Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Sense of Your Child's Grief, Part 4: Grieving to Connect

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Bringing this month's series on “Making Sense of Your Child's Grief” to a close is a short story relating to grief that was shared with me once.  A man had a parakeet whom he loved dearly.  One day while vacuuming his house, he accidentally sucked his precious pet parakeet up into the bag full of dust.  The man who owned the parakeet responded frantically.  The parakeet was relieved, finally being freed from the vacuum; but to his dismay, the owner proceeded to rinse the parakeet off under running water and began drowning him.  He realized shortly thereafter that he was actually doing harm!  The man hastily got his blow dryer out and began to dry the parakeet off.  The parakeet lost many of his feathers in the process.  He did survive, but he was never the same.  Clearly the man loved his parakeet and was trying to do what was best for him, but he actually kept worsening his parakeet's condition.   Grief leaves us forever changed and often we don't know how to help others in grief.  By trying to help them, sometimes we actually make things worse for them.  Sometimes we need to meet our own needs before we can help our children in need.  This man in panic was a source of further distress for his pet.  He needed to first become calm in order to best help his bird.

Parents have griefs of their own, which make it more difficult for them to fully enter into their child's state of mind.  In order to be the best help to your children, take the time to process your own emotions and grieve.  Psychologist Erich Fromm was quoted as saying: “To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”  We want to avoid grief, but emotional numbness can ensue, which closes us off from feeling even the positive emotions that help us to connect with one another.  This distances us from those that we love the most.   The man with the parakeet was actually not putting the best interests of his bird in front, but what he thought the bird needed.  Take care of yourself so that you can provide the best care for your child.  Taking care of your own grief needs shows to your children that we are created with emotions, all of which are good.  “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better.  The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” Ecclesiastes 7:3-4.

These references were useful in putting together this month's blog:

Coehn, Judith, A. et al., 2006, Treating Trauma and Traumatic Grief in Children and Adolescents, New York, Guilford Press.

Roberts, Albert, R., 2000. Crisis Intervention Handbook: Assessment, Treatment, and Research, 2nd Ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fiorini, J and Mullen, J., Understanding Grief and Loss in Children, Found at The American Counseling Association website: accessed on 30 August, 2011.

National Institute of Mental Health, Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Rescue Workers Can Do, accessed on 30 August, 2011.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Making Sense of Your Child's Grief, Part 3: Creating a Safe Environment

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

Without safety, vulnerability is difficult. For both children and adults to truly grieve, they need to feel freedom to express the emotions that attend pain. Let's take a moment and think about what safety is. A secure child does not fear external threats because there is a strong defensive wall outside of them ensuring their protection. Safety is environmental in nature. When we lose something or someone we value, we experience a loss of personal security and control. Our world is invaded and forever changed. In response to this, it is not uncommon for children to build a wall for themselves to protect their emotions. By doing this, they are trying to take back the control they had in their lives that was taken from them. No longer will they allow anything to hurt them.

Parents have a tremendous opportunity to free their children from having to build their own protective walls. An immediate step in building this safe atmosphere is being a safe resource figure. Parents exemplifying a sense of peace, calmness and hope provide a solid foundation for a grieving child. Respect their need for privacy by not forcing by not forcing them talk about what is going on. Is it okay for them to be sad? We cannot force another person to feel happy. Our heads and hearts can be in two different places. We want to feel joy, but our hearts are not there during grief. Allowing others to be where they are emotionally lets them know that they are free to feel the sadness that is there and let down their defenses when they feel safe. Being forced to speak about their experiences can increase defensiveness, but just being present with them in the midst of their suffering assures them that you know they are hurting and that their pain matters. When the environment feels safe to them, children will often open up, but it may take time and that's okay.

If possible, minimize additional stressors for them. The more things that we have to deal with the greater the difficulty there is in dealing with each one. Also, the more you are able to establish a routine at home, the more predictable and secure life becomes for children. Children thrive in an environment of structure and consistency. Some may try to give a false sense of security to their child by telling half-truths about what happened or by making promises that are impossible to guarantee keeping. Saying “everything will be okay,” or “it will all turn out for the best,” may or may not be true. While the intentions are good (it usually is aimed at bringing happiness to the one in suffering), the security ends up being false, and it tends to belittle the grief. However, the most difficult aspect of providing security for children may come when a parent is suffering from a loss also or are undergoing significant life stressors themselves.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Making Sense of Your Child's Grief, Part 2: Does My Child Need to Grieve?

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

What constitutes a loss is different for each individual since we are created with individual desires and interests.  Not only hard times, but even what seem to be happy life events can be losses for children.   Life changes of any sort are stressful and may be processed by a child as a loss of normalcy.  Beginning school, moving into a new larger home, divorce, the death of loved one or pet, the addition of a younger sibling, a new job for mom or dad; all of these can pose a threat to stability and safety for a child.  When we experience loss, whether young or old, we are forced to accept things that lie beyond our own control.  Getting to that place of acceptance is the difficult part.  Grief is a God-given means of coping with things that we cannot change.  It reinforces our helplessness as we are confronted by our own humanity.  The difficult process of grieving, though, is actually necessary for healing to take place.

Many have identified the stages of grief as 1) denial 2) bargaining 3) anger 4) depression 5) acceptance.  Children may experience grief differently in conjunction with their developmental stage.  Because they often lack a framework to understand why they are experiencing these emotions, children try to make the incomprehensible understandable within their existing cognitive framework.  They may think that something is wrong with them for feeling the way they do, or try to accept blame for the loss as though it were their fault.  “If only I had said or done things differently, then things wouldn't have turned out this way.”  In addition, children may try to suppress their emotions because of the discomfort of them, yet what often follows is a spectrum of coping unhealthy mechanisms: outbursts of anger, decreased participation in activities, loss of focus in school, isolation, substance abuse, defiance, or harm to self and others.  Children need to know that it is okay to feel sadness, anger and the entire tangled web of emotions that arise from loss, and that it is important to understand and have good outlets for those emotions.  Normalizing emotions for a child who needs to grieve can help to reduce the shame often associated with grieving.  Children take grieving cues from the adults around them.  When a loss is a family felt issue, modeling grieving for your children can help them to accept and understand the emotions that they are feeling.  Talking through the difficult situations in life openly, as a family, with the goal of understanding one another's emotional pain allows pain to be shared and healing to take place.  A safe environment is essential for grieving to take place.  The task for the parent becomes: how can I make my home a safe place for emotions?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Making Sense of Your Child's Grief, Part 1

by Chris Shaw, MAMFT

The stoics of ancient Greece attempted to brace themselves from all suffering. They taught that emotions must be overcome by accepting whatever happens in life. Peace and happiness are found in taking whatever life gives you, whether good or bad, with indifference. We have learned through time that repression of emotions is an unhealthy means of coping with pain, yet too often this stoic attitude shows up in our own culture today, praising fortitude in the face of hardship while belittling  weakness.

In an ideal world, there would be no sadness, anger, pain or loss. Suffering, though is the horrible reality that we all share in. The nature of grief is such that no two people exhibit the exact same range of symptoms when handling crises. Children who experience situations which are beyond their control, often respond in a different manner than adults. Several variables which play a role in the child's grief response include:
  • intensity of the experience
  • duration of the experience
  • age of the child
  • personality and uniqueness of the child
  • responses of adults around them to the situation
From a very young age children can have experiential memories embedded in their minds. These recurring images can produce lasting noticeable effects in their behavior. Others, however, may display little or no noticeable difference in the aftermath of a traumatic event or loss. Still others may initially show no signs, but only months later may exhibit symptoms. Such a wide range of responses can often leave a parent wondering: “What is going on with my child?” Especially in situations of delayed grief, it is much harder to pinpoint the cause of emotional distress.

Grief is a process and manifests itself as a range of emotions, thoughts and behaviors. The younger the child, the less likely they will be to cognitively grasp the reality of a situation. It is important for parents to realize that their children see the world through a different set of eyes. Children do not inherently know how to respond to grief, thus parents can help their children by maintaining curiosity about how their specific child sees the world and showing active interest in the things they value.
Because children have fewer emotional categories from which to operate, when difficult circumstances arise, they lack the ability to fully process what is taking place not only with external events, but also within their internal self. This inability to process can result in emotional frustrations and behavioral changes as a child loses a sense of control through the experience of loss. Parents can help their children by explicitly affirming those losses that their child experiences, rather than avoiding or minimizing their child's pain. Parents can also help to normalize grief for their child by showing genuine value for their loss. Moving away from stoicism to embracing and understanding human emotions helps us to in guiding children to make sense of their world and recover from their loss.