©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The phone was ringing incessantly as I walked into the office. I heard a voice choked with tears. The story emerged in bits and pieces. Aryanne’s brother had been deployed overseas, and the message that all family members hope never arrives—had: Missing in action. Presumed dead. “It’s so sad,” she hiccupped, “even though being in the military was his life goal. How will we ever recover?”
Her reaction was not all that uncommon. Many people are confused about war, to say nothing of never having learned how to truly recover from loss. War and death certainly represent loss, but it can also result from natural disasters, the Chapter 11 collapse of a business with resulting layoffs, or deterioration in one’s health, to name just a few.
As Aryanne sat in my office that afternoon, she felt most insecure about how to help her five-year-old son, Jason. “Several people he knows have been sent overseas,” she said. “And lately he keeps wanting to know...” her voice trailed away.
The question Jason kept asking was, Are you going away, too, Mommy? Because Aryanne didn’t know how to respond, she said nothing, fearing she might make things worse. A child needs explanations appropriate to his/her age level, since too little or too much can exacerbate the situation.
She also reported that Jason had reverted to more infantile behaviors. “He’s back to sucking his thumb and he’s wet the bed several times,” Aryanne explained. “He was way past that before…” Loss can be overwhelming for children, and their behaviors often exhibit this. The child’s stress can be compounded when adults misunderstand these changes in behavior.
Deal with loss effectively can be a challenge. You can make it easier or more difficult for recovery to occur. Here are a baker’s-dozen suggestions for helping children recover from loss.
1. Provide a safe environment in which they can talk about the loss
Listen without judgment to what they think happened. Accept that whatever they perceive is reality for them at this time and refrain from “correcting them” or imposing your brain’s perspective. Be patient. It may be prudent to offer little tidbits of feedback later on, rather than at the moment. It may be helpful for them to talk with someone else near their own age who has experienced a similar loss. The work of children is play. Play with them and listen carefully as they talk to their toys, to each other, and to you. The goal is simply to make it safe and comfortable for them to talk about what happened and how they feel about what happened, without being judged or criticized or corrected.
2. Role model, using words that express emotions or feelings
This can help them become more comfortable with verbalizing words such as:
- Angry, mad, or irritated
- Afraid, fearful, or anxious
- Sad or unhappy
- Glad, happy, or content
- Hopeful or empowered
Also role model using words that express:
- Pleasure at having known the person or pet (if death was involved)
- Keen anticipation about something you are planning for the near future
- Comfort that the sun is still rising, the moon and stars are always there, and so on
Be matter-of-fact about stating your emotions and feelings. They are what they are at that moment. And you have the ability to change the way you feel by changing the way you think.
3. Encourage them to express their feelings in every way possible
The sky is the limit. For example:
- by using words for feelings that you have been role modeling
- by telling stories about what is happening to them or their friends
- by creating make-believe stories
- by performing skits or charades
- through drawing or taking pictures
- by journaling or writing a story or poem
- by working on crafts
- through music or dance
4. Be very clear that tears are okay
Not only are they okay, they are part and parcel of how some brains express deep emotion. Tears can be helpful in the grieving process, regardless of gender, but are not necessary for recovery to occur. Avoid encouraging them to cry, but if they do exhibit tears, reaffirm that tears are a natural brain phenomenon and a gesture of deep emotion. Be aware that they may shed tears about something totally unrelated to the loss because of being in a state of sadness. Like referred pain that can move from one location to another in the body, tears related to loss can spring up from unrelated events; events that trigger anxiety or insecurity.
5. Reassure them that you expect to be there to care for them
Remind them of other people in their lives that also expect to be there to help them and to watch them grow up safely (e.g., siblings, aunts, uncles, good friends, and teachers).Tell or read stories about multi-generational events to help them develop a sense of continuity. If it is part of their belief system, comments about a Higher Power can be both comforting and helpful.
6. Give them hope for the future—a vision of what can be
Hang a large calendar on the wall and write down upcoming activities for next week, month, or year. Illustrate them with little stickers or pictures when possible. Refer to these upcoming events as “carrots on the calendar.” Being able to picture upcoming events can help them see past the immediate loss and enable them to visualize the future as a real possibility. They need to experience episodes of happiness even as they move through the recovery process.
7. Maintain familiar routines as much as possible
Knowing what is going to happen can reduce a tendency to carry a sense of uncertainty into every aspect of life. For example:
- Dinner is at six o’clock
- Grocery shopping is Wednesday evening
- Sunday afternoon is movie time
- Friday night is pizza and root beer
At the same time, vary the routine occasionally in a conscious and deliberate manner so they don’t get caught in the “I only feel safe when everything stays the same” mentality. If they love “surprises,” vary the routine with a favorite surprise.
8. Encourage them to make decisions
Help them to experience a sense of being in charge of something or in control over something by not only permitting but encouraging them to make decisions. If it is inappropriate for them to be in complete control, at least give them a choice about some aspect of the event, activity, or situation. For example:
- This piece of clothing or that one
- This food or that food
- This game or that game
- This TV program or that one
Allow them to experience the consequences of their choices. Provide acceptable options and avoid giving the impression by word or gesture thatyou would have made a different choice. That type of response can actually reinforce a sense of inadequacy. The whole purpose of encouraging them to choose is to help them feel safer through being at least partially in control of selected aspects of life. Not only is this helpful during the recovery process, it also gives the brain practice in honing decision-making skills that are critical for success in adulthood
9. Avoid isolating them from the real world
Forget digging a hole and crawling into it. Schedule time with friends and relatives. Reminisce about the happy and the sad. If the loss involves death, exchange stories about the person or pet. Laugh about funny things that happened with them in the past. If tears come, even while you are laughing, accept that joy and loss are part of living. This can increase their sense of safety through continued connection and an acceptance of what is. Role model going with the flow of life. Take steps to make things as smooth as possible, but there are potholes and speed bumps in the road of life about which you can do very little. They watch to see how you handle these.
10. Provide opportunities for them to help others
Balanced caring for others can help to keep the mind and body occupied with something other than the loss, which can assist with recovery. For example:
- Visit a shut-in
- Take flowers to someone
- Write a letter, make a card
- Make phone calls
- Read to others
- Donate food to the homeless
Removing focus on the loss can give the brain a much-needed break. It can then return to the recovery process with renewed energy and expanded perspective.
11. Include them in your recovery process
Avoid frightening them with your grief and overwhelming them with it. At the same time, include them at an appropriate level as you move through the process. Be authentic. Allow them to see frailty as well as strength; that is the reality of life. They often have a sense about what is “real” and what isn’t, and it can be confusing when what is happening doesn’t appear to be reality. There are no secrets in families. Just situations and events that people try to pretend didn’t happen, sweep under the proverbial rug, minimize by living in denial, alter through lying, or avoid addressing altogether.
12. Help them find the “gift”
As an old proverb puts it, the universe wastes nothing. Water evaporates into the air and returns as rain. Leaves absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. And on this planet you generally must give up something to get something. Conversely, you usually get something when you have to give up something. Help them find the “gift”; identify what they get because of the loss (e.g., no longer having to watch a person or pet suffer, time to spend on other activities, a new lesson learned, the opportunity to encounter new people or environments).This may require that you stop banging your head on the closed door. Look for the door that is open and walk through it.
13. Live the 20:80 Rule
The 20:80 Rule, so called, comes from words of wisdom attributed to Epictetus, a 7th Century Philosopher. Approximately 20% of the stress to the brain and body is due to the specific loss or event, while 80% is due to what you think about it. Acknowledge and address the 20% but concentrate on the 80% and help children do the same. The tendency is to do just the opposite. Suddenly life seems consumed with the horrificness of the 20% rather than acknowledging and dealing with it as part of life—but not all of life. Turn this into a game. For every negative that surfaces, challenge them to think of four things for which to be thankful. This can alter brain chemistry in a positive way. It can also help them hone skills of affirmation that are critically important to successful living. If you live the 20:80 Rule there is a good chance the children will learn it, as well.
Several months later, Aryanne and Jason stopped by. He appeared to be happy and well-adjusted. Showing me a picture of a darling little terrier, Jason explained that it was his job to help the little pup be happy. “We play ball,” he said proudly. Aryanne could be proud of the work she had done, too. She had made it easier for recovery to occur.