Today more and more American families are involved in the care of their loved ones. Often that creates a change in family dynamics, routines, reassigning roles, economic hardships and demands on adult time and emotional stress for all family members involved. The changes taking place can be threatening for children. Change creates loss and loss creates grief.
A grieving child needs our reassurance that he/she is safe, loved and will always be taken care of. We can explain that grief and the feelings it evokes are natural responses to loss. We can encourage our children to let their sadness out by sharing their thoughts, feelings and memories with trusted listeners. We can be a trusted listener by encouraging them to express themselves by drawing, writing and sharing their feelings and thoughts through the process of keeping a journal. Listening to children verbalize their fears, anger, confusion and doubts is extremely important.
Long term illness impacts family life, especially if your loved one is being cared for at home. Illness can be sudden or it may creep into our loved one’s life in stages as in Alzheimer’s disease. Our loved one may be dealing with the loss of their health, independence and in some cases, ultimately the loss of life. The family will be dealing with these losses as well. The changes associated with the disease are threatening for our loved one, our children and ourselves. Our children need our love and support to help them cope with the grief associated with change and loss. It is important to take the time to discuss the disease with children so they can understand what is happening to their loved one.
Children and teens may experience a wide range of emotions. All too often, many caregivers are too overwhelmed by their own shock; sadness and grief to notice their children are grieving too. For children, as adults, there is no magic wand in overcoming grief. It is a process and it is as individual as the people going through it. The stages of grief are not linear. There will be ups and downs, peaks and valleys and the inevitable bumps in the road. Shock, denial, anger, regression, guilt, bargaining and finally acceptance are the myriad of emotions, which are part of the healing process called grief.
For some children keeping a journal is a wonderful way to facilitate the grieving process. Encourage them to draw about their feelings. I call this type of drawing, “heart art.” Young children think symbolically rather than with the use of written words. Pictures reveal a child’s thinking. Drawing actually helps children find their words. Journal exercises provide opportunities for gentle discussions and can offer insights into a child’s fears and misconceptions. Keeping a journal allows children to creatively express themselves. Use their drawings as a springboard for caring conversations. For older children and teens, writing in a journal gives them permission to record their feelings and emotions. It allows them to feel close to their loved one and remember happier times. It also provides an opportunity to say good-bye. This is a very important step towards acceptance in the grieving process.
As an adult, you may want to work in your own journal. This will provide you with an opportunity to record your own feelings, thoughts and memories of your loved one. Keeping your own journal is a tremendous modeling resource for your child. This is a powerful teaching tool. This simple technique is one of the most empowering and healing acts you can do for yourself. Write about your anger, guilt, confusion, resentment, your sadness, your loss, your fear, your feelings about your family and your loved one.
Remember children are experiencing life just as you are. They are not in a “getting ready” phase. They are living it just as you are. Because disease and death are a part of those real life experiences they will inevitably touch your children and your family in some way. Coping with the loss of a loved one is one of the most difficult challenges adults and children will ever face. To understand the grieving process and to be guided through the stages of grief by the loving gentle hands of a caring, compassionate adult empowers our children. We are teaching our children important coping skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives. Keeping a journal is simple but powerful tool for those who facing issues of the heart.
Copyrighted by Katherine Dorn Zotovich 03/07/00