The death of a loved one is perhaps the most stressful event a child can experience. Whether expected or abrupt, the loss is a sudden earthquake whose powerful emotional aftershocks can shake her for months and years to follow.
To the child, it is astonishing how swiftly someone with unquestioned permanence suddenly ceases to be. One moment their loved one is there; the next, their world ends. They suffer grievously, in ways different and less obvious than grownups, and thus, more likely overlooked.
Successful grieving after the death of a loved one is an extremely difficult task for anyone. For children, all deaths are untimely. The bereaved child’s comprehension of events is dependent upon their developmental level. Their emotions are varied and unique, and not as neatly characterized as what occurs in adults.
In time, serenity will come for the child. Life goes on, despite all. Child or adult, we each have our own grief, even when a sorrow is shared. We each will move on when ready. We each will take different routes, at different speeds. We each will pause for different lengths, and for different reasons.
And that is okay. Mourning is not a race. There is no finish line, no stopwatch and no groundskeeper waiting impatiently to latch the gate so as to get home to eat supper.
The child will likely be surrounded by grownups and siblings who are in the midst of their own grief, and the adults will likely be uncertain or even oblivious as to how to respond in a supportive manner to the child.
The reactions of the surviving family members are the most important factors determining how children cope with death, both in the immediate aftermath of the news and in the brokenhearted weeks ahead. How parents and caregivers grieve serves as a model for children, guiding their process to a successful easing of their intense reactions.
Professional counseling for the adult is crucial in the first days and weeks after a family loss. The primary responsibility of any caregiver is to the children in their charge, and the first step toward that responsibility is keeping oneself mentally and physically healthy.
But what of the child? What professional services are available to her, both immediate and enduring? That is the surprisingly difficult question I came up against recently when two school-aged patients suddenly lost their solitary parent, and a distraught relative turned to me for guidance. “How do I tell them?” she asked, as the children were sleeping. “Is there someone trained who can help me to do it right?”
My staff made some calls to the few resources I could bring to mind. One suggestion led to another, and finally eager assistance was located through CAFA, Christians as Family Advocates (www.cafaweb.com). Thanks to CAFA, the bereaved family received the crisis support they needed.
While families in sorrow can find, and should accept, support from friends, neighbors and their faith community, children need trained guidance toward successful grieving. Local grief support resources for children are listed in the Family Resource Poster produced by Parenting Now! in English and Spanish. It is available at https://parentingnow.org/parents/parenting-resources/useful-links/.
Grief is a long, sad journey that can be very frightening and extremely lonely – a journey that never really ends. I know, for I was once that school-aged child plunged into sudden misery. But the journey can be made more bearable and less wayward through trained guidance. No child should be left to map out and travel his own course.
Dr. Todd Huffman is a pediatrician at McKenzie Pediatrics in Springfield. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore this site or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org