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Featured this Month:

When Children Defend Against Deepest Loss
Sunday, November 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
When our children are born, we reflect on their futures. We want to bless them on a pathway that will delight them, inspire curiosity and encourage them to try new adventures, all the while protecting them with a secure base.   We hope that they will lose their innocence gradually.

Knowledge of loss and impermanence is weighty stuff, painful and difficult to explain even in a spiritual context, so we often use lighter, teachable moments to indicate to our children that death eventually takes every insect, animal and person, that not everyone will like us or play fairly, etc.  We point to, and talk about dead bugs.  We hover protectively when our child loses a pet; we hope to assure him or her that grandmother was very old when she died and lived a good life.  We go to great lengths to help children with divorce, the prevailing message being, “Daddy and I will always love you, always be your parents.” The buffer, we hope they will learn is love, the one constant that transcends impermanence.

We never expect children to have to deal with suicide bereavement of an intimate loved one, certainly not before they are grown and have the depth of maturity and emotional resources to confront the confusion of traumatic loss.  Yet, as members of the LOSS family understand, this program serves many children who are forced to confront a loss that greatly impacts the secure base that their parents have carefully constructed for them.
The extent to which our bereaved children and teens have shared their grief responses and coping styles exceeds in depth what we have found in the research literature. We see a range in styles of grieving and sense-making regarding the loss across the developmental stages.   Clinicians know the protocol and goals for grieving children, but just as adults have various capacities and resistances regarding grief expression, so do children.  We understand that each unique personality, with its carefully guarded defenses and skills for coping, managing, and making sense of the world, is the centerpiece of grief work.  The personality often asserts its own intentions for the grief process, and these may involve a greater degree of avoidance and denial.  Some children want little or no part of the proscribed grief protocol: to give voice to emotions, to engage in detailed remembering, to question, to disclose the insecurities that intrude and make them feel vulnerable.

We are privileged to know our LOSS children rather intimately.  We get glimpses of the emotional soft spots that are carefully guarded.  We see some children working very hard to deny the catastrophe that has undermined the secure base.  They may try to minimize the impact of the loss by avoiding thoughts about it, by focusing intently on the future, or on skills and performance, or re-training their young minds to believe that the world is safe, despite what they now know: that traumatic loss of a loved one is possible and unexpected; that we have little control over the possibility of loss.
How much should a caring adult push to penetrate a child’s denial instinct following a traumatic loss like suicide?  Clinical intuition tells me, “Only a little, and only with tenderness and respect.” Defenses protect against overwhelming states by reducing the impact of what the child knows of loss.  Denial and distraction can enable the young Self to continue necessary developmental processes.  So we tread softly and feel grateful when the distractions are positive, like play and sports and social activities. 

Children and teens integrate their experiences to create an evolving sense of Self.  Consider that they have different dispositions and confidence levels, as well as different tolerances for those experiences that can be destabilizing.  Some are introspective and others are not. So, denial and a determined avoidance of the past are defenses that a young person may need to survive during the developmental stage in which the loss occurs.  We should always assess our children’s grief reactions in terms of their previous disposition with loss.  We want to be alert for significant changes in personality and coping as our child grieves.  

There are reasons not to worry when a child makes efforts to distance herself from the loss with a little too much positivism, good performance at school and activities, helpful behavior at home and socializing.  Parents may think that the child’s positive façade may crack, but efforts to excel in the wake of loss may be a carry-over from previous stress-management behaviors, and continue to help the child function. We can feel good knowing that the child is functioning well and appreciate her strength and resilience. But the anxiety that may lie underneath the polished behavior will most likely surface during quiet times at home when the distractions fade.  This is the concerned parent’s opportunity to touch in to the loss with empathy, to open dialogue that acknowledges that this child carries a great deal and knows loss beyond her years. The parent will want to offer a message that acknowledges both pain and strength, because this child longs for her efforts and normalcy to be perceived.   We offer a reflection to her in the least intrusive way with tentative comments or suggestions: “You’ve been doing so well, carrying so much, but sometimes the grief can make you tired and anxious.”

There are more reasons to worry when a child’s efforts to distance from the loss don’t fit with earlier coping and stress-management behaviors.  Let us watch and observe for performance drops, substance use, excessive sleeping, aggression or anger.  In this case, suspect depression and loss of self-esteem related to the loss.  Here, the parent and counselor will read the behaviors as part of the need for denial and avoidance.  The loss is delicately acknowledged.  We allow the minimization of the loss as it is needed and address the behaviors.  We leave space and time for the depth of the loss to be felt and affirmed by the child or teen.

Consider that our children will reconfigure the meaning of their losses many times over the course of their development into adults.  Yes, there may be abandonment meanings; “My family isn’t normal”, “The world is not safe.” These may evolve into more hopeful interpretations, such as, “I will grow something good out of this loss.”  The child will be shaped by his loss, but he also has a right to shape his grief.  Denial and façade may be part of this process for as long as it is purposeful. 

Suicide loss is impactful and incurs an abrupt loss of innocence.  The young personality will organize itself around the loss in a way that the child senses his best chances for survival.  As the guardians of their grief we will offer loving opportunities for genuine grief to be expressed without intruding or disabling the child’s defenses.   Parents and counselors, the “grief guardians” for bereaved children, can best serve their needs with respectful, spacious, observant reflections that allow the child to carry loss in her own way over time.   


















Archives:

When Children Defend Against Deepest Loss
Sunday, November 01, 2015 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
When our children are born, we reflect on their futures. We want to bless them on a pathway that will delight them, inspire curiosity and encourage them to try new adventures, all the while protecting them with a secure base.   We hope that they will lose their innocence gradually.

Knowledge of loss and impermanence is weighty stuff, painful and difficult to explain even in a spiritual context, so we often use lighter, teachable moments to indicate to our children that death eventually takes every insect, animal and person, that not everyone will like us or play fairly, etc.  We point to, and talk about dead bugs.  We hover protectively when our child loses a pet; we hope to assure him or her that grandmother was very old when she died and lived a good life.  We go to great lengths to help children with divorce, the prevailing message being, “Daddy and I will always love you, always be your parents.” The buffer, we hope they will learn is love, the one constant that transcends impermanence.

We never expect children to have to deal with suicide bereavement of an intimate loved one, certainly not before they are grown and have the depth of maturity and emotional resources to confront the confusion of traumatic loss.  Yet, as members of the LOSS family understand, this program serves many children who are forced to confront a loss that greatly impacts the secure base that their parents have carefully constructed for them.
The extent to which our bereaved children and teens have shared their grief responses and coping styles exceeds in depth what we have found in the research literature. We see a range in styles of grieving and sense-making regarding the loss across the developmental stages.   Clinicians know the protocol and goals for grieving children, but just as adults have various capacities and resistances regarding grief expression, so do children.  We understand that each unique personality, with its carefully guarded defenses and skills for coping, managing, and making sense of the world, is the centerpiece of grief work.  The personality often asserts its own intentions for the grief process, and these may involve a greater degree of avoidance and denial.  Some children want little or no part of the proscribed grief protocol: to give voice to emotions, to engage in detailed remembering, to question, to disclose the insecurities that intrude and make them feel vulnerable.

We are privileged to know our LOSS children rather intimately.  We get glimpses of the emotional soft spots that are carefully guarded.  We see some children working very hard to deny the catastrophe that has undermined the secure base.  They may try to minimize the impact of the loss by avoiding thoughts about it, by focusing intently on the future, or on skills and performance, or re-training their young minds to believe that the world is safe, despite what they now know: that traumatic loss of a loved one is possible and unexpected; that we have little control over the possibility of loss.
How much should a caring adult push to penetrate a child’s denial instinct following a traumatic loss like suicide?  Clinical intuition tells me, “Only a little, and only with tenderness and respect.” Defenses protect against overwhelming states by reducing the impact of what the child knows of loss.  Denial and distraction can enable the young Self to continue necessary developmental processes.  So we tread softly and feel grateful when the distractions are positive, like play and sports and social activities. 

Children and teens integrate their experiences to create an evolving sense of Self.  Consider that they have different dispositions and confidence levels, as well as different tolerances for those experiences that can be destabilizing.  Some are introspective and others are not. So, denial and a determined avoidance of the past are defenses that a young person may need to survive during the developmental stage in which the loss occurs.  We should always assess our children’s grief reactions in terms of their previous disposition with loss.  We want to be alert for significant changes in personality and coping as our child grieves.  

There are reasons not to worry when a child makes efforts to distance herself from the loss with a little too much positivism, good performance at school and activities, helpful behavior at home and socializing.  Parents may think that the child’s positive façade may crack, but efforts to excel in the wake of loss may be a carry-over from previous stress-management behaviors, and continue to help the child function. We can feel good knowing that the child is functioning well and appreciate her strength and resilience. But the anxiety that may lie underneath the polished behavior will most likely surface during quiet times at home when the distractions fade.  This is the concerned parent’s opportunity to touch in to the loss with empathy, to open dialogue that acknowledges that this child carries a great deal and knows loss beyond her years. The parent will want to offer a message that acknowledges both pain and strength, because this child longs for her efforts and normalcy to be perceived.   We offer a reflection to her in the least intrusive way with tentative comments or suggestions: “You’ve been doing so well, carrying so much, but sometimes the grief can make you tired and anxious.”

There are more reasons to worry when a child’s efforts to distance from the loss don’t fit with earlier coping and stress-management behaviors.  Let us watch and observe for performance drops, substance use, excessive sleeping, aggression or anger.  In this case, suspect depression and loss of self-esteem related to the loss.  Here, the parent and counselor will read the behaviors as part of the need for denial and avoidance.  The loss is delicately acknowledged.  We allow the minimization of the loss as it is needed and address the behaviors.  We leave space and time for the depth of the loss to be felt and affirmed by the child or teen.

Consider that our children will reconfigure the meaning of their losses many times over the course of their development into adults.  Yes, there may be abandonment meanings; “My family isn’t normal”, “The world is not safe.” These may evolve into more hopeful interpretations, such as, “I will grow something good out of this loss.”  The child will be shaped by his loss, but he also has a right to shape his grief.  Denial and façade may be part of this process for as long as it is purposeful. 

Suicide loss is impactful and incurs an abrupt loss of innocence.  The young personality will organize itself around the loss in a way that the child senses his best chances for survival.  As the guardians of their grief we will offer loving opportunities for genuine grief to be expressed without intruding or disabling the child’s defenses.   Parents and counselors, the “grief guardians” for bereaved children, can best serve their needs with respectful, spacious, observant reflections that allow the child to carry loss in her own way over time.