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  -- Helping Children Grieve

Helping Children Grieve
By Judy Shepps Battle

When my son was 14 years old, a close friend of his was killed by a drunk driver as she walked her bike along the side of the road. After the funeral service, my son wanted to know why Meryl's coffin was so small. "How," he asked with concern, "will she have room to breathe?"

I remember the look on his face as I gently explained that Meryl was dead and had no need for air. He seemed bewildered for a moment and then started to cry. His tears were the first step in an extended grieving process that would take professional help to complete.

My son's experience with death was not uncommon. Approximately 90 percent of all children experience the loss of a close or special person before finishing high school, and 5 to 6 percent will experience the death of a parent before age 16.

Human death is not the only source of painful loss for youngsters. Parental divorce, breadwinner unemployment, family relocation and the death of a pet also are traumatic -- and far from uncommon.

To ensure a child's optimal psychological health, all losses, whether great or small, should be acknowledged, grieved and honored. Completion of this process frees a child emotionally to move forward in life.

Princeton psychologist Dr. Susan Edwards believes that childhood grief is a natural response to loss of love, and that bonding behavior -- being able to relate to others through love -- is normal and healthy. A positive grieving experience allows youngsters to move through loss and come out the other side with the ability to maintain that bond intact.

"The depth of grief is related to the depths of love," she explains. "When love goes deep, grief goes deep. This is especially true for children because their sensory system is still developing and their emotions are intense. Their feelings are hurt easily, so loss of love is something they feel strongly."

In her clinical practice, Dr. Edwards sees a similar profound response from young people, whether their grief is caused by the death of a grandparent, the death of a pet or something bad that happened to a classmate. She feels it is important to teach kids that grief is a normal response to loss, and adults should honor a child's unique style of grieving.

"I remember a young boy telling me his pet worm had died. Because he loved it, we wrote a poem about the worm. I asked him what he thought happened to his pet and he said it was in worm heaven. So he drew a picture of a cloud with the worm on it. He felt like his love for the worm had been honored. Eventually, he got a little hermit crab and was ready to have something else to love. But that was only because he had honored his love for the first pet. Not every 8-year-old child would want to write a poem to his dead worm but this boy did. It was important and it freed him to love again. Another child might need to do something different."

Dr. Edwards has written a workbook for children, "Children Are Treasures," which focuses on mastering self-esteem. Geared to 6- to 12-year-olds, the first chapter, "Love Never Dies," addresses a common fear of bereaved youngsters -- that if they resolve grief and loss, they will forget their loved one and lose that person forever.

"Some children even worry about forgetting their loved one's face," explains Dr. Edwards. "So in this little book I use pictures to teach how someone you love never really dies; that the love that person felt for you becomes part of your heart forever.

"An example I use in the book is when my horse died. I had him for 20 years and he died at age 40, so I got him when he was old. I show how much the horse loved me and that when he died, I cried buckets of tears. I felt so bad because I missed him so much. Then I realized that the love he gave me stayed with me. And I drew my heart and showed inside that there was a horse and me.

"Children then draw the love they feel from the person who died, put it inside their own hearts, and then are able to visualize how that combination of love makes their own hearts bigger and whole. They have a concrete picture of a small heart, plus a broken heart equaling a bigger heart. In this way, the love never dies."

Helping a child begin the grieving process can start immediately after the loss. Even if parental figures are distracted by the crisis, "outsiders" -- relatives, teachers, neighbors, and adult friends -- can provide important support.

Dr. Edwards recommends contacting the local children's librarian to ask what books are available for specific situations; for instance, for a girl in the sixth grade whose grandfather died, or for a second-grade boy whose mother died. Such books are multicultural and geared to different reading levels, and they often use animals as well as people to explain the concepts.

"Bibliotherapy is very powerful for children," says Dr. Edwards. "The material both tells a story and reduces anxiety because it is about someone else. In fact, the librarian can recommend material that can help the adult as well."

Dr. Edwards also recommends that a helping adult should talk with the bereaved child about the loved one who has passed away. It is helpful for the youth to see that other people also loved that person. With the death of a pet, an adult might share how happy the animal was that it lived with the child.

"This sharing may not be right for the first day after the death," explains Dr. Edwards. "A helping adult must use his or her intuition as to when the timing is appropriate. But it is important to have these communications so the child doesn't feel that the loved one has simply vanished and taken the love with him or her."

Finally, Dr. Edwards cautions that if a bereaved child says anything about his or her own death, or that he or she wants to join the person who is dead, it is important to take the youngster for counseling. If he or she verbalizes a plan for dying, it is critical to contact a mental health hotline or bring the youth to an emergency room for evaluation.

For information on obtaining a copy of Dr. Edwards "Children Are Treasures," please contact her office at 707 Alexander Road, Suite 208 by calling 609-514-9494, extension 220.

Copyright 2006 Judy Shepps Battle
First published in The Princeton Packet, Princeton, NJ





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