Particularly for Parents
Needs of Grieving Children: Avenues to Express
from Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent
by Donna Schuurman
Perhaps you had permission to express yourself, or at least didn't feel that you were being discouraged to do so, but you really didn't know how. Welcome to the club! Mainstream American society does a very poor job, I believe, in encouraging or accepting ritual and expressions for grieving beyond the funeral or memorial service. Working adults get three days of funeral leave and return to work where coworkers frequently ignore them out of fear of saying the wrong thing. Children return to school and the routines of life without constructive ways to express their feelings of anger, fear, rage, relief, guilt, and anxiety, among others.
Thinking back, do you remember what you did to express how you felt in the weeks and months after your parent's death? Was there someone you could talk to? Did you express yourself through art, play, sports? At The Dougy Center, we provide a variety of opportunities for children and teens to express themselves if they choose to, ranging from mask making, painting, chalk, clay work, physical (and cerebral) games, to our "Volcano Room," a padded safe room where they can hit a punching bag, tumble, throw pillows and stuffed animals, and get out the energy they're so frequently being told by adults to keep inside. A lot of the kids at the center, we're told, have behavioral problems, sometimes referred to as "acting out." Often, their "behavioral problems" are really adults' "perception problems" and their "acting out" is a young person's way of saying, "Look at me; I need help!" Too often, instead of attending to their needs, children are ostracized by adults and other kids, which only perpetuates the cycle.
All kids "act out" what's inside of them. Adults do, too, if you really think about it. We're all acting out what is inside of us, the accumulated hurts and pains, the successes, fears, and hopes. It's part of being human. As James Hollis states in a simple yet true reductionism, "All behavior is anxiety management." We're all "acting out" all the time in ways that will relieve our anxiety and keep us safe. Children do so out of a sense of necessity because the world is so much bigger than them, and they have so little say in it. As we age, we find ways to cope, but that scared child is still inside all of us. Have you found ways to express yourself, or are you still carrying your fears and concerns bottled up inside? If they're still in there, unexpressed, they'll wait. But they will not remain silent forever.
*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. www.dougy.org