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Featured this Month:

Grief and Family Development
Tuesday, December 01, 2015 by Deborah R. Major, PhD, LCSW
Grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide is probably a lifelong process for adults and children alike.  This doesn’t mean that the pain associated with the loss will remain the same over time.  We know there are survivors reading these columns whose loved one died as recently as a few weeks ago, while others are remembering a loss that is many years in the past.  Integration of the loss takes place over time for adults and children, but with important developmental differences.  

The holidays will come to all: the newly bereaved and more seasoned mourners alike.  With their advent we acknowledge once again that grief is not a process that children do once and then put behind them.  And we recognize that as caregivers you are concerned about your children’s well-being and want to know if they are “doing it the right way.” So we want to continue the discussion with you about how children grieve and how wide the range of normal responses can be.   Just as you do, children and teens may touch into a deeper sense of loss during the holidays as family rituals and celebrations shift and change to account for the missing family member and the roles that the loved one fulfilled.  This deeper awareness of loss is likely to take place not only at holiday times but with any significant family milestone, such as birthdays, weddings, and the birth of new babies, entering college, graduations, or the anniversary of the death.  Touching in to the loss at such important times is not a bad sign and does not mean that your child is going backwards.   It is more likely a sign that the child is reflecting on the relationship she had with the person who died and the meaning of that relationship in her ongoing life.  A child may also use traditional markers to notice how she has changed, grown or mastered a difficult year without the loved one.  
One of the important things to remember about children’s grief is that as young people mature their capacity to understand the death will also change.  Children and youth will very naturally reflect on the loss of their loved one with new eyes and new minds as they enter and exit each new developmental stage because their capacities for grappling with matters that are painful and complicated will grow as they grow.  Most of us have been taught to think about child development as being comprised of several stages, each of which stretches out over a fairly long period of time.  But we hear from parents all the time that children and teens are making little leaps within a single stage of development.   And we have come to think that a very painful loss is likely to be a catalyst for accelerated development.   So in the span of a single year, from one Christmas to the next, a child may have very different thoughts and feelings about the death of their loved one.   Such changes in the capacity for reflection may be viewed as opportunities for the child and the caregiver to take a good look at the nature of the child’s response to loss.  One mother who lost her fifteen year old son 18 months ago recently told me that her seven-year-old daughter (age five at the time of the loss) is beginning to ask a lot of different questions about her brother’s death, and that she wants her mom to convey these questions to me.  In turn I convey to her mom that I welcome all of her questions and that I am glad that she is able to ask them.   I don’t want this child to censor or wall off any of her questions or ideas about what happened.   This is an opportunity to have a good look at what she wants to know at age seven, to examine how she creates meaning and interprets her brother’s suicide.  Importantly, her questions and comments can show how she is positioning herself as an actor in her family’s tragedy.  All of these things will shift and change as this little girl grows up.  As one teen said following the death of her mother, “I think differently about things than I used to … I think I do anyway.”   

When any tragic event happens, we will make something out of it.  This is part of what it means to be human.  As we speak, the seven-year-old is assigning meaning to her brother’s death and to herself as a member in this family that lost a child to suicide.  What is this seven-year-old telling herself about his suicide and what is she telling herself about herself?  Since I want her to bring her questions out in the open, I position myself with an attitude of gentle and open (not insistent) welcoming.  Like adults, she needs to create a coherent, compassionate narrative in her own words about the death of her big brother.   So it would be important to listen for what she is thinking about her brother’s action and also about her brother’s life as a whole.  What is she telling herself about the relationship they shared?  Where is her current understanding of causality?  For example, a five-year-old whose last interaction with his father was to get out of bed against his father’s directions may believe that his disobedience contributed to his father’s death.  A teen may believe that breaking off a relationship might have contributed to the death of her boyfriend.  Do you hear distortions like these that suggest the need for corrections?  Children need a lot of reassurance that they did not do anything to cause the death.  What kinds of feelings are coming up for her at this point on the grief journey?   Is she accepting of her feelings or trying to push them away?  What kinds of metaphors or descriptive language does she use to describe herself?    

Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike adults, children are children first and grievers second (Wolfelt, 1998).   Their grief will unfold in the context of their ongoing development.  They are able to engage in fun and play while experiencing intermittent periods of sadness or irritability, so it is likely that they will anticipate a holiday season that still allows them to experience a good deal of pleasure.   Teens interviewed about their experience of coping with the death of a parent, stated that they needed their surviving parent to still be their parent and they needed to know that they could still be kids.  They also said they wanted their parents to get support for themselves from other adults (Dougy Center, 2010).   We understand that creating a festive holiday experience can be very painful for parents that are newly bereaved.   So allowing festivity in the first years after a suicide loss might mean calling on close friends or other adult relatives to help create those holiday experiences that feel unbearable as you give space to your own grief.   We also hope that you will think of using the various services available through the LOSS Program to support you along the journey.  And if you would benefit from supportive parenting advice or services for your children we ask that you consider the LOSS Program for Children and Youth as an additional resource at this time and throughout the coming year.  

The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families.  (2010). Helping teens cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center. 
Wolfelt, A. (1998). Helping children cope with grief. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis Group.


Archives:

Grief and Family Development
Tuesday, December 01, 2015 by Deborah R. Major, PhD, LCSW
Grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide is probably a lifelong process for adults and children alike.  This doesn’t mean that the pain associated with the loss will remain the same over time.  We know there are survivors reading these columns whose loved one died as recently as a few weeks ago, while others are remembering a loss that is many years in the past.  Integration of the loss takes place over time for adults and children, but with important developmental differences.  

The holidays will come to all: the newly bereaved and more seasoned mourners alike.  With their advent we acknowledge once again that grief is not a process that children do once and then put behind them.  And we recognize that as caregivers you are concerned about your children’s well-being and want to know if they are “doing it the right way.” So we want to continue the discussion with you about how children grieve and how wide the range of normal responses can be.   Just as you do, children and teens may touch into a deeper sense of loss during the holidays as family rituals and celebrations shift and change to account for the missing family member and the roles that the loved one fulfilled.  This deeper awareness of loss is likely to take place not only at holiday times but with any significant family milestone, such as birthdays, weddings, and the birth of new babies, entering college, graduations, or the anniversary of the death.  Touching in to the loss at such important times is not a bad sign and does not mean that your child is going backwards.   It is more likely a sign that the child is reflecting on the relationship she had with the person who died and the meaning of that relationship in her ongoing life.  A child may also use traditional markers to notice how she has changed, grown or mastered a difficult year without the loved one.  
One of the important things to remember about children’s grief is that as young people mature their capacity to understand the death will also change.  Children and youth will very naturally reflect on the loss of their loved one with new eyes and new minds as they enter and exit each new developmental stage because their capacities for grappling with matters that are painful and complicated will grow as they grow.  Most of us have been taught to think about child development as being comprised of several stages, each of which stretches out over a fairly long period of time.  But we hear from parents all the time that children and teens are making little leaps within a single stage of development.   And we have come to think that a very painful loss is likely to be a catalyst for accelerated development.   So in the span of a single year, from one Christmas to the next, a child may have very different thoughts and feelings about the death of their loved one.   Such changes in the capacity for reflection may be viewed as opportunities for the child and the caregiver to take a good look at the nature of the child’s response to loss.  One mother who lost her fifteen year old son 18 months ago recently told me that her seven-year-old daughter (age five at the time of the loss) is beginning to ask a lot of different questions about her brother’s death, and that she wants her mom to convey these questions to me.  In turn I convey to her mom that I welcome all of her questions and that I am glad that she is able to ask them.   I don’t want this child to censor or wall off any of her questions or ideas about what happened.   This is an opportunity to have a good look at what she wants to know at age seven, to examine how she creates meaning and interprets her brother’s suicide.  Importantly, her questions and comments can show how she is positioning herself as an actor in her family’s tragedy.  All of these things will shift and change as this little girl grows up.  As one teen said following the death of her mother, “I think differently about things than I used to … I think I do anyway.”   

When any tragic event happens, we will make something out of it.  This is part of what it means to be human.  As we speak, the seven-year-old is assigning meaning to her brother’s death and to herself as a member in this family that lost a child to suicide.  What is this seven-year-old telling herself about his suicide and what is she telling herself about herself?  Since I want her to bring her questions out in the open, I position myself with an attitude of gentle and open (not insistent) welcoming.  Like adults, she needs to create a coherent, compassionate narrative in her own words about the death of her big brother.   So it would be important to listen for what she is thinking about her brother’s action and also about her brother’s life as a whole.  What is she telling herself about the relationship they shared?  Where is her current understanding of causality?  For example, a five-year-old whose last interaction with his father was to get out of bed against his father’s directions may believe that his disobedience contributed to his father’s death.  A teen may believe that breaking off a relationship might have contributed to the death of her boyfriend.  Do you hear distortions like these that suggest the need for corrections?  Children need a lot of reassurance that they did not do anything to cause the death.  What kinds of feelings are coming up for her at this point on the grief journey?   Is she accepting of her feelings or trying to push them away?  What kinds of metaphors or descriptive language does she use to describe herself?    

Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike adults, children are children first and grievers second (Wolfelt, 1998).   Their grief will unfold in the context of their ongoing development.  They are able to engage in fun and play while experiencing intermittent periods of sadness or irritability, so it is likely that they will anticipate a holiday season that still allows them to experience a good deal of pleasure.   Teens interviewed about their experience of coping with the death of a parent, stated that they needed their surviving parent to still be their parent and they needed to know that they could still be kids.  They also said they wanted their parents to get support for themselves from other adults (Dougy Center, 2010).   We understand that creating a festive holiday experience can be very painful for parents that are newly bereaved.   So allowing festivity in the first years after a suicide loss might mean calling on close friends or other adult relatives to help create those holiday experiences that feel unbearable as you give space to your own grief.   We also hope that you will think of using the various services available through the LOSS Program to support you along the journey.  And if you would benefit from supportive parenting advice or services for your children we ask that you consider the LOSS Program for Children and Youth as an additional resource at this time and throughout the coming year.  

The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families.  (2010). Helping teens cope with death. Portland, OR: The Dougy Center. 
Wolfelt, A. (1998). Helping children cope with grief. Bristol, PA: Taylor & Francis Group.