Read an Excerpt
What's the Problem and Whose Problem Is It?
Because you are reading this book, there is a high probability that your child or a child in your care has experienced one or more losses. It is impossible to set down a list of losses that would have universal application to everyone reading this book. The following list represents the most common losses, in the sequence most likely to occur in a child's life.
Death of a pet
Death of a grandparent
Divorce of a child's parents
Death of a parent[s]
Death of a playmate, friend, or relative
Debilitating injury to the child or to someone important in the child's life
The fact that one or more of the losses listed has occurred is only part of the problem. The other part is that you may not know exactly what to do to help your child deal with his or her feelings about this loss.
Something has occurred that is negatively affecting your child. You may be aware of this because of the ways in which your child is behaving. Many of the normal and natural signs of grief are fairly obvious. Most of those signs would be the same for a child's reaction to a death, a divorce, or some other type of loss. But for now, we will use a child's response to news about a death. Often the immediate response to learning of a death is a sense of numbness. That numbness lasts a different amountof time for each child. What usually lasts longer, and is even more universal, is a reduced ability to concentrate.
Other common reactions include major changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Those patterns can alternate from one extreme to the other. Also typical is a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. As we mention these reactions, please notice that we are not labeling them as stages. They are simply some of the normal ways in which the body, the mind, and especially the emotions respond to the overwhelmingly painful information that something out of the ordinary has occurred. These reactions to a death are normal and typical even if there has been a long-term illness, which may have included substantial time and opportunity to "prepare" for that which will inevitably happen. We cannot prepare ourselves or our children, in advance, for the emotional reaction to a death.
This book (on behalf of your children) is about your child's reaction to death and other losses, and what you can do to help him or her. Because the topic of grief and potential recovery is so obscured by fear and misinformation, we are going to encourage you to examine the ideas you currently have about dealing with loss and to consider seriously whether those ideas are valuable for helping your child. We are going to presume that you are reading this book because you are eager to acquire the ideas and tools that will enable you to begin helping your child right away. So, let's get to work.
We have used the word grief several times in the opening pages of this book. Perhaps we should define the word for you, in the interest of clarity and mutual understanding. Many people associate the word grief only with physical death. We use a much broader definition that encompasses all loss experiences:
an end in a familiar pattern of behavior.
As you'll recall, our list of losses included the death of a pet, death of a grandparent, moving, divorce of a child's parents, and death of a parent. Each of those losses represents a massive change or end from everything familiar. With death, the person or pet that has always been there is no longer there. With moving, the familiar place and surroundings are different. Divorce alters all of the routines in a child's life: it often includes changes in living situations and separation from extended family members and friends.
The losses we have listed carry with them the obvious emotional impact that we can all imagine would affect our children. But our definition of grief includes the idea that there are conflicting feelings. The concept of conflicting feelings requires a little bit of explanation. If you have ever had a loved one who struggled for a long time with a terminal illness, you may have had some feelings of relief when that person died. The relief usually stems from the idea that your loved one is no longer in pain. At the same time, your heart may have felt broken because he or she was no longer here. So the conflicting feelings are relief and sadness.
Moving also sets up conflicting feelings. We may miss some of the familiar things that we liked about the old house or neighborhood, and at the same time really like some of the things about the new place. Children are particularly affected by changes in locations, routines, and physical familiarity.
Death, divorce, and even moving are obvious losses. Less apparent are losses having to do with health issues. A major change in the physical or mental health of a child or a parent can have dramatic impact on a child's life. And even though children are not usually directly involved with financial matters, they can be affected by major financial changes, positive or negative, within their family.
Society has identified more than forty life experiences that produce feelings of grief. At The Grief Recovery Institute we have expanded that list to include many of the loss experiences that are less concrete and thus are difficult to measure. Loss of trust, loss of safety, and loss of control are the most prominent of the intangible but life-altering experiences that affect children's lives...