An Early Loss
I'm not particularly good with children, never have been. I don't know what to say to them, how to keep them occupied or entertained. A few months ago I was faced with the challenge of getting out of my communication comfort zone in the form of two rambunctious five year olds. They were running and playing about, skittering across the floor, zigzagging between adults lost in conversation. In the next room their mother was dying of cancer. Cousins and siblings surrounded her bed, talking in hushed voices, holding each other. The two little boys playing had escaped everyone's attention and sneaked around the hospice center I volunteer at, laughing and chasing each other.
I asked them if they wanted to draw with me and handed them some colored paper and markers. They seemed eager to impress me, so they quieted down and started to draw flowers and trees and airplanes on the craft paper. One drew on an orange sheet, "mommy's favorite color". I'm not sure if they understood the gravity of the situation or how drastically it would affect their lives. But for those few moments, they were happy to draw and color cards to give to their mom. The boys I drew with that day do not have a manual on how to deal with their grief. This might very well be the first major loss in their lives. The adults in their lives may not know how to guide and comfort them either. It's not an easy task to talk to a child about death, even more so if they are imminently facing it.
As the National alliance for Grieving Children indicates, "Grieving children often feel alone and misunderstood. Many well-meaning adults avoid talking about the deceased person in fear that doing so will exacerbate the grief children are experiencing. In doing so, children might feel as though talking about or even expressing their grief is not acceptable. Also, many children feel like they are the only person who has experienced the death of someone in their life, even though there might be other friends experiencing similar circumstances".
Woman with Her Grandchild, 19th century ambrotype portrait.
Today is the National Children’s Grief Awareness day- a time to reflect on how to help children cope with grief and how to educate those around them to support them in a more effective way. There is a great deal of death-denial and avoidance surrounding our understanding of children's grief, especially in our culture. One size-fits-all myths persist about how children can't understand or cope with death and should be protected from facing it or participating in adult grief rituals, like going to a loved one's funeral. In reality, just like adults, every child grieves differently. And some are incredibly resourceful and sensitive when it comes to facing the loss of a loved one, like the little girl Chaplain Braestrup talks about in the "House of Mourning" story for The Moth podcast. There is a number of resources out there that can help guide parents and guardians of children that have suffered a major loss, some of which I'm listing below:
Camp Erin, a national camp program for grieving children and teens.
If you have a story about childhood grief that you would like to contribute to the thanatography blog, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.