bearable.
Most traumas have a pronounced impact for approximately 6-8 weeks and then begin to subside. This is a partial list of behaviors that may indicate your child is having trouble adjusting to the loss and could benefit from a professional consult.
1. Dramatic or persistent change in eating or sleeping.
2. Lethargy or large drop in energy.
3. Hyper-anxiety or persistent irritability.
4. Chronic lack of concentration and drop in school performance.
5. Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.
6. Explosive temper tantrums.
7. Chronic physical complaints.
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