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Supporting Our Grieving Children To Cope with Katrina

and Other Losses

By: Marcia Breitenbach

Children may feel the same feelings when they grieve as adults, yet their responses can be very different. In addition, every day through the media, images of death, loss, grief and violence are presented to not only adult eyes, but also the vulnerable eyes and hearts of our children. Adults barely have the tools and experience to process what they see intellectually and emotionally. Imagine how the younger and more vulnerable among us deal with this!

In addition, children are deeply affected by natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. Not only do the children who have faced this storm directly need immediate consideration, but also those who are safely in their homes in other parts of the country need to be tended carefully. Because few have maps or experience dealing with the challenges they witness in others' lives--and because many parents feel ill-equipped to guide their children through traumas such as Katrina, or the death of a loved one--change is scary.

Yet if adults can't figure out how to handle change, how can our children move through their journeys of loss and change?

Loss and grief force inner and outer changes to take place in all of our lives, yet in a way we can direct. We can learn to use the energy of change not only to bring healing, but to encourage wholeness in a child's physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional being.

Let's look at ways parents can help their children deal with death, loss and grief, close to home as well as far away.

Dealing with Common Experiences

All children who encounter grief and change process them differently. But some feelings and experiences are common to almost everyone.

Infants, for example, don't intellectually understand changes around them, but they sense changes in their life situations physically, emotionally, and spiritually. To assist infants in directing the energy of change, give them reassurance through your touch. Talk about what has happened. Act with a consistency to support the routines they know. Mostly, they need to know they can count on your support, that you'll keep them safe and take care of their needs.

Supporting Toddlers in Crisis

When dealing with the idea of death, toddlers and young children through age five don't understand the concept of permanence. They repeatedly ask when a deceased person will return. Children at this age learn through repetition and play, therefore they need you to patiently tell them over and over what has happened.

Many people make the mistake of using phrases such as "gone away," "resting," "sleeping," and "taken to heaven," which can confuse and scare children. It's best to be as honest as you can with them. Include them in as much of the process as they care to participate in.

Children go in and out of grieving in a rhythm that follows their inner needs. If you notice them regressing behaviorally, that means they'll likely benefit from more, rather than less, structure, including dependable routines. In addition, supply them with various play materials such as paper and art supplies, clay or puppets. Help them use these materials to work out their feelings and thoughts.

Supporting Older Children

Children aged six through ten begin to understand the permanence of death, yet they don't want to acknowledge it. Like younger children, they may also desire to know literal and physical facts about illnesses, dead bodies, and disposal of bodies, though they won't directly ask. It's important to be honest and direct when explaining details. Again, find out "where they're at" in their understanding of the situation. Once you do, give them only as much information as they require.

When in their pre-teens, children are in a transitional place of understanding and expressiveness. Peer pressure has begun to rear its weighty head; an inner battle concerning independence and vulnerability is raging. These children experience many conflicting emotions and their feelings of grief can certainly be confusing. Giving them honesty, support, and "space" to process the changes on their own are essential. Perhaps you can provide a journal, an age-appropriate book, or a support group of peers if they're open to it.

Dealing with Mature Teens

As teens mature, their ability to grieve with their immediate families usually decreases. They tend to take their feelings and concerns to peers or to a trusted adult such as a pastor, teacher, or uncle. They could display more acting-out or risk-taking behaviors than younger children. As with the other age groups, it's important to be honest, show your own feelings and vulnerability, and provide lots of love and support.

Guilt, a difficult emotion at any age, can be particularly evident in mature teenagers. Gently probe to see if they've attached guilt to the grief they feel. Provide reassurance that all their feelings are normal. Most of all, let them know that they did not cause the loss. Even very young children can have the perception that they somehow caused the event leading to the loss.

Each Child is Unique

This brief summary indicates a few common developmental differences in grieving children of select age groups. However, because each child is unique, understanding death and grieving varies from child to child.

Remember, grief is not an illness; it's a normal response to loss. And most children move through their grief journeys without significant problems. But when grief becomes complicated by factors such as addictions in the family, traumatic death, history of abuse, multiple losses, and minimal family or community support, then children may require professional help. Also, the grief of a larger community, such as a nation focused on the aftermath of the hurricane, presents additional conflicting emotions. Engage your child in a discussion about what they see on TV, what their peers and teachers have said about the events, and most importantly, what your child thinks and feels. Ask questions without trying to 'make it better.'

If a grieving child exhibits persistent destructive behaviors, prolonged depression or withdrawal, debilitating somatic complaints, or excessive anger, consult a grief professional. In fact, these guidelines apply to any loss--whether it involves a death, a move, a separation, a divorce, or a serious health challenge.

Be Sure to Talk With Them

Grief is a subject that often gets avoided or handled fearfully and briefly. As a parent, educator, and counselor, I encourage you to talk with your children about their loss or the ones they view in the media. Discuss what changes will result in their lives because of a loved one's death or events in the world as completely as you can. If you provide structured education, children will learn to handle future loss and crises with confidence rather than fear.

Also, be sensitive to cultural differences in dealing with death and other losses. Remember, there is never "one way" to teach or do anything

Take Care of Your Own Needs

In your role as teacher, counselor, or parent, it can be easy to ignore your own needs. Naturally, you feel genuine concern about the welfare of children faced with a difficult loss, but your own feelings about life-changing events are just as important as theirs. If you don't allow yourself to process them, you'll be a less effective role model for your children.

In particular, take time to face your own discomfort about talking to the children about death and grief. If you're aware of unresolved grief issues from your past, seek a trusted person with whom you can discuss your feelings. Look at this as a great opportunity to do some "inner housekeeping."

Tools and Tips

Here are some ideas to guide you:

1) Breathing exercises go a long way to reduce the stress of loss and change. Breathe in . . . breathe out . . . aah.

2) Remember, it's okay to show children that you're grieving, too. Admit your own confusion, anger, or sadness about the situation; this gives them permission to feel and grieve themselves. When you show children how you take care of yourself during difficult times, they learn life-affirming ways to deal with crisis and change.

3) Have the children tell their stories. They can do this with words, pictures, or dramatization. You'll find that it's healing both to tell our stories and witness others' stories.

4) Have children do sentence completions and then discuss what came up. Examples would be: "I wonder what..." or "I wish I could... " or "I need you to know that . . . " or "The hardest thing for me in my life right now is . . . "

5) It's important for children to remember that they aren't alone. A lot of help is available. Encourage them to think about all the things and people they consider to be their resources. Then have them make a picture or map of these resources using crayons, pastels, pencils, and markers. This map can contain favorite activities and people, pets, even spiritual helpers. It becomes a valued reminder and symbol of where they can turn when they feel low.

6) Due to circumstances, sometimes children don't have the opportunity to say goodbye to their pets when they die. It's hard for anyone to grieve without having a chance to say goodbye. Have your children write a letter to the pet or person who is gone, or ask them to draw their "goodbyes" if they can't write them.

7) Encourage your children to draw their feelings or make a collage that represents death, loss, or change. They may prefer to write a poem about death, compose music, or make up a feeling dance.

8) When grieving, it's important to balance the sadness, anger, and fear you feel with thoughts about the good things in your life. The same is true for children. Have them list all the things they feel grateful for.

9) Assure your children that the children directly affected by the hurricane have loving adults helping and watching over them. Let them know that you will do all in your power to keep them safe and that you have a plan in case something unexpected happens. Then make sure you DO have a plan.

10) Sometimes children feel badly about themselves during times of major change and loss. Have them make a collage of what it means "to be human." Encourage them to depict positive and negative feelings as well as behaviors, which helps them see how a "whole person" looks. Discuss the fact that everyone grows and learns as a result of change.

11) Children, like adults, often fear what's ahead. It's easier to acknowledge and work with fear when they can "see" it, instead of putting their efforts into hiding it. Have them sculpt their fears with clay or another medium.

12) Help children understand that they have choices about what they think and say, and how they react and behave. Reinforce the idea that these choices determine what they get throughout their lives.

13) Children and adults feel helpless when faced with situations out of their control. Our natural tendency is to want to help those in dire need. Allow your children to help in some way. This will give them the feeling of being useful, and it helps them to grow their compassion. Ask them if they have any ideas, and if they don't, you can make suggestions: collecting donations from friends, family, at school or in the neighborhood; making bags with needed items included--they could also write a personal note of support to include in each bag; organizing a fundraiser; collecting donations for the rescue of pets; getting their schoolmates to write poems, letters, drawings, songs, etc with donations; and of course, prayer. Have them visualize love, light, and hope being delivered to victims and their families with their prayers.

Listen Deeply

When you're with children who are grieving, your primary resource is a good ear. That doesn't necessarily mean your physical ears; it also includes your emotional, mental, and spiritual ears. Listening deeply helps you be present with them and pick up on their cues. It goes a long way toward healing--for everyone involved.

Beware. If you simply "go at them" with your knowledge about the grief process and impose "grief activities" on them, you risk losing their trust through poor timing. Know that with good tools, your ability to listen both to the children and to your own intuition, you'll be guided to help them have a positive, even transformational, experience.

About the Author: Marcia Breitenbach 

Marcia Breitenbach is a licensed psychotherapist, and author of The Winds of Change: A Guided Journey with Healing Music through Grief, Loss & Transformation and its accompanying CD of original healing songs. 

       

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