Listening to What A Bereaved Child Needs

When my late husband committed suicide, my first thought was the impact on our children. How was I possibly going to tell them about this great tragedy that had befallen them, as well as try to eke out some meaning to it? If I didn’t understand it, how could an innocent 10-year old and 15-year old comprehend the idea that their father left this life of his own volition?

There wasn’t a good explanation, but I did try to get them to see that it was about their father and nothing we did or said was the cause. Of course, that is a feat much easier said than done.

His death occurred about three months after his birthday, and one of first things out of my younger son’s mouth was – “This happened because I didn’t make him a birthday card.” He was just being 10 and stubborn when his dad’s birthday came around. I wanted him to make a card, and he didn’t want to; I ended up buying one instead and having him sign his name. No big deal in the scheme of things.

No matter how I approached this topic, my son hung on to his feelings of guilt. In retrospect, I think it was his way of trying to make sense of what happened. At least, in this way, he could see a cause and effect. To provide some resolution, when his dad’s birthday came around next, I had my son make a card for him. There was no protestation this year, and, although he couldn’t give it to him directly, it seemed to put the issue to rest.

In general, when a child loses a significant person in his/her life, the surviving adults usually rally around trying to make everything better. Since you can’t bring the person back (which is what the child wants), it is virtually impossible to make it “better” right away. At times, adults have a tendency to talk at children while trying to dispense wisdom, concern, and love. The subject of death may be danced around, with euphemisms utilized and half-truths uttered. Of course, this is done with good intentions, for adults feel a need to protect innocent young ones.

You may want to consider the idea that children can be very powerful teachers to the adults who surround them. Accordingly, it may be better to step back and really listen to what they have to say.

Try not to tell a child how to feel – instead, you can ask him/her how he/she does feel. Each child is a unique individual with feelings of his or her own, and, consequently, each child will experience grief differently. For example, one child may constantly be in tears, and another may hide his/her tears and not want to talk about his/her loss. Letting a child know that there is no right or wrong way to feel allows him or her the freedom to grieve in his or her own personal fashion.

Ellen Gerst, a Life Coach who specializes in grief and relationships, is the author of several books on grief including, A Practical Guide to Widow/erhood, born out of Ellen’s own experiences as a young widow; 101 Tips and Thoughts on Coping with Grief, a easy-to-read reference guide filled with suggestions to use every day for moving through the grief journey; and Love After Loss: Writing The Rest of Your Story, a recipe for finding new love after the death of a mate. Ellen has also written two books for grieving children: Let's Get A Grip on Grief (for ages 5-8) and Let's Get A Grasp on Grief (for ages 9-12).

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