Needs of Grieving Children: Good Modeling
from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent by Donna Schuurman
Grieving children and teens need examples of positive coping behavior from their surviving parent, as well as from the other adults around them. They are taking their cues from the environment, carefully watching and either imitating or rejecting what they see in the actions of others. Parents at The Dougy Center* question frequently how to find a balance between what they feel and what they should show their children. The stoic, bottled-up parent shows children that they should be strong at all costs, keep their feelings inside, and move on. The incapacitated parent who cannot get out of bed and who forces their children into parenting them places an unrealistic and difficult burden on children unprepared for this responsibility. The parent who cries only behind a closed bedroom door, emerging with reddened eyes pretending all is well, implies that crying and sadness cannot be shared. Parents who have adult support systems and who can share their feelings without placing their children in a position of needing to take care of them, exemplify that it's okay to feel, to express feelings, and to ask for help.
Of course, your parent wasn't the only adult whose response you were watching as you explored how to respond to your parent's death. Teachers, school counselors, coaches, clergy, youth workers, aunts, uncles, other relatives, friends' parents, all played a role in shaping how you processed, or failed to process, this pivotal event in your life. Most kids at The Dougy Center have multiple stories about adults who helped them and those who hindered them in the days, weeks, and months after the death.
Thirty years after his father's death, forty-year-old Deighton shared an experience that was engraved in his memory. "My father died on my brother's ninth birthday. I was ten. I still remember people saying all kinds of things, and even then I was wishing they'd just keep their mouths shut. One woman said to me, 'Wasn't it wonderful your father was born into heaven on your brother's birthday?' I just wanted to slug her!"
What adults were there for you when your parent died? If you were of school age, how did your teacher or teachers handle your return to the classroom? If you were part of a religious community, did that community support or abandon you? Was there anyone, any adult, who you can point to who modeled helpful and positive responses following your parent's death? If so, you're fortunate. If not, you may be living out the poor modeling you witnessed many years ago.
*Donna Schuurman is the Executive Director of The Dougy Center, a children's grief support program in Portland, Oregon and the source of excellent resources on grief and loss.