Lori Casey BSN MDiv., BCC-PCHAC
Hi Carolyn and Rick, please forgive me for the late reply. I was cleaning house yesterday and splashed toilet bowl cleaner in my eye. It burned like fire and my husband helped me flush my eye and then drove me to a minor emergency center nearby. I now have antibiotic ointment in my eye and I feel like I am typing to you in a visual fog.
I really liked this article and found it helpful. The author makes excellent points about telling the truth to children, and is especially insightful as to not overload them with more than they can process and/or understand. Children are concrete thinkers and I appreciate the examples given by the author. When our palliative team was asked by families if they “should make the child visit” (to see a close family member who was very ill or even after their death) we would say “no, don’t make a child do anything they feel uncomfortable with, let them decide.” Many times, outside the sick or dying family member’s hospital room, children would tell me that they wanted to visit “Grandpa, Grandma, mom, dad, sibling, etc….” but when offered the chance to go to the bedside, some children would hang back in the room near the doorway or not even appear in the doorway. In contrast, other children would walk right into the patient’s room and start talking to the patient or asking family members questions about what they were seeing. From what I have repeatedly observed, children seem to know instinctively what is comfortable for them or not comfortable. Most important is to support the children in that moment and in their choice. There are many reasons for why some children are more comfortable with sickness, dying and death but certainly the author’s point about normalizing the event, talking openly and truthfully to the child, and adults willingness to show that grief and grieving is a normal response to a loved one’s illness, decline and or death does make a huge difference in how a child processes what is happening.
I love the words at the end of the first part of the article written by the author: “…There are no books that will do it for us and there are no magic “right” words to say. It’s the trying, the sharing and the caring-the wanting to help and the willingness to listen- that says, ‘I care about you.’ “When we know that we do care about each other, then, together, we can talk about even the most difficult things and cope with even the most difficult times.” Trust is so important in the difficult discussions in life. I believe that if children feel safe to ask questions and if grief is normalized and witnessed, they will more likely to develop healthy coping skills.
Rick and Carolyn, I agree with you that making kids feel “safe” is important in helping children grieve. One point in which I would have a different opinion from the author would be on the topic of Heaven. I remember learning in Sunday school as a little child about Heaven. Heaven was always “up there somewhere” complete with baby angels playing harps, and a kind looking Jesus comforting people. For families whose faith tradition finds great comfort in the concept of Heaven, I believe it is fine to talk about Heaven. Kids are going to hear about Heaven anyway in church. When working with families experiencing a death in the hospital, I would always talk with parents and encourage them to beware of and correct some of the (crazy) things well meaning people might say to their children that could frighten them such as: “God needed another angel; Your “mother” (loved one) is a star in the sky; God must have needed them more in heaven than here on earth; God meant for this to happen.” These kinds of comments are terrifying (and terrible theology) and frighten children who may think God will randomly snatch them for whatever reason. In one of the hardest deaths I have ever been present for, the family (claiming atheism) told the young children, “We really don’t know where “daddy” is, daddy is dead, done.” Several of the kids started crying immediately- asking if their daddy was “lost” and “needed to be found.”
Suicide is difficult for anyone to grasp, and harder to explain. How and what you say are always dependent on a child’s age. There is a one page article in Psychology today that addresses talking to kids about suicide that I have found it helpful. It goes along with our discussion: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/201608/talking-kids-about-suicide. I will post more later.