I used to have nightmares; swirling from corner to corner of my mind’s eye; a little girl, searching for my dad, except I was in my 30’s. For years a reoccurring nightmare would haunt the darkness of night as I yearned to find him.
My grief was calling for attention, even though it had been over 20 years since my dad’s death when I was 10 years old.
I knew I had met a new moment in my grief that needed work and healing. With the gentle guidance of a skilled therapist, I was able to meet and embrace my grief in a way that would bring the nightmares to an end. I would never again have one.
When children experience the death of someone they love, grief will revisit in unexpected ways throughout a lifetime. Each developmental stage allows the brain to hold the experience and feelings in a new and different way.
If you could put a stethoscope on the hearts of our littlest grievers, this is what you might hear:
“Why me? I’m scared. Who will take care of me? Who can I trust? I’m confused. I’m so mad. It was my fault. Where did you go? I’m relieved, is it okay to say that? I’m afraid I’ll forget your voice or what you look like. I have no one to help with my homework. I’m so sad. Will I see you again? I miss you so much my whole body hurts”.
Our obligation as the caregivers in the life of a grieving child is to show up; listen closely with our ears and with our hearts.
If a child is given tools from the beginning, they will have a base from which to address the grief as they move along their life’s journey.
The difficulty for adults is recognizing what the heart of a grieving child looks like, as they may not be expressing their feelings in a way that is familiar to us.
With support, love, and careful attention, children have a wonderful opportunity for resilience. We can begin by gently acknowledging; “I can imagine how much your heart hurts; how much you miss him; its okay if you feel really sad sometimes”.
Ask what they miss about their person who died. Ask what they used to do together. Ask about how they are just like them, and the ways they are not. Collaging, drawing, and writing, are all wonderful ways for children to express their feelings.
Show up. Ask. Listen. But most of all, don’t assume a child’s happy face means there isn’t a sad heart on the inside.