Grief different for children
Two years have passed since 17-year-old Madison Slater’s father died, and still she grieves.
Graduation for the Grand Junction High School senior approaches and Slater knows her father, Terry, won’t be there to see it.
He died from complications related to treatment for terminal cancer. Though he battled the illness with chemotherapy and radiation for more than three years, his death still came as a shock to the family.
“He fought so many times through it (that) it seemed like he was just going to be OK,” Slater said. “It was actually an infection that ended up taking him, not his cancer. It’s kind of crazy how those things happen.”
The grieving goes on, though much of the pain has subsided, she said.
“It seems like as the years go on, it gets harder realizing (he’s) gone,” Slater said. “I lost him so early that it’s hard ... just with events coming up in your life — I don’t think you ever stop.”
The financial impact of her father’s death is just now beginning to be felt, she said, and the family still experiences the turmoil of negative emotions his death stirred up.
“I think, in a way, we’ll always stay together and we’ve definitely gotten stronger, but now we watch what we say in front of each other,” Slater said. “It’s like we’re always walking on egg shells. You don’t want to make someone upset.”
While Slater and her mother have grown closer, she said she feels estranged from her father’s side of the family.
“Everyone has their different memories of how the loss went and who was there and who wasn’t, who did something wrong or right. I don’t know. When someone dies, it seems like a lot of hatred comes up from your family. I don’t talk to his side of the family that much anymore.”
“I think if you have the people you need around you, it’s good.”
Children’s Grief Awareness Day, which takes place Thursday, is designed to help people become more aware of the needs of grieving children. The observance is intentionally set in the holiday season, a particularly difficult time for those grieving the loss of a loved one.
It’s a fact children grieve differently than adults, said Cathy DiPaola, director of youth programs for HopeWest Kids.
The emotional pain felt when a loss first takes place may return at each stage of child development, she said.
“As an adult, we do (grieve) and we sort of pass through it and we get to some sort of new equilibrium,” DiPaola said.
A child’s understanding of death, however, is different at age 5 than it is at age 10 and also at 18, she said. Very young children, for example, may not understand that death is permanent.
“They believe people can come back for a while. That’s why we have to use the words like ‘They died’ rather than ‘They went to heaven’ or all the other euphemisms we use for dying,” DiPaola said.
Young children are very concrete thinkers. They need to understand what a casket is and what a funeral is — all the terms that go with death and dying, she said.
“We as adults try to protect them from all that (but) all we’re doing when we do that is sort of leaving them alone in their silence with questions that they don’t understand,” DiPaola said.
As children grow, they understand death happens and that it can happen to anyone.
“It can happen to them. It can happen to other people that they care about. So, they may start showing signs of being fearful that someone else will die.”
As children mature and gain the ability to think in abstract terms, they may start thinking about their own mortality and what happens to them after death.
“Things like, ‘What happens after we die?’ — spiritual questions like ‘Why me?’ ‘Why did this happen to my person?’ ” DiPaola said.
Children who lose a loved one are more likely to experience social problems, difficulty maintaining personal relationships and failing in school, she said.
“They think, ‘I loved this one person and this hurt really badly so I’m not going to love anybody else,’” DiPaola said.
The potential for depression, which DiPaola described as anger turned inward, also increases.
“When you talk to young children, the feeling they can articulate is they are sad, but you can see it in their behavior — sleeplessness, loss of appetite.”
Even infants may grieve the loss of a familiar person or routine and show it by their fussy behavior, she said.
HOW TO RESPOND
Children hide their grief from their families because they don’t want to cause pain. They keep their emotions bottled up, sometimes until the internal pressure causes an outburst, DiPaola said.
The best approach is to reach out and let a grieving child know you are there and willing to listen, she said.
“If they’re asking, ‘Where does somebody go when they die?’ explain what happens to the body (and then explain) we in our family believe this is what happens, this is where their spiritual body goes,” DiPaola said.
Children need to be included in age-appropriate discussions, which include anything they have questions about.
“(Tell them)‘You can ask me any questions you want. I will tell you the truth. I might cry if you talk about Dad, but crying is OK,’ ” DiPaola said.
“Let’s model good, healthy grief. We’re not going to bury it and we’re not going to wait until it comes out in a big explosion of anger and frustration.
“We’re going to cry when we need to. We’re going to use our coping skills. We’re going to recognize that we do it all at different rates sometimes. I may be really having a hard time when you’re doing just fine.”
WHAT NOT TO DO
The grief group conducted at Grand Junction High School by Pat Lewis, a HopeWest youth counselor, is one of scores conducted at nearly every school in School District 51, thanks to outreach programs sponsored by HopeWest.
Roughly 10 students attended the group last week, each working through the loss of someone close to them.
ITEMS TO HOLD ONTO
As they talked, the students decorated tiny boxes called pocket shrines.
“One of the things that is helpful for coping is to memorialize or to remember and have something to hold onto,” Lewis said.
“Some of us wear things that we carry with us.”
One girl in the group wears a necklace with two hearts joined together that was given to her by her loved one.
Another wears jewelry and the team jacket of a national baseball franchise that her loved one wore during life.
A boy wears a pendant marked with the fingerprint of his loved one embossed upon it.
WHAT TO SAY
All agreed a few familiar phrases carelessly uttered at the time of a loss were no help at all.
“I hate it when someone says, ‘I can imagine what you’re going through.’ It’s like, no, nobody can imagine. You can’t imagine until you go through it.”
Heads nodded when one girl said she didn’t like it when someone tells her that they “understand.”
Worse is when someone tells them how they should be grieving.
“I think less is more, really,” one boy said. “The less they say is usually better.”
“Even if they’re just a shoulder to cry on or even if they’re just there to let you vent, but don’t really say anything, that’s what helps,” another girl said.