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Particularly for Parents

Needs of Grieving Children: Permission to Express (or Not)

from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent

by Donna Schuurman

One of the comments children and teens commonly make about why they like attending The Dougy Center is that they have a safe place to express, or not express, their thoughts and feelings. As we'll see in a later chapter when we explore the role of expression in healing and the misconceptions about correct ways to grieve, there is no one right way for expressions of grief to emerge. Prior to your parent's death, you may have been quiet and not particularly verbal, and you may have remained so. You may have been outgoing and gregarious and continued to be so. Or you may have changed how you expressed yourself after this loss. Either way, what you needed at that time was permission to express, as well as to take a break from expressing, how you felt. Children who feel pressured to talk, or cry, or show emotion will likely withdraw even further. That's why one of the very few rules, all geared to safety, at The Dougy Center is the "I pass" rule. It means that no one is ever forced to talk, forced to share, or made to participate in any activity they don't want to. In that process, choice and control are strengthened, the individual needs of children and teens are respected, and each person's process is valued.

Not all children cry; not all children verbalize. Some children barely show any outside effect as a result of their parent's death. That may mean they're coping with it privately in ways that are working just fine for them, or it may mean they don't feel safe, or don't know how, to share with others. Either way, forcing will be ineffectual.

Think back to the time after your parent's death. Did you have permission from those around you to do what you needed to do, to express how you felt as you needed? Or were you surrounded by adults who told you to "get over it," "put it behind you," or "move on"? Did you have the freedom to talk or not talk? If you had choices, and made choices you felt good about, you are fortunate. Every day we hear many stories at The Dougy Center about how alone children felt after their parent's death, and how they felt either forced or not encouraged to express themselves.

*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.

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