To support the publication of Veronica’s Grave, May 9th, an article I wrote was published last week in Grief Healing: Voices of Experience. Both the article and memoir werewritten in the hope of drawing awareness to the problem that children are often left to grieve the loss of a loved one alone. Such losses may be due to death, incarceration, or even divorce. I wanted to share this piece with you, for in an ideal world no child would ever be left to grieve alone.
For a child, the death of a loved one is a life-changing event that has been likened to an amputation. And like an amputation, there is no going back to what had been. Instead, there is the painful memory captured in a sweeping emptiness.
In A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife, Joy, to cancer, the British poet, essayist and philosopher C. S. Lewis wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” For children, this gut-wrenching fear—What’s happening to me? —is often accompanied by loss of appetite, an inability to sleep, difficulties in concentrating and aimless searching. All are part and parcel of what bereavement experts call ‘the chaos of grief.’ If left untreated, unresolved grief in young children can result in lowered grades and in withdrawing from family and friends. In older youth, there can be more reckless behaviors including drug/alcohol abuse and promiscuity.
When my mother disappeared on a bright November day, no one told me she had died.No one talked about her, no one whispered her name, and all the pictures were removed. Presumably done with the best of intentions, the prevailing wisdom was that I would soon forget her and move on. That did not happen. The silence surrounding me notwithstanding, from time to time a memory of her would rise unbidden to mind: My mother propped up on pillows, reading the paper, with music playing in the background, as I pedaled my tricycle pell-mell throughout the apartment.
Knowing nothing about death at the age of three, I had no way of knowing where she was and thought she was ‘lost’. Getting lost was something I understood. Hold my hand, she would say, as we walked to the park. I don’t want you getting lost.
Psychotherapists and bereavement counselors nowadays would say that what happened to me is the antithesis of what should happen to any grieving child. None other than Prince William of Britain, when visiting one of the Princess Diana’s charities, said: “Grief was the most powerful condition any child could experience.” If so, how can we help bereaved children develop the coping skills they need?
Tell the truth. Children need to know that death and dying are a natural part of life. If we skirt the issue, we do both them and ourselves a disservice, in that we miss an opportunity to develop a caring and trustworthy relationship. I would only learn the truth of my mother’s disappearance some five years later, when, as we were jumping rope, one of my cousins announced: Your mother’s dead. My mother said so! In an instant, all my hopes and dreams about my mother’s homecoming turned to ashes.
The death of a loved one is an isolating experience. There is a temporal divide that cannot be breached between someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one and someone removed from it. Grieving children often feel that no one understands them, that no one else feels as they do. In a sense they are right, as no two people grieve the same way. One consequence is that they often withdraw from friends and family. It’s important adults understand their feelings of apartness and isolation and let them know that they, too, share in their grief.
A bereaved child often feels that he or she is the only one to have ever experienced such a loss. The year I started kindergarten, for instance, an aunt walked me to school, introducing me to a teacher who immediately mistook her for my mother. My cheeks burned with shame and humiliation thinking I was the only one in the whole class to show up on the first day without a mother. When the teacher reached out to touch me, I bit her on the wrist—thus compounding my embarrassment.
Do the right thing. “Sorrow “said C. S. Lewis, “turns out to be not a state but a process.” Grief is not like a train that runs on a schedule, so adults need to be patient as children slip in and out of the process for months and sometimes years. Grownups often avoid having the conversation about death, for fear of worsening the child’s grief. But nothing could be further from the truth. Avoidance of the topic fosters the idea that talking about the death of a loved one is socially unacceptable. What’s called for is the courage to do the right thing, to speak up.
Children need an opportunity to share their thoughts, remembrances and feelings with other children who are bereaved. There are wonderful summertime camp programs, such as Camp Erin, spread out across the country that enable children to do just that. In these weekend camps the children, supported by bereavement counselors, come together to share mementos of their loved ones and to commemorate them in drawings and stories. As the weekend draws to a close, the children and counselors hold a ritualized goodbye ceremony, in which the children get to say a final goodbye to their loved one. (See: National Alliance for Grieving Children)
The death of a loved one—a parent, a sibling, or a family member—is not something children ‘get over.’ It is something that lasts a lifetime. It is common for children to yearn—I know I did—to see the missing parent one more time, if only for a minute. Which makes having a chance to say a ritualized goodbye a key element in the healing process. In hindsight, the writing of Veronica’s Grave was for me that chance to bid my late mother a long overdue fare-thee-well.