Uninformed Columnists Remind Us That Supporting a Bereaved Parent is Crucial

Posted on June 1, 2012 by


There are moments when I read thoughts shared by professionals and syndicated columnists that I find painfully mind numbing, sometimes causing my reaction to be filled with expletives. The same moments remind me that, even when I feel like I’m preaching to the choir or have become a scratchy record, the task of transforming how we grieve is great. It is a gigantean effort and it is relevant to everyone, including our children.

A mom wrote a letter to syndicated columnist John Rosemond (http://bit.ly/JPvft0) to say her 11 year old so is “still having a difficult time with it [her husband’s death nearly a year ago].”  John responded to her concerns in what I’m sure he thought was a compassionate attempt to help her problem solve her child’s grief.

In short, he says: “My educated guess is that your son has reached the point where the more he talks about how much he misses his dad, the more he’s going to miss his dad and the more often he’s going to slip into these funks of his. He needs someone to help him get unstuck . . . That will mean that you have to enforce two rules: first, you only talk twice a month [about dad]; second, you don’t go over stuff you’ve already talked about. Initially, you may need to say things like, “I’ve noticed that you might be thinking about your dad again. That’s fine. Take some time to think about what we’re going to talk about next Saturday. Write it down so you don’t forget, but remember, we only talk about new stuff.”

Well, unfortunately, John’s “educated guess” is an uneducated guess. Right off the map. Bull’s eye in Wrongsville. I don’t mean to be polarizing and suggest that there is a definitive right and wrong, but there is without a doubt healthy and unhealthy approaches. This suggestion is wholeheartedly the latter.  Silencing a child’s story-telling, sharing, emotions, and remembering is anything but healthy or helpful. Grief can be a sticky-stuck place and it’s the support, invitation and opportunity to share, love, and grief-educated adults that help grieving children move forward in a healthy direction. Here are some reasons why:

Continuing Bonds: The past is the present and the future. Humans, I believe kids especially, rely on a connection to the past. Our relationship with someone who dies doesn’t end when a death certificate is issued. In fact, it continues as we process that relationship and its many complexities throughout our lives. Feeling a connection with the deceased (the past) is helpful to grief and healing.

Grief is forever: Grief is not a twice a month conversation. Ever. People may choose to share less or only with trusted people, but such prescribed sharing comes from within, not an external person who mandates a “feelings and sharing time.” The thoughts, feelings, and child’s questions will still be present. The only thing missing will be the dialogue and the caring environment to do it in. I would suspect that the suppressed grief will intensify and lead to unhealthy or destructive behaviors.

Grief is cyclical and circular, up-and-down, and all around: The idea that grief happens in stages is old school, circa 1969. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggested the stages in her book On Death and Dying and these stages were offered in the context of dying. As a former hospice chaplain, even in that context, where I was surrounded by 11 people dying a day on average, the stages were merely characteristics of some people’s grief. I believe the suggestion that the brains of a child, whose developmental goals are to take in information and learn, will function on a linear trajectory towards acceptance and “getting over it,” as laid out by the strategic goals and objectives of Mr. Rosemond, doesn’t take into consideration the rhythm of grief and the many triggers that stimulate feelings and natural reactions to this universal experience; nor does it take into account the objectives of life’s natural characteristics, which are a part of the human experience and define grief’s purpose.

Grief is Organic: It comes when it comes. It comes in waves and it comes in bursts. It’s a unique experience for everyone, including children. That 11 year old boy might feel like himself one moment and then differently the next. He may be able to articulate it or he may not. Regardless, the feelings will move through his body and he will express them physically, emotionally, and/or verbally. We can help the boy develop healthy coping skills by providing him with the space to process it without judgment and allow him to fully feel his feelings. By engaging the grief, we help the boy feel safe, seek help, and make healthy decisions when the grief occurs.

Listening and following their lead: One of the volunteers I work with recently suggested an acronym for when she facilitates groups: “W.A.I.T! Why Am I Talking?” Giving children, anyone who is grieving for that matter, the space to share without interruption, judgment, or interpretation normalizes their experience and allows them to fully experience grief. Paradigm shift: grief is bad and stupid (I think that’s what we are communicating when we prevent a child from sharing and establish some arbitrary “share time”) to grief is good and serves a purpose. Allow the child to experience grief because that grief is hard at work, it’s busy transforming that boy’s life with coping skills and healing.

Mr. Rosemond concluded his column by saying: “The combination of your authority and the new rules will provide exactly what he needs to begin resolving his sadness and moving on. 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.”

He is, in fact, correct that the grieving boy will probably show up to his scheduled talk or grief session and he probably won’t have much to say. The reason, though, is not because some uniformed goal was achieved, but because he will have received the message: talking about death equals bad. Grief equals bad. Mom is not as supportive or, possibly, trustworthy as I need her to be when I am in crisis. He will not have “moved on,” but he may appear that way as he grapples with the reality of profound feelings suppressed by a world that has grown uncomfortable with and unsure of how to grieve and support its bereaved children.

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