Saturday, February 22, 2014

Helping young children deal with grief

This post is primarily about children ages 3-6 - while many of the tips would work well with older children, this age range is the developmental level I am focusing on.

Dealing with my own grief through our losses has been one thing, helping my 4 year old navigate the tangled ball of emotion that is grief was something entirely different.  Even as a Master's level Psychologist trained in working with children, this process has been difficult and up until recently left me wondering if I made the right choices.  When we decided to tell H about the baby at 14 weeks, we never imagined that something terrible would happen again and in the wake of our grief I found myself wondering if I had made the wrong decision.

It has been recent that I have seen the fruit of this process in H's life and feel confident that the lasting impression he will have from this time in his life is a positive one.  So, how can parents, therapists, counselors help young children navigate this road of grief?  Well, each child is different and will respond differently to trauma, but here are some general things that have been helpful for us.

- Be as honest as you can with the child about the event.  Use language that is accurate but appropriate.  Don't use euphemisms, like "he's sleeping" or "he went to a better place" to describe death. Children at this age are extremely literal and these kinds of explanations will only make them more confused about what happened.

- If you talk about heaven, be careful about saying things like, "God needed another angel" or "God loved him so much he needed him in heaven."  These kinds of phrases may make young children feel scared of God or going to heaven or afraid that God may "take" them away too.

- Expect some period of regression in some area.  Whether it is behavior, toileting, sleeping, there is likely going to be some previously mastered skill that appears to regress.  Children may become more clingy, need more reassurance, or be more emotional.  For us, H had a lot more trouble going to sleep and expressed many more fears about things he hadn't previously been afraid of.  We are approaching four months later and things still aren't back to "normal" in this area, but we're working on embracing the new normal.

- If the loss is of a child they never met, like ours, it was more confusing for H to process the loss of someone he never knew.  In the days following he wanted to pretend there was a baby and even recently continues to play out death with toys and pretend I have a baby.  This is actually really normal for kids this age as they process things primarily through play.  The themes and words may be disturbing to you, but for the child this is their way of working out grief and trying to understand the permanence of death.

-  Giving the child a concrete way to honor a loved one or remember the loss helps them give expression to their feelings in a way that is appropriate for their age.  For us, we put together a mosaic stepping stone together and talked about how this would help us remember our baby because we were never going to see him on Earth again.

-  Leave it to kids to ask the hardest questions - and they will.  "Why did our baby have to die?", "Am I going to die?", "Why can't you have a baby in your tummy again?", and the list goes on.  There is no perfect answer to these questions, but it is important to address them and keep answering them to the best of your ability as they will likely be asked over and over again.  This is a normal process for kids and is kind of like their way of checking in with you.

-  Some kids want to talk about the loss immediately and frequently, other kids will hardly mention it and will not bring it up.  For H, he wanted to tell everyone important to him about it and in the weeks following would tell teachers, family, friends about what happened.  He asked a lot of questions of me and was immediately concerned that Mommy and Daddy felt better and weren't sad anymore.  I want him to feel like it is okay to talk about, so I let him talk about it whenever he wants to for as long as he wants, but I don't press it or ask him about it if he doesn't seem to want to talk about it.

-  That being said, don't hide your feelings.  It is okay for your kids to see you cry, to know that you are not okay.  It is important to use your own judgement with this, but children, even young children are very intuitive and will know that you are not okay.  H did not like to see me cry, but I assured him each time that I was going to feel happy again, but at that moment was still very sad.  Naming our feelings for our kids will help them recognize those feelings in themselves and give them words to use to communicate them later.

- When we gave the baby a name (we didn't know the sex at the time of the loss) and told H it was a boy, it seemed to help him personify the baby.  He wanted to know what he looked like and talks about him by name (or nickname... he says he wants to call him "Michelangelo").

- Talk with your child about your healing.  I have done this sporadically, but when I find myself feeling joyful, hopeful, or at peace - I tell him and acknowledge how God gives us good things and we have so many things to be grateful for.  This not only models habits that I want in my own heart, but assures our children that God really does bring healing.

I don't know that we have navigated this road perfectly and it has been painful to see my child grieve, but we have had conversations this week that have made my heart smile.  We talked about  fear and what it really means for Jesus to keep us safe.  We talked about how loving God and following Jesus doesn't mean bad things won't happen to us; how God can bring us joy even when bad things happen... And he gets it!  I'm not sure H would really be able to know and understand these things without walking this road with us and going through his own grief.  I hope this is helpful - I found myself kind of at a loss wondering how to navigate this with young children.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


I have never liked the idea that grief is a linear progression, it is often portrayed that way even in counseling classes.  It makes it seem as if the stages are progressive and have a definite beginning and ending.  That certainly has not been my experience of grief.  I saw this graphic representation of grief recently that I found helpful.

It feels more like this tangled knot where so many of these feelings are overlapping and some so close to the surface while others are buried deep inside.  I don't know that I will ever look back at this time in my life and call it "good".  But, I can say that were I am right now emotionally, spiritually, and mentally is a much more healthy place than where I was 1 year ago.  I owe that in large part to Jesus, but also to our sweet baby Ethan.  That is what we decided we would have named him and what we call him now when we talk about him.  I didn't like to think about him honestly, I had these images in my head of him unmoving on the ultrasound right before he left me that I can't erase and that kept me up at night for weeks following our loss.  It has been recent, that I have been able to think about him and talk about him as our gift from God to show us how to love greater than our fear, to be grateful for each moment because time is short, and to experience the steadying/anchor love of Christ through the most intense storms of life.

Ethan means solid, enduring, strong, firm.  I can't think of a better name for a child who taught me what it truly means to have Christ as an anchor to my soul.  We have completed all medical testing, seen all the necessary doctors and the answers remain that there is no answer.  No medical reason that explains our losses - everything appears to be perfectly normal.  There is no guarantee that this won't happen again, no preventative measures to be taken, no course of treatment to improve our odds.  Despite the 'positive' report from the doctors, I know that I can't put my hope in having a baby.  My hope has to be in the love of God towards my family, the justice that belongs to God alone, and the fullness of Christ He has promised to those that seek him.

See, life isn't fair - I see it everyday in the children who were born addicted to drugs and struggle in school, in the young mother of 3 boys who has terminal cancer and is told "there's nothing more we can do."  Everyone has their own story of grief and disappointment with life.  For most of us there are no answers to "why?" or "how long?".  In many ways, walking this road has brought me freedom - I don't have to be afraid.  Even as we look into an uncertain future, I don't have to fear what will be because I know from experience that no matter what happens, no matter how dark it feels, no matter how terrible the suffering - God will find me there and He will be good.  As many verses in scripture state, "The Lord is on my side; I will not fear, what can man do to me?" Psalm 118:6, "What then, shall we say to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?" Romans 8:31.  "Fear not, for I am with you,  do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you. Yes, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness."  Isaiah 41:10.

It is because of Ethan that I got to experience a love greater than my fear and even when my fear became reality, God didn't let go of me and continued to show me His mercy and transforming kindness.  How can I resent that?  How can I curse that?  I couldn't choose it - but I can embrace it and allow Ethan's brief life to continue to give life to me and be thankful for the ways it has made me a more compassionate friend, a more attentive mother, a more grateful spouse and a more graceful servant of Christ.  I never considered suffering loss to be a road to freedom, but maybe it is, maybe it is the way to be free from fear, free from all that is insignificant and meaningless, and free to truly live without regrets.

I now picture my sweet baby up in Heaven, keeping his siblings  and great grandparents company and reminding me to live each day fully, on purpose, and without fear.  Perhaps the greatest burdens are also our deepest blessings.