How do I help my child when talking about the person who died doesn't seem to help?
Dr. John Rosemond writes a syndicated column about parenting that is printed in many newspapers in the United States. In an early June column, (printed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on June 6), he offered advice to a mother of an eleven year old son whose father was killed less than a year ago. The mother described how her son "every now and again" has "moods" where he is the opposite of the cheerful, social, non-complaining boy that he normally presents. When he has these moods, they talk about "how special his dad was and how much he misses him," but the mother doesn't feel that this is helping. She asked Dr. Rosemond for any suggestions he might offer.
Among several concerns regarding Dr. Rosemond's response, the most dismaying concern came from his advice for the mother to limit the opportunity for her son to talk about his father to "twice a month, every other Saturday morning (for example) right after breakfast" along with the rule that "we can't talk about stuff we've already talked about" as it has to be "new stuff." Dr. Rosemond concluded his response in this manner: "The likelihood is, when it comes time for a scheduled talk session, he really won't have much, if anything, to talk about. That, in fact, is the goal."
Recommendations and commentary suggesting that the best way to respond to a grieving child is to discourage talking about the deceased parent with the hopes that conversations and comments about the deceased parent will eventually cease are terrible advice. Children need safe spaces to express their grief and adult guidance and support when feelings overwhelm or cause problems. Children (and adults) need to make sense of what has happened and find ways to live in a new reality after the death of a significant person. They do not need to do this alone which can be the outcome if we discourage expressions of grief which can go or stay underground and be acted out in behavior and health problems.
Because Dr. Rosemond's columns are published and read around the country and because his advice in this case is in conflict with practice wisdom and experience of the overwhelming majority of those who work with bereaved children, the National Alliance for Grieving Children (of which the Center for Good Mourning is a member) sent a response to Dr. Rosemond including an alternate response for this well-intentioned mother trying to help and support her son in the first year following his father's apparent violent death (father was described as "killed nearly a year ago"). The full response can be found at www.childrengrieve.org and it contains much more helpful and realistic suggestions for understanding and supporting a grieving child. Some important highlights from that response are as follows:
Grief is a normal reaction for a child to the death of someone in his or her life. In truth, we do not "get over" a person's death; we learn to live with it. Grief is not a problem we are trying to fix; it is an experience we are living. Your son's change in moods, even a year out from his father's death, is a normal part of adapting to this significant change in his world.
Each child's grief is as unique. Because of this, everyone grieves in their own way. Some people have a need to talk about that person and often retell the same story or explore the same questions, feelings or thoughts over and over. It is great that your son will be open with you and share his feelings of grief over his father's death.
Grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood. Limiting your son's ability to experience grief in an authentic way can send a message to him that he is "alone" in his grief. Children cannot be "talked" out of their grief, nor can their grief be "shut down" by avoiding conversations. Current research and practice in childhood bereavement teaches us that when children have the opportunity to grieve openly and share their feelings honestly, they feel less alone and in turn fare better than they would otherwise.
Children will experience grief at different times throughout their lives. Intense feelings of grief may last longer and come more often than we think they should. In time, as children have opportunities to express their grief and to tell their stories, share memories and process what this death means, they will find the intense feelings come less often. Grief is a lifelong journey and children often experience their grief on different levels and at different times throughout their lives.
Suggested questions for future editions can be sent to email@example.com (please put "Taking Questions" in the subject line).