When Loss Comes Calling
“I got an empty spot in my tummy. Food doesn’t fill it up.”
–Susan, age 4
“There’s a big hurt in my insides.”
–Geniene, age 3
“I don’t feel nothing. And I don’t want to.”
–Jimmy, age 8
“I don’t like to play anymore. I have bad thoughts.”
–Tom, age 6
“My food doesn’t taste good. I don’t like to eat.”
–Sonya, age 6
“I’m sad all the time. It’s like I don’t live in my house anymore, but I do.”
–Phil, age 7
All of these children have experienced a loss. The particular missing entity may not seem like much of a loss to an adult. But in the life of each child, it was a momentous event. For a child, grief is always about losing something
100 percent; present or future, it’s completely taken away.
Will you be able to help a child–your child–through that kind of loss? I know you want to. And I believe you’ll have the skills to do it after reading this book. But it won’t be easy, primarily because it’s not an easy thing to move into our painful feelings rather than flee them. In fact, just talking about the topic raises our anxiety levels significantly. I recall several parents discussing their difficulties in talking about death, not just with children, but with anyone. Listen to their comments:
“It makes me anxious. I’d rather avoid it. And I don’t want to make
others anxious or sad either.”
“When I talk about it, I start to cry. I don’t like that. Crying can make
others cry, and then I feel responsible as well.”
“You know, as I think about it, why should any of us know what to say
about death? No one I know talks about it.”
“I don’t want my children to get all morbid. I want them to think
about life, not death.”
One of our difficulties resides in the fact that children today are sheltered from the normal transitions of life. Death is a stranger, an intruder, not a normal part of living as it was a century or two ago. It used to be that several generations lived in the same house or at least close by. The youngest children learned about birth, illness, old age, and death because these things all happened in their home.
Other generations included children who saw their siblings, cousins, and friends die from diseases such as diphtheria, smallpox, polio, and even the flu. They were around their grandparents so much that they watched them age day by day–and perhaps helped in their care until they died.
And everyone in the family mourned. Together.
Often the local pastor conducted the viewing and funeral in the home. If the body was there for a viewing, it probably stayed overnight. Can you imagine your child (or even yourself, for that matter) sleeping in the same house with a dead body? What used to be so normal would probably be considered “dysfunctional” today.
Many children have never seen chicks born, or puppies or kittens, not to mention a horse or calf. They don’t know that some animals are stillborn and never make it. They eat their chicken, turkey, and beef, giving no thought to the fact that something had to die.
For other generations, though, death was as much a part of their existence as life. Death happened all around them, so a child grew into the knowledge of death in his own way and his own time. There was less mystery about it.
Yet today our children have become a grief-free generation. We’d prefer to avoid mourning.1
In this kind of culture, then, what happens when you or your spouse has an accident, loses a job, suffers a chronic illness, or goes back to school? It’s a loss for everyone, including your child. But too often we focus on the adult who is doing the losing or changing. In all the hustle to repair the damage, the youngster stands sad eyed, waiting to be noticed.
And then there’s the possibility of a death in the family. None of us wants to believe this will happen until we as parents move into our seventies or eighties and all the children are grown and have families of their own. Sure, grandparents and great uncles and aunts die; that’s to be expected.
But moms, dads, and children do regularly die “before their time.” And then the losses multiply, especially for children. And the roles and rules shift dramatically. We’ll talk about these things extensively in the chapters ahead. For example, if someone from the immediate family is missing, every family member needs to compensate for that vacancy, including the children:
• If a mother dies, it’s the loss of the most active caregiver, the keeper of memories, the emotional teacher and guide. Children say:
“I don’t want to think about my mother. It hurts too much to think she won’t be around anymore.”
“I got in a fight at school when my friend called me an orphan. I was mad. Mad because he was kinda right. I feel like one sometimes.”
“I dreamed that when I got home from school, my dog was there. When I woke up, I called his name, but he didn’t come. I called Mom’s name, but she didn’t come either!”
• If a father dies, it usually means the loss of the major financial contributor as well as the family’s “coach.” One man was talking to an eight-year-old about the death of his father. The boy, telling us how much he had lost, said:
“Let me play the piano for you. I know how to play Mozart. My father liked that I could do that. Sometimes he sat with me and turned the pages for me. He would even hum along. He won’t do that anymore or hear me again. I like to read. Dad taught me. I’m learning a computer. Dad was real good on computers. But he can’t help me.”
• If a sibling dies, a child loses out on being the older sibling who teaches or the younger one who is taught:
“My sister took care of me when I came home. Now the house is empty.”
“We would play music together. I played the piano, and he played the trumpet. Now it just sits in the case. I can hear the sound in my head, but it’s just not the same.”
In your child’s mind, memories of whomever he lost come to the forefront. Some recollections may be good, and some may be bad. The child remembers the sound of his dad’s voice when he talked or sang, and that is comforting. But it’s also painful, since he won’t hear those sounds again. Other children will only recall the shouting or the spankings or maybe only the silence of a dad who was always at work anyway.
Sadly, the good memories will begin to fade, and eventually some will be lost forever. The child won’t be able to resurrect them. And this is only one of the additional woundings that come packaged with the initial loss.
What’s the Basic Approach with Children?
Convinced that loss profoundly affects our children in these ways, we parents determine to help them. But how? It has to do with assisting them in the hard work of grieving. If I could sum up the theme of this book in one statement, I’d say: Grieving our losses is essential to our ongoing emotional health, whether we’re adults or children. I’ll let grief-counseling expert J. William Worden expand on this:
“Is mourning necessary?” I would have to answer this question with a definite, “Yes!” After one sustains a loss, there are certain tasks of mourning that must be accomplished for equilibrium to be reestablished and for the process of mourning to be completed.… The adaptation to loss may be seen as involving the four basic tasks outlined below. It is essential that the grieving person accomplish these tasks before mourning can be completed. Incompleted grief tasks can impair further growth and development.
The Four Tasks of Mourning
Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss.
Task 2: To experience the pain of grief.
Task 3: To adjust to an environment in which the deceased [or other type of loss] is missing.
Task 4: To withdraw emotional energy [from the relationship with what has been lost] and reinvest it in another relationship.2
As you can see, helping our children “grieve through” their losses is important business for us parents! Children in grief need special attention since they look to their parents for help in navigating the difficult passages of grief. All family members need a balance between being themselves and being a member of the family. On their own, they feel the sharpness of their pain. But then they look to the family for comfort.
Some families or parents overdo and overprotect their children. They think, Children shouldn’t have to go through this! So they attempt to “fix it” for them. Beware that temptation! We’ll delve deeply into this parental tendency in a coming chapter, but for now let me remind you: Regardless of the type of loss your family has experienced, the tasks of mourning remain.
Actually, I like to simplify those traditional tasks even further, so you can easily keep them in mind. They are the three steps that will help your children to grieve, and I’ll be repeating them throughout this book. Children need to (1) accept the loss, (2) experience the pain, and (3) express their sorrow.
More Than Little Adults–and CONFUSED!
Moving with our children through grief, we can remember what special people they are. As you read through this book, I’ll be reminding you about this–especially about how different they are from us adults in their thinking and feeling processes. Developmentally, their brains don’t work like ours. Their reasoning is immature, and their understanding of the nature of cause and effect often immerses them in undue pain. One writer on this topic, Joy Johnson, tells an instructive story along these lines:
I heard the story of one family where a grandmother felt strongly that her daughter’s children should not attend their uncle’s funeral. She said it wasn’t “good” for them and they’d just be “in the way.” So the mother complied with her wishes. They stayed with a baby-sitter.
After the service they were picked up, and nothing was said about the service. A week later the children began reacting. The three-year-old began disobeying, yelling at his mother and throwing objects. The seven-year-old began wetting the bed and cried a lot.
One day the mother was driving past the cemetery and her three-year-old said, “That’s where Uncle Gene is. We can’t see him because we’re bad.” The mother turned her car around and drove into the cemetery to the uncle’s grave. She took the children to the grave and told them they weren’t bad. She said she made a mistake not allowing them to attend, and she was going to change that. She met with the funeral director and they had a special service for the children with flowers and balloons. The entire family came to the gravesite for a picnic the next week. All the misbehavior stopped.3
Clearly, we can be of much help to our children, our precious little ones who struggle to understand what even adults will never fully comprehend. Worth mentioning here is the sense of confusion that can accompany the loss of a loved one. Just imagine that you are a six-year old who’s been raised in a Christian home, and your mother dies. You will probably wonder…
Where is God?
Why didn’t He keep Mommy alive?
Why didn’t He make her well?
My uncle told me Mom went to be “up there”!
How high is that?
Why’d God take her so high?
Not only are children confused about God (“If He’s so good, why did He take Mom away from us?”), they are also dealing with a swirling mixture of feelings about the person who left (“If Mom really loved me, why
didn’t she stay here?).
And they’re trying to sort through the amazing panoply of mixed messages and so-called words of wisdom they receive from grownups. One adult may be implying: Oh, you poor little child. You must feel so sad and alone.
At the same time, someone else may be giving the message: Now you’re the man in the family. You’ll have to be strong.
So which is it?
The child’s memories of the deceased can also cause confusion. The survivors are talking about this person in a way that conflicts with the child’s memories. Was Mom really as perfect as they say? I didn’t know that. Sometimes I didn’t even like Mom, and I thought she was bad when she yelled and went on and on… I hope no one finds out what I thought!
You can see how this would create confusion as well as guilt. In addition, the mood fluctuations of others also generate confusion. Individuals around the child may be cheerful one moment and moody and quiet the next. While this is a normal response, the child is seeking stability and assurance from these people, and their changing moods cause her to question her own responses. She may ask herself, Is it me? Did I do something wrong? Do they want me around or not? 4
Will You Offer Healthy Help?
Like adults, children need to relinquish and say good-bye to what they have lost. They need to accept the loss, experience the pain, and express their sorrow. They will do this differently than you will, of course. And they will require your adult assistance–especially in identifying and expressing the wide range of feelings they’re experiencing.
I want to lay the groundwork for the specifics regarding these things (which we’ll be exploring in the rest of this book). That groundwork involves raising three “negatives” before we even begin to uncover all the positive results that can flow from grieving and consoling one another in our families. You see, there are some decidedly unhealthy ways families deal with grief. We need to know, and wean ourselves away from, these three seemingly instinctive reactions:
1. It’s unhealthy to block emotional expression. Years ago I saw a twenty-five-year-old man in counseling. As we met together, I discovered that his brother, a marine, had been killed seven years earlier. I asked him if he and his brother had been close. His reply was, “Yes, we were very close.”
I also learned that his mother had turned his brother’s room into a shrine by keeping it exactly as it was when he was alive. Nothing had been discarded or changed. I asked this man if he had cried over his brother’s death. He responded, “Oh, yes, at his funeral.”
Had he visited the grave site? Again he replied, “Yes, at his funeral.” But he had neither cried nor been back to the grave for seven years, blocking all emotional expression and grief during that time.
I suggested he take the family picture album, which was filled with pictures of himself and his brother, and visit his brother’s grave. He could sit there for a while, reflect on their lives together, pray, and see what might happen. He did so, and when I saw him two weeks later he said, “I went to my brother’s grave and did what you suggested. I looked at our pictures and had a lot of memories come back. I prayed and even talked out loud to my brother. It was kind of strange. But after three hours, I cried. Oh, how I cried for him!” I asked him how this felt, and he said, “It felt…good. It was a long time coming.” I wonder how many there are today who need to cry for a brother or sister?
2. It won’t help to overprotect. Parents’ fearful, overprotective reaction can be harmful to children. Yet it can happen if, for instance, a child has died. The fear of losing another one begins to dominate a parent’s thoughts. And the manner in which the first child died may affect the parent’s response toward the other children. If the child died of a massive head injury while riding a bicycle, the parents may restrict bike riding to going to and from school or only when accompanied by a parent. And even then, their children must wear double-padded helmets!
A parent’s fears can be transferred to the other children as they sense the apprehension in the parent’s life. Some children make it a point to prove they will not follow in their dead sibling’s footsteps; they become obsessively safety conscious. On the other hand, some become wild and crazy risktakers in order to prove their invulnerability.
3. It’s not good to attempt a “replacement plan.” Many children who lose a loved one in death (a pet or person) describe it as a “big empty spot” in their life. How will you respond when this is happening in your son or daughter? If you’re like most of us, you’ll want to fill the void. You’ll want to replace that cat or dog or goldfish, or you’ll fill your children’s lives with toys or gadgets or experiences.
We do seem to prefer such distractions. We don’t like to feel empty, and we don’t want our precious children to feel empty either. What will this teach them? Think about these messages:
“It’s not good or right to feel this way.”
“I have to fix this.”
“My mom and dad don’t think I should feel empty either.”
“When I feel this way, my parents think I need something.”
“If I need something in the future, I know how to get it.”
It’s easy for children to override feelings of grief when parents quickly replace the lost things in their lives. Yet this takes them away from the real work, which does include real pain and real loss.
Now that we know of at least three possible unhealthy reactions, we can move forward to pursue the healthy alternatives. That is what we’ll do together in the rest of this book. We’ll go into much greater detail; we’ll explore and expand into many cognate themes. But for now, simply put:
Give uninterrupted time to your children, and listen–truly listen–to their concerns.
This is valuable not only for your child, but it will also help you shift your focus from the crisis or problem to the normal affairs of life. We all need an occasional break from the crises. Explain the situation to each child (as well as what to expect in the future), according to his or her level of understanding.
Finally, never forget that the “empty spot” in your child’s life is actually your child’s “teacher.” The empty spot is there because of her love for her pet or parent or whatever she lost. Each interaction the little girl misses about her cat teaches her how important Tabby was. It teaches her how much she loved Tabby as well as how much she could love something or someone else. That’s good.
In fact, the empty spot is the teacher of every human being. We might even say that there is no such thing as growth–especially spiritual growth–without the emptying that comes with loss. I’d like to leave you with that thought as you get ready to launch into the chapters ahead. Loss is not the enemy. It is a painful event, and it is always unwanted.
But it is also a heavenly calling, as we take up the hard work of grieving.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.… Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. (Matthew 11:28-29; 5:4)
From the Trade Paperback edition.