A child’s grief doesn’t fit on a timetable. Kids need to feel their feelings and not deny them, experts say.
Backed by 40 years of research, grief counselors know that children who have lost someone need to tell and retell stories, talk, cry, write, draw, whatever it takes to live their lives and process their loss.
My mother did none of that after her father died unexpectedly when she was 13. She was praised as brave for not crying. “Stupid, stoic me,” she would say, 50 years later. “I would have been better off if I had screamed and hollered and thrown things.”
When her older brother was killed in World War II while she was a junior at the University of North Carolina, she was still clueless about how she “should” react.
But Samantha Halle, a current UNC Chapel Hill student whose father died when she was 11, is among the young people who know a healthier way to grieve and are sharing their experiences. She writes articles for HelloGrief.org, a site developed by Comfort Zone Camp, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of bereavement camps. Halle is also the head of the UNC chapter of Students Actively Moving Forward Through Grief.
“When I write, my biggest hope is that at least one person will be able to find my words and realize they are not alone,” she says.
Halle wrote about her father for the site: “Using the past tense to talk about my Dad comes naturally now. He loved listening to music. He was an engineer. And saying, ‘My Dad died when I was 11’ rolls off of my tongue in a way that it never has before. It’s been nine years. His death is no longer where my thoughts default when nothing else is distracting me.
”I do think about him though. Every single day. It’s still hard. … My Dad’s birthday is on Oct. 17. That day, my Facebook profile picture changes to one of us together. I do it for myself because there’s something in me that needs to be able to wave my hands as if to say, ‘Hey world, I still miss him!’”
Andy McNiel, executive director of the National Alliance for Grieving Children, says everyone grieves in his or her own way.
Some people need to talk about the person who died, he says, retelling the same story or exploring the same questions, feelings or thoughts over and over.
”Grief is not a problem we are trying to fix; it is an experience we are living,“ McNiel says.
Research and practice in childhood bereavement show that when children have the opportunity to grieve openly and share their feelings honestly, they feel less alone and fare better than they would otherwise, he says.
Grief is a lifelong journey, and children often experience their grief on different levels and at different times throughout their lives – such as at prom, graduation, a wedding or the birth of a child.
Grief support programs, camps and gatherings throughout the United States allow children to interact and support one another. The NAGC has a directory of grief support programs at ChildrenGrieve.org.
For information about Comfort Zone Camp, where grieving kids can learn from each other as they play together, go to www.comfortzonecamp.org. You can also find encouragement at dougy.org and achildingrief.com.
Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, is a mother and preschool teacher. Email p2ptips att.net or call 704-236-9510.