By: Lisa L. Derr
As family mediators, we see parents so enmeshed in the throes of conflict,
they don’t recognize that their children are grieving let alone
help them through the process. Knowing more about grieving myths and children’s
grieving process will help us better support our clients as they process
their own feelings and help their children grieve.
The authors of the book When Children Grieve, by John W. James and Russell
Friedman, suggest that the abrupt change in the relationships from death
or divorce will almost always leave children with unresolved grief.
They expose several long-established myths and explore how to help children
grieve. They define grief as “the conflicting feelings caused by
a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior.” Divorce alters
most of children’s routines including their living situation and
separation from friends. There are a number of conflicting feelings involved.
While saddened by the loss of their intact family, they may be relieved
by the end of fighting and anxious about where they will live. In addition,
if one parent has expressed significant anxiety about their future, children
may additionally feel worried or fearful about the emotional (and sometimes
financial) health of that parent.
Our society perpetuates a number of myths about grieving. One myth is that
we equate feeling good as positive and feeling bad as negative. We tell
our children, “Don’t feel bad.” But as most therapists
will tell us, feelings are neither good nor bad. They just are. To resolve
grief, children must be able to freely express those emotions. Yet parents
minimize expressions of sadness, change the subject, or tell them not
to feel that way.
Children look to adults for emotional guidance. They lose out when they
accept the misconception that avoiding negative feelings is beneficial.
It is natural to avoid pain. But in order to grieve, children need to
freely express their feelings. As mediators, we are already aware of the
client’s critical need to express their emotions without judgment.
Modeling that behavior is helpful to parents.
Another myth is “Being Strong.” Years ago a client told me
in caucus how his father died when he was 9. Nearly everyone at the funeral
told him “You’re the man of the house now” and “Be
strong for your mother.” While he recognized that his inability
to express his feelings was a factor in their divorce, he appeared to
be expressing as much unresolved grief about his father’s death
as the loss of his marriage. “Being strong” had inhibited
his ability to fully grieve.
A classic myth is that “Time heals all wounds.” The authors
use a distinct example. If you had a flat tire, would you wait for several
years and hope it gets fixed? Time alone does not heal or resolve grief.
Specific actions help people grieve. Doing nothing (or keeping overly
busy) will leave the child with feelings that are incomplete and unresolved.
Without completing their grieving, children will resort to short-term
relief (video games, food, alcohol, sex, etc.)
Bereavement researchers, John Bowlby and Colin Murray Parkes, have divided
grief into four distinct phases of shock and numbness, yearning and searching,
disorientation and disorganization and finally, reorganization and resolution.
During the first stage, children appear to cope well but are often first
stunned. It is important for parents to be patient, listen and make themselves
available. Again, while parents can help their children express the multitude
of feelings they have, it cannot be forced on the child.
What are some specific actions to help children? First, they will naturally
review a relationship that is lost (or significantly changed). They may
discuss things that happened in the family and that should be not avoided
but encouraged. Not all of the review will be positive but is nevertheless
In the second stage of yearning and searching, children may appear restless,
angry or bewildered. These intense feelings may cause children to act
out or withdraw completely from family connections. During this time,
it is important to stay calm, not overreact and realize that their feelings
may change drastically from day to day.
In the third stage of disorientation and disorganization, when the reality
sinks in, children may experience extreme sadness, depression, guilt and
anger. This could result in sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and lack
of enthusiasm for things they used to enjoy.
Parents can make sure that their children are getting adequate rest (especially
at different households) and each can provide opportunities to spend time
together. (This is not the time to introduce new significant others or
pressure children to immediately form a new relationship with that person.)
Asking direct questions such as, “How do you feel about the divorce?”
will rarely be helpful. Children are afraid to be judged and caught in
the middle. Kids take cues from parents. Talking openly about the relationship
will encourage them to do so as well. A parent might say, “I’m
really sad about not living in the same home anymore.” However,
the parent’s revelation must be emotionally truthful.
Parents must be aware that their feelings are very distinct from their
children’s. How often do we see parents inadvertently merge their
feelings with their children’s? “Dad left us. We don’t
want him around anymore.” The relationship between the child and
the other parent is their relationship. As parents are authority figures,
their repeated interpretation can create a different reality for that
child. As mediators, we can gently help parents identify their own feelings
as opposed to those of their children.
In the last stage of reorganization and resolution, children are beginning
to accept the loss. Parents need to realize that they may slip back and
forth into previous stages. Different children – even in the same
family may express their feelings very differently. It is still important
to encourage sharing those feelings – both good and bad.
1. “The Grief Process.”
www.usd.edu The University of South Dakota. 10 Mar. 2008