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Featured this Month:

Private and Shared Stories of Loss
Thursday, December 01, 2016 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Grief, like any other emotional experience within a family, involves interplay between private and shared realities. Family members will often actively express and share, question and comment, especially in response to a loss that was sudden and unexpected. A suicide elicits not only shock, but a compelling need to make sense of what happened. This is a narrative process that is determined by developmental capacity, and even younger children will listen and wonder and protest a loved one’s sudden death. Engaging with each other out of this need to understand can be a healthy expression of grief. But we should keep in mind that this shared process for children and adolescents is usually significantly influenced by adults who are caring for them. Because we, as newly bereaved parents can be so raw and emotionally dysregulated, it can be challenging for us to share grief and sense-making with our children in a way that is responsible and supportive. What and how we share our understanding of the loss becomes the collective family story. 

The private reality as it relates to the death is an even more intimate process that is not always easy for us to access. Often, it is through talking or writing that our private narrative is made clear to us. Children and teens may feel cautious when disclosing a private narrative if they are aware of deviating from the family’s collective story. Our private realities about the death can be known through dreams and contemplation, but we may not want to disclose them to others. Our private story is often an explanation for the death based on the way we understood the deceased person’s quality of life and relationships. A teenager believed her father died out of loneliness after her parents’ divorce, but her mother explained the death differently. Our private sense-making process is interpretive, and becomes our “truth.” When our private story conflicts significantly with the family’s shared story of loss, even if the private story is distorted by denial or blame, it is essential that this private reality be respected and approached delicately if it is discussed. The private story is formed over time even in young children, sometimes in secret, sometimes through play. We hope for it to be safely disclosed in a relationship that is free from the pressures of the family’s shared reality and identity. When we attend to a child’s private story, caregivers must suspend their conclusions. This requires awareness and sensitivity. 

It can be easy to overlook the private reality of children when the momentum of family life demands so much sharing and cooperation, even as we are surviving a devastating loss. And while we may cherish and praise the individual traits of each of our children, each family builds an identity out of which expectations and some level of conformity grow: “We are a close family; a religious family; a tough family; a normal family; a family big into sports or community work; a high achieving family”. While genetic traits and opportunities can shape a family’s identity, private experiences, relationships and non-conformity of individual family members occasionally work against the shared reality that supports family identity. Think about how private realities in a family can differ when it comes to personal experiences like disability or giftedness, sexual orientation, gender, being a person of color, moving to a new school or job. We know that our individual children relate to others and experience the world differently. So, impactful experiences, especially those of loss and change, will also be subject to private and shared perspectives.

When parents bring their children to the LOSS Program for Children and Youth, they are often concerned about whether their child is “processing the loss normally.” The private experiences of children may not always be openly communicated. Younger children, for instance, are more likely to show, rather than tell. They act out their conflicts and discomforts, play out their fantasies. Depending on developmental capacity, it can be challenging to express how our private experience differs from others’. Sometimes, a child will fabricate a private reality by simplifying or leaving parts out to make an experience more acceptable to parents, peers, the larger world: “Daddy had too much on his plate when he took his life.” As this child develops in her supportive family, she will learn to acknowledge the depths of her father’s dangerous depression. 

Here are some examples of how shared and private realities around suicide loss have been in conflict for children and parents: A teenager did not feel close to his relative who died, but did feel close to the relative who was blamed by the surviving parent as being “the cause” of the suicide; A young child created false memories of her deceased parent, who had been emotionally reactive and unstable throughout the child’s life; A child blamed her surviving father for her mother’s suicide; A boy who was coming of age lost his father to suicide, and privately blamed his deceased father for abandonment, even though his mom shared an explanation of compassion and acceptance. A teenaged boy who had been close to his deceased father had vastly different memories than did his mother, who had been angry and hurt in her marriage. We have to appreciate how difficult it may have been for children and teens to talk about private explanations about the suicides that conflicted with those of their parent. 

We have a better possibility of integrating our grief experience when there is cohesion between our shared and private realities. This doesn’t mean that private and shared realities of loss within a family must be identical, but reciprocity, or a “functional equilibrium” between these two realities allows gradual movement and evolution of the grief process (Shapiro, 1994, p. 82). The balancing of sharing and privacy develops out of caregivers’ appreciation that differences in the way we explain the death may exist and are okay. Yes, we celebrate the privilege of private interpretation, and the process should be protected, but when private reality is secreted, defended, suppressed, or wholly fabricated it may become harmful at some point. We want to heal this potentially isolating experience in children and adolescents.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth encourages surviving parents and children to use the program as a designated time for grief’s expression, sometimes shared and sometimes private. Each reality benefits from expression and the compassionate presence of a witness, sometimes a counselor. When each person’s experience of the loss can be respected as unique, family members of all ages can learn to balance and hold divergent perspectives regarding loss and the deceased loved one. This larger awareness is also part of our grief story.

Shapiro, E. (1994). Grief as a Family Process. New York: The Guilford Press.



Archives:

Private and Shared Stories of Loss
Thursday, December 01, 2016 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Grief, like any other emotional experience within a family, involves interplay between private and shared realities. Family members will often actively express and share, question and comment, especially in response to a loss that was sudden and unexpected. A suicide elicits not only shock, but a compelling need to make sense of what happened. This is a narrative process that is determined by developmental capacity, and even younger children will listen and wonder and protest a loved one’s sudden death. Engaging with each other out of this need to understand can be a healthy expression of grief. But we should keep in mind that this shared process for children and adolescents is usually significantly influenced by adults who are caring for them. Because we, as newly bereaved parents can be so raw and emotionally dysregulated, it can be challenging for us to share grief and sense-making with our children in a way that is responsible and supportive. What and how we share our understanding of the loss becomes the collective family story. 

The private reality as it relates to the death is an even more intimate process that is not always easy for us to access. Often, it is through talking or writing that our private narrative is made clear to us. Children and teens may feel cautious when disclosing a private narrative if they are aware of deviating from the family’s collective story. Our private realities about the death can be known through dreams and contemplation, but we may not want to disclose them to others. Our private story is often an explanation for the death based on the way we understood the deceased person’s quality of life and relationships. A teenager believed her father died out of loneliness after her parents’ divorce, but her mother explained the death differently. Our private sense-making process is interpretive, and becomes our “truth.” When our private story conflicts significantly with the family’s shared story of loss, even if the private story is distorted by denial or blame, it is essential that this private reality be respected and approached delicately if it is discussed. The private story is formed over time even in young children, sometimes in secret, sometimes through play. We hope for it to be safely disclosed in a relationship that is free from the pressures of the family’s shared reality and identity. When we attend to a child’s private story, caregivers must suspend their conclusions. This requires awareness and sensitivity. 

It can be easy to overlook the private reality of children when the momentum of family life demands so much sharing and cooperation, even as we are surviving a devastating loss. And while we may cherish and praise the individual traits of each of our children, each family builds an identity out of which expectations and some level of conformity grow: “We are a close family; a religious family; a tough family; a normal family; a family big into sports or community work; a high achieving family”. While genetic traits and opportunities can shape a family’s identity, private experiences, relationships and non-conformity of individual family members occasionally work against the shared reality that supports family identity. Think about how private realities in a family can differ when it comes to personal experiences like disability or giftedness, sexual orientation, gender, being a person of color, moving to a new school or job. We know that our individual children relate to others and experience the world differently. So, impactful experiences, especially those of loss and change, will also be subject to private and shared perspectives.

When parents bring their children to the LOSS Program for Children and Youth, they are often concerned about whether their child is “processing the loss normally.” The private experiences of children may not always be openly communicated. Younger children, for instance, are more likely to show, rather than tell. They act out their conflicts and discomforts, play out their fantasies. Depending on developmental capacity, it can be challenging to express how our private experience differs from others’. Sometimes, a child will fabricate a private reality by simplifying or leaving parts out to make an experience more acceptable to parents, peers, the larger world: “Daddy had too much on his plate when he took his life.” As this child develops in her supportive family, she will learn to acknowledge the depths of her father’s dangerous depression. 

Here are some examples of how shared and private realities around suicide loss have been in conflict for children and parents: A teenager did not feel close to his relative who died, but did feel close to the relative who was blamed by the surviving parent as being “the cause” of the suicide; A young child created false memories of her deceased parent, who had been emotionally reactive and unstable throughout the child’s life; A child blamed her surviving father for her mother’s suicide; A boy who was coming of age lost his father to suicide, and privately blamed his deceased father for abandonment, even though his mom shared an explanation of compassion and acceptance. A teenaged boy who had been close to his deceased father had vastly different memories than did his mother, who had been angry and hurt in her marriage. We have to appreciate how difficult it may have been for children and teens to talk about private explanations about the suicides that conflicted with those of their parent. 

We have a better possibility of integrating our grief experience when there is cohesion between our shared and private realities. This doesn’t mean that private and shared realities of loss within a family must be identical, but reciprocity, or a “functional equilibrium” between these two realities allows gradual movement and evolution of the grief process (Shapiro, 1994, p. 82). The balancing of sharing and privacy develops out of caregivers’ appreciation that differences in the way we explain the death may exist and are okay. Yes, we celebrate the privilege of private interpretation, and the process should be protected, but when private reality is secreted, defended, suppressed, or wholly fabricated it may become harmful at some point. We want to heal this potentially isolating experience in children and adolescents.

The LOSS Program for Children and Youth encourages surviving parents and children to use the program as a designated time for grief’s expression, sometimes shared and sometimes private. Each reality benefits from expression and the compassionate presence of a witness, sometimes a counselor. When each person’s experience of the loss can be respected as unique, family members of all ages can learn to balance and hold divergent perspectives regarding loss and the deceased loved one. This larger awareness is also part of our grief story.

Shapiro, E. (1994). Grief as a Family Process. New York: The Guilford Press.