Dying On the Inside: A Child's Grief
By Sharyl Calhoun
The impatient tooting of a car horn startled us into awareness. No one had thought beyond making it through the grievous night. Now the sun was up, and it took a moment to realize that this was just like any other school day — for everyone else. Distasteful tasks always fall to the youngest child, so I was pushed, unceremoniously, out the door.
Hurrying down the driveway, my childish mind searched frantically for the proper words to say. Taking a deep breath, I stuck my head in the car window. “Mother won’t be needing a ride to work today. She’s dead.”
I vaguely recall the look of shock on the neighbor’s face as I turned and walked slowly back to the house.
A gaping hole separated yesterday from today, and I was left clinging to the edge in bewilderment. At eleven years of age, I was extremely shy . . . and mortified by the sudden, overwhelming attention of morbid spectators who drove slowly past the house to glimpse the face of grief. I didn’t know how to deal with this traumatic event.
For me, time had stopped; but life doesn’t cease simply because a dear one has been taken away. I only knew I was lost without Mother, while everyone else appeared to be coping just fine. I tucked my feelings behind a facade, and did not emerge from my grief for more than a decade.
Today, I realize these circumstances are not unusual. Nearly one-third of my young students have already experienced the death of a parent or sibling! School counselors and mental health professionals stand ready to assist in times of crisis. Yet, the people most qualified to help us through the grieving process are those who love us most -– our closest relatives, friends and church family.
Most of us feel too awkward to spend much time with a child who is grieving. We visit the funeral home; if he doesn’t appear too badly shaken, we convince ourselves that he would not appreciate our meddling. We give his hand a sympathetic squeeze, utter a sincere, “I’ll be praying for you,” breathe a quick prayer for his emotional healing, and get on with our own lives.
How very wrong is that reaction! Quite often, those closest to the youngster are too distracted by their own grief to notice him floundering. As Christians, we must administer healing, even at the risk of rejection.
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress. . . (James 1:27)
Therefore, I am afraid your obligation to a grieving child in your family or church goes way beyond a visit to the funeral home. It requires an investment of your life, over the next few months, or maybe years. Allow me to offer these suggestions:
1. Start with a hug. A handshake is strange to a child, and a pat on the head is degrading. However, a loving hug can break through the toughest armor, and often makes the tears of healing flow.
2. With the parent’s permission, spend time with the child. Encourage him to talk about his loss, his loved one, and his feelings. If he refuses to talk, YOU talk. Share your own experiences. Leave yourself wide open for ANY questions or concerns.
3. Assure the child that it is normal to feel disoriented, overwhelmed, embarrassed, afraid, angry, depressed, abandoned, hurt and anxious.
4. Don’t be afraid to laugh and share a sense of humor. Spending too much time in a sad, morbid atmosphere can lead a child into deep depression, triggering a multitude of new problems.
5. Help the child to envision a worthwhile future. Help him or her find a reason to be enthusiastic about tomorrow, about next week, and about next year.
Finally, use this opportunity to share the hope that is within you.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, ”plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13)
Why else does God allow suffering, if not to draw us closer to Himself? Your loving touch and your testimony can mean the difference between a child coming to Christ, or facing a decade of unresolved grief.
An extended illness, such as cancer, often triggers a certain amount of grieving, depending upon the prognosis of the disease. It is very natural to want to protect a child from the fears and uncertainties involved. But is it wise to hide the fact that one’s mother, father or sibling has a life-threatening illness? Probably not. Even when the prognosis looks very bleak, both the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute agree that honesty and openness are important. By sharing openly with others in the family, a child is better able to deal with the stress and anxiety felt within the home.
Here are some excellent web-sites that offer encouragement in dealing with kids and the emotional side of cancer:
S. M. Calhoun is a teacher and freelance writer. For more helpful articles on improving your home and family life, visit the newsletter page of our web site: http://www.poshbungalow.com.
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