Guest Author - Katie Thomas
Children experience love, death, and grief. Because of their inexperience and lack of knowledge, children have an especially hard time, and need adult help in acquiring facts, understanding emotions, and dealing with the physical processes.
Love does strange things to us, but none are stranger than what happens when someone we love - or even hate - dies. Even functional families sometimes explode as members go ballistic during the grief process, and sometimes in our suffering, we forget that our children need help dealing with love, death, and grief.
Most of us have an innate inability to deal directly with our strongest emotions, including grief. All death is sudden. It doesn't matter if the mother we love had cancer for years: when she dies, nobody is ready. Death produces shock, violent emotions, and self-absorption. We become bruised and bruising, and sometimes insensitive to the needs of others, especially our children. We regress to the fearful, primitive little man who lives deep inside all of us – and inside our children.
Even people who are part of the same death event do not recognize what's happening to the others who are grieving. Each person reacts according to his own inner gestaldt, his experience with the world, his experience with others sharing the event, his experience with the deceased, his vision and understanding of the love relationships involved, and his age and emotional level. Children, especially, have a hard time with love, death, and grief. They don’t know what is expected of them, but during this stormy period, they often want even more than usual to do exactly what the adults expect, and they dread disappointing. Quite often, they have no philosophical grounding to center them; they don’t understand what death is, what it means in general, and what it means to them.
It is the adults’ responsibility to ensure that a child is not isolated and left adrift during this time of death and grief. Everybody has his own ideas about death and afterlife; families may have to sit down and figure it out before talking with the child. But the adults must make sure the child is allowed to express his own fears, doubt, anger, and then clarify how grief works, how everybody is feeling, what exactly is going to happen, what is expected and desired of the child, who the child can talk to with problems and questions about the death, the funeral, and its aftermath, the future, and other important questions.
It is important to remember that we have to be honest and factual with our children when they are faced with the death of a family member, friend, or acquaintance. Don’t leave them hanging. They are not “little adults.” They don’t have the years of experience and knowledge that adults use to maneuver through life, and they need information and “positioning” in the major life events, such as love and death. Once you illuminate the path, they will follow it to a peaceful and loving resolution of grief and death.