Helping Children Navigate the emotions of Grief
Extract from book Where After, WHERE do our Loved ones go AFTER they die?
By Mariel Forde Clarke
I did not know what to say to him. I felt awkward and blundering. I did not know how I could reach him, where I could overtake him and go hand-in-hand with him once more. It is such a secret place, the land of tears. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
The above-mentioned passage by the author expresses how sadness in his land of tears. Many adults experience similar difficulties when trying to reach the world of a child after the loss of someone significant in their life. The adult mind often wants to protect the child from feeling the pain of loss. In doing so the child can feel disconnected and removed from the process. In the long-term overprotection can be counterproductive and will manifest later as the child moves through life and experiences other losses in adulthood. The moral and secret behind the story of the Little Prince is that “life is meaningful when it is filled with caring relationships.”
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly: What is essential is Invisible to the eye – you become responsible forever, for what you have tamed.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
Children are old enough to Grieve if they are old enough to Love: They are the “Forgotten Grievers.”
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
I was involved in facilitating the Rainbows Program for children of bereaved, separated and divorced families. From years of intense observation it was quite obvious that how the child responds emotionally to death and loss will have been predetermined by what they have learned as a child. In my experience it was often the case that parents felt the need to cover up or communicate only part of the truth in order to protect their children. However, honest and truthful communication shared in a loving and caring way will always help a child deal with the trauma and shock of loss. The key is to share the truth gradually, keeping in mind the age of the child together with their level of understanding. Very often children do not have the resources to verbalize their emotions or feelings through words. When this happens the child may become withdrawn or exhibit behaviors that are totally out of character with that of the child. In these situations it is best to seek the help of a professional grief counselor that specializes in child grief therapy. Art and clay therapies are an amazing platform that allows children to express their grief through nonverbal mediums. By using these therapeutic tools children can express their feelings through creative drawings or imagery icons. These act as a means of communication that allows the child to communicate in a way that doesn’t require words. It gives permission to express freely what’s on the child’s mind and in its heart. To ask a child to draw “how they are feeling” can result in a mind-blowing story of pain, fear and sadness. The pictures tell the story, the images portray the missing pieces, the colors depict the mood, the resolution on the page highlights the anger and frustration that is locked within screaming to get out. With time and patience these interventions can help a parent to connect with their child and help form a deeper insight into their emotional world.
Techniques to Facilitate Children through the Grieving Process
The caterpillar dies so the butterfly could be born. And, yet the caterpillar lives in the butterfly and they are but one. So when I die, it will be that I have been transformed from the caterpillar of earth to the butterfly of the universe.
As mentioned earlier it is always wise to prepare a child for the impending death. Chances are the child has already sensed and knows that something is wrong as a cloud of mystery punctuates the many whisperings. Depending on the age of the child it is always good to give an analogy. For example, “Mammy is in a coma right now similar to a caterpillar in a cocoon. She can still hear everything you say, but she can no longer respond or talk to you.” At this stage to relate the story of the caterpillar to a child can be very empowering and positive. Explain to the child that the caterpillar at the right time will leave its cocoon and emerge into a new form of life or rebirth as a beautiful butterfly. This in turn can be likened to the person about to transition, as they shed their physical body to take on a new life form or a new resurrection of the soul in another plane of existence or in a place called heaven. Leading up to an impending death it is healthy to encourage the child/children to partake in the following rituals:
- Encourage the child to sit on the bed of the person about to transition (if appropriate).
- Encourage the child to give hugs and cuddles to the person – even if in a coma.
- Encourage the child to sing songs or tell stories of normal happenings.
- Encourage the child to gently touch the person – this normalizes the situation.
- Encourage the child to talk freely – using words of love and laughter.
- Encourage the child to play the person’s favorite music.
- Encourage the child to hold hands and interlink – this stabilizes the connection.
- Encourage the child (when the time is right) to say goodbye – I love you.
Much of the work I have done with children following the death of a loved one proves very therapeutic when the child feels involved in or part of the process. I always encourage the child to write a letter or draw a picture and place it with their loved one. This gives the child the opportunity to say what is in their heart or say the things they wished they had said but didn’t get the chance. This can become part of the child’s ritual by placing the items in the coffin with their loved one. The child who was encouraged to be part of the dying/grieving process will have vivid recall in adulthood of what they drew and what they wrote in their letter. The child who is part of the process grows up with healthier attitudes and more realistic coping skills in dealing with grief and loss.
How to help Children continue a positive connection with a Loved One
The death of a parent or loved one can be a very traumatic event in the life of a child. Following the passing of a loved one the child needs to know that their loved one still loves them and wishes to continue to be part of the child’s life. In general children have an advantage over many adults simply because children are naturally open and receptive to multidimensional energies and very often possess intuitive gifts and abilities. Therefore it is not unusual for children who are encouraged to develop their psychic gifts to have the ability to connect with their loved one in spirit. I would like to share with you some of the statements that parents/carers have heard in the aftermath of a death:
“Mammy was with me last night, she sat on top of my bed and told me not to be afraid, she wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me.”
“Granddad came to me last night, I wasn’t afraid of him, he said he would be at the match on Saturday and help me score a goal.”
“I saw Kelley in a bright light at the bottom of my bed.”
“Nana was in my room last night and she sang to me, she looked like an angel.”
“Oscar helped me finish my jigsaw, I didn’t finish it on my own.”
“Daddy touched my hair and called me princess and said he’d mind me.”
Children sense their loved one’s presence and it is important that adults do not dismiss or make little of what the child may be experiencing. No matter what the perception of the adult is, and from personal experiences, it is very much advised to encourage the child to continue to talk about the experiences. Remember children are very intuitive and highly sensitive, they take in a lot more than the spoken word. Without doubt, more and more children have the ability to communicate with the unseen realms of heaven and their loved ones who reside there. Children sense the loving energy of their loved one around them and that is why they are not afraid, because it is familiar and known to them. The best response to a child’s report of communicating with their mother/father would be, “tell me about it,” or “that’s wonderful,” or “let’s sit and chat about that.” These open-ended sentences allow the child to feel safe in their disclosure and it allows for a spontaneous conversation to take place. The worst response from an adult to a child that revealed, “Mammy came and sat on my bed last night,” would be, “That is ridiculous,” or “Shut up and don’t ever say anything like that again,” or “Don’t let anyone hear you say that,” or “That’s nonsense, go to your room right now.” The attitude between these two very different responses will determine how the child will cope with the loss in a healthy or non-healthy way. The responsible adult will remind the child that their loved one is always there, watching over them and will be with them throughout all the significant milestones of their life.
Healthy Techniques to help Children Express
The following are a number of simple techniques that can be used to facilitate the grieving process in children. Integrating the loss through using these will support children in a more holistic and therapeutic manner.
Create a Sacred Place
Select an area in the child’s home that will be a special place for the child to go when they are feeling sad or lonely. My advice is to choose a corner of a room that is bright, spacious and boasts lots of energy. With the child’s participation allow them to choose where to place a small table and chair in that space. Allow the child to select one or more favorite photographs of their loved one and display them on the table or wall. If it is the child’s wish to place a piece of clothing or garment belonging to their loved one on the chair, allow the child to do so, as this garment will still hold their loved one’s energy and scent. The child may wish to decorate the table with garden flowers or place other items on the table that the child associates with their loved one. Explain to the child that this is their sacred place to go to at any time when they are sad or when they wish to be close to their loved one. This becomes the child’s hideout – while the child is still observed and remains in full view of the caring adult.
Create a Direct Telephone Line
Depending on the age of the child create a special call center in some area of the child’s home. Invest in an inexpensive telephone that is colorful and very different to any other phones in the house. Place this in a designated place selected by the child. The phone is a very effective tool to help the child feel connected to their loved one. Tell the child that this is their special telephone just for talking to Mammy/Daddy. Tell them when they are feeling sad all they have to do is lift their special telephone and say, “Hello Mammy/Daddy, I just want to talk to you and tell you that I miss you.” The child will have a strong awareness that their loved one is on the other end of the telephone and can hear them perfectly. Children have not been taught that such things are impossible and will be instinctively open and receptive to spirit transmissions. However, it is important to note that the adults in the child’s life should never dismiss or discourage the child’s reports of hearing, seeing or having communication from their loved one.
Create Time for Letter Writing
Letter writing is very beneficial during the grieving process for the child. It can be a very powerful tool in that it creates an easy outlet for the child to express their thoughts and feelings that otherwise they would not feel comfortable sharing with someone else. It’s important to reassure the child that whatever they write in their letter their loved one will never be angry or upset with them. Reassure the child that it’s okay to write everything that’s on their minds and how they are feeling.
Encourage the child to write from the heart. This will help bring negative emotional energies to the surface, for example sadness, loneliness, frustration, anger, fear, guilt, blame, and prevent them being suppressed. If any of these emotions are ignored they can cause serious emotional issues for the child that often continue into adulthood.
Create a Family Hour
One of the most valuable assets to a grieving family is the creation of a family hour. This is where the family in the aftermath of a loss will set aside on a weekly basis a time for family gatherings. This method facilitates family members to discuss their feelings and any fears they may need answers to about the future. At this point the togetherness of the family unit can empower vulnerable children to feel loved and cared for by other caring adults. For the adult leading the family hour, it is important to ask, “What do you think Mammy/Daddy would say about that?” This open-ended statement encourages the child to talk freely keeping healthy memories of their loved one alive. It is important to encourage the child to have ongoing discussions about their loved one during and after family hour. Often, something may arise resulting from the family hour for the child and it is important for the child to know they can still talk even after family hour is over. As I mentioned children have a natural awareness of their loved one’s presence and must be acknowledged and respected by the adult.
Create an Arts & Crafts Activity Session
The use of arts and crafts is one of the many tools that provide a platform for children experiencing grief. These therapeutic activities play a powerful role in providing a safe format where children can share their feelings and begin the healing process. The following are a few examples of arts and crafts projects that can facilitate children to express their grief.
Create a Memory Box
A memory box will allow the child to create a special collection of significant items that reminds the child of the treasured memories they shared with their loved one. Whatever the child places in the memory box is relevant to them. The memory box can become a treasure trove of magic, almost like an Aladdin’s cave containing photographs, little trinkets, buttons, toys, ticket stubs, jewelry, ribbons and lots more. When the child is missing their loved one the most, the memory box can open the child’s mind to the love and memories that is contained in every item with each and every touch.
Create a Balloon Releasing Ceremony
A balloon releasing ceremony can be performed at any time in memory of a loved one. Having balloons released into the skies can allow the grieving child to visualize messages of love being sent to their loved one in the heavens. This process can help alleviate any guilt the child may be feeling that was left unsaid to the loved one. A balloon ceremony is very effective when marking occasions like anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Day/Father’s Day, Christmas, other holidays or at any stage that the child wishes to mark an occasion to make it special.
I believe the most valuable support any adult can possibly offer to a grieving child is to be present; just be there, no need to fill the empty silences with words. You can let the child know that it is okay to talk or not to talk about it. But that you will be there whenever they are ready. There is nothing more powerful for the grieving child than knowing they are loved and supported beyond their valley of tears.
What we once enjoyed and deeply loved, we can never lose. For all that we love deeply becomes part of us.
Before concluding this section on children it is important to be aware that some children and in particular younger children are able to perceive more than what adults perceive as normal or real. These children are born with psychic abilities and are tuned in to higher frequencies that are otherwise lost to the adult conditioned mind. I firmly believe that more and more children are coming on earth now with extraordinary gifts which allow them to communicate with the invisible realms of heaven. Pay attention when your child suddenly goes silent and stares at a particular corner of a room. Watch out for signs when your child is playing and you hear laughter and chat coming from the playroom. Chances are if you ask the child, “Who are you talking to or who are you playing with?” you will hear, “I am playing with my friend.” If you ask the child to describe their friend, you will be given a detailed description of another person, who is visible to the child, but invisible to the adult. For the child the veil between the two worlds is very thin which in turn allows their consciousness to inter-penetrate and fluctuate quite normally between the two worlds. Young children are not subjected to cultural norms or adult programming; therefore they remain uncontaminated vessels of pure light.
Namaste dear Wonderful Children
Mariel Forde Clarke