by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC
Parents; Teaching Children about Mourning and Grief? by Chaplain Julia Rajtar, MAPS, BCC
Someone once said to me, “parents are the children’s first teachers.” What children learn, what children know, comes from the example of their parent(s), first. This is true about grief as well.
As a child, I can remember going to the funeral home for the visitation or funeral. I recall going to the church for a service, going to the cemetery, watching the casket lowered into the ground, placing some dirt over the casket, and sharing a meal together with friends and family. My parents and family taught me that mourning was a community event in which tears, sadness, talking about death, wondering where loved ones were, and being a child all at the same time, were natural and normal.
What do parents teach children about the rituals of mourning and the process of grieving? The value of ceremony, a gathering of the mourners to tell the stories, to share the memories, to talk about what happened, and to receive care and support from friends and family is a significant value. William G. Hoy in this book, Do Funerals Matter?, says that sharing the stories, recalling virtues of the one who died were important parts of the gathering for family and friends in the aftermath of a death. It becomes a powerful part of reconciling the loss. Furthermore, Hoy shares that interviews with the bereaved suggest that not only sharing the stories is powerful, but the physical presence of others goes a long way in offering comfort and support.
Saying things to children like, “they are asleep” is not helpful, and can create fear for a child, who may become afraid to go to sleep because, like their loved one who died, they think they will never wake up. Do we teach children that sadness and sorrow is ok? Do we encourage them to share stories and memories? Is it ok for a child to get back to normal and play with friends as if nothing ever happened? How would you know when you needed to worry about the child?
What are we, the adults, teaching them about grief? Some of the needs of grieving children and adolescents include:
- Listening carefully to the child – not just telling them what to do
- Validating the child’s feelings (even if difficult feelings, such as anger at the deceased for dying)
- Offer “permission” to talk about it…”Making difficult matters mentionable is one of the best ways to make them manageable.” (Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood)
Children are aware you are grieving too, and sometimes they hesitate to talk to you, because they don’t want you to hurt any more. Consider creating a memory jar, where you place cotton balls or stones or marbles or pennies in the jar every time you share a memory of the deceased. When the jar is full, go do something the deceased would have done or something to honor their values and memory. Don’t push, allow the child to share when they are ready, yet be encouraging. Some might need to talk more, while others might need to get back to playing again. Remember to engage the school counselors and teachers and coaches, etc.
Children can also teach adults lessons about grieving. Children go in and out of grief more readily than adults do, vacillating between the feelings of grief and playing. This is natural and normal for children. As adults, we need that too, we need to “take a break” from the sorrow and pain of grief and go to work, play, exercise, work on the house, quilt, paint, fish or whatever our form of get away is that is meaningful, even if it’s hard to focus. And like children, we also need that “counselor” or friend, or teacher who will, listen, or take us out for a meal, or help us fix the broken toilet, or whatever we may need.