When it comes to grief, be a model for your child
While listening to KKSF on the radio last week, I heard the announcer suggest that we could change the world, one child at a time.
I can think of no better way to transform a child’s world than for parents to recognize how their attitudes, words, and actions can profoundly affect their children. The words and actions of parents can leave indelible imprints on the minds and emotions of children. These imprints establish a foundation, and play a major role in the formation of children’s habit patterns and the ways in which they respond to the world around them. The manner in which a parent reacts to a significant emotional loss will be watched and imitated by the child Ð for the parent models the “proper” or “acceptable” way for a child to respond to grief.
Grief is a natural and normal response to any type of significant emotional loss. For a child or teenager, this could mean a dramatic change in a comfortable routine that causes him/her to feel lost or confused. Beginning with childhood, everybody goes through many types of losses in a lifetime. While individual losses may seem small or insignificant to an adult, children are much more open and receptive to feeling deeply their emotions. Ultimately, these cumulative losses will deliver an inevitable impact over time.
Most adults tend to avoid the subject of grief; they respond to loss in a manner that is based upon the many Myths and Misconceptions they were taught about grief and grieving by their parents — and those taught by their parents’ parents. These outdated methods can actually increase the pain, loneliness, and isolation that an individual feels during this very difficult time. To illustrate, when a child suffers the loss of a beloved pet, the parents generally do not wish the child to feel bad, because they love their child. However, the usual way in which parents respond, unconsciously sets up a pattern that is repeated as the child grows and matures. Thus, in a situation where a beloved pet has passed, the parents’ response is typically something like: “Don’t feel bad Ð we’ll get you another dog.” When a teenager experiences the breakup of a relationship, a likely comment may be: “There are plenty of fish in the sea Ð you’ll find someone else/better.” While these expressions are well intentioned, they are based in logic and intellect. And they send a message that it is not okay to feel bad, and that what was lost can be replaced. Yet the child or teenager really does not care about replacing a lost relationship, be it with a pet or another person. He/she has every right to feel bad. The young person is experiencing a variety of emotions, and grieving a particular loss. What is needed is a way to identify and acknowledge the emotions surrounding the loss, and then to complete – before moving on – what has been emotionally unfinished and incomplete in this lost relationship that is now gone.
Parents are the emotional leaders for their children. And it really is time for an innovatively effective approach to grief and grieving… a method that actually emphasizes the acknowledgement of feelings, completion, and recovery… a way that teaches adults how to guide children in completing their relationship to the pain, isolation, and loneliness brought on by a significant emotional loss of any kind. It is the heart that is wounded and broken, not the head. So guiding a child or teenager in ways that are “heart-centered,” rather than intellectual or logical, is certainly a more gentle and compassionate way to respond to grief and grieving.
Incomplete grieving and undelivered communication manifests in adults in a myriad of ways, impacting the realms of physical and emotional health, relationships, and so much more. Children are no different. Their unresolved grief will also display itself in various ways, and their sadness around loss will be felt very deeply. Yet, children and teenagers will attempt to hide their grief – even to please the adults – because they unknowingly have been taught that it is unacceptable to feel bad, and they are “supposed to be strong.” These feelings may be displayed in such ways as being deemed “inappropriate” behavior, because these young people have been unable to acknowledge or express their grief.
While death is the first thing that comes to mind when we think of grief, divorce is also a major source of feeling grief and loss. Further, divorce can cause an experience of “multiple losses” for children: they feel not only the permanent absence of one parent’s previously constant presence, but a transition that could entail departing a familiar home environment to live in a different residence, leaving behind those things that they have loved and to which they have become attached. This is not to say that parents shouldn’t divorce if they feel it is for the best, but simply to understand that the many losses involved will definitely be felt by the children. And that these need to be addressed and completed.
In his book, Handbook to Higher Consciousness (Eden Grove Editions, 1997), Ken Keyes, Jr. proposes that “Everyone and everything around you is your teacher.” This is especially true for the parent-child relationship, as the parent is the primary teacher for the child. I would like to close with a line from a Martina McBride song that essentially epitomizes the parent-child relationship: “I’ll be there, in my daughter’s eyes.” You also will be there in your son’s eyes.
Donna T. Haddad is a GriefRecovery Specialist and Holistic Behavioral Therapist. For further information, Donna can be reached at (530) 263-3937.
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