Learning to live: What children teach us about grief, and what they need from adults

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I remember watching a show hosted by Art Linkletter (my age is showing!) called “Kids Say the Darndest Things.” He would ask questions and in their open, innocent way, children would respond. Their responses brought laughter and sometimes tears.

For more than 17 years I have had the privilege of sharing time with children under 8 years old through the Tides program (for grieving children and their families). I have been amazed at their knowledge and understanding about grief and loss and the impact of death on their lives and their families. Like Art Linkletter, I have been brought to laughter, tears and deeply touched by their simple yet profound responses to the death of someone they love.

At a recent fundraiser I shared many comments children have offered over the years. “Do you think my mom can see me from heaven?” (a 5-year old) After tracing their bodies on brown paper and asking where they hurt, a 4-year old boy said: “I need a Band-Aid on my heart.” A 7-year old girl shared that “we carry the people we love in our hearts.”

One of my fondest memories was when the children asked if we could do a funeral. I was surprised but felt it was important to and for them. Once again, they demonstrated their child-like experiences of this ritual. We placed several chairs together that became the casket. They actually “fought” over who would be the dead body (several children took turns). Another child sat at the piano tapping out quiet music. There were flowers made out of tissues and boxes of tissues for mourners.

They went outside and then entered the room, coming to the casket, grabbing tissues, and sharing stories about the deceased family member. Then they sat in the rows of chairs. We held several funerals that evening. They were eager to share about our activity with the adults.

Children process things through play. They are also willing to share their thoughts and feelings but rarely does anyone ask them about their grief. An 8-year old boy shared about Tides: “Tides is nice ‘cause someone gets what you’re going through ‘cause you lost and they get it because they lost someone too.” A 6-year girl lets a newcomer to Tides know that: “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to laugh too.”

Perhaps you had someone you loved die when you were a child. Did anyone talk with you about your loss? Were you included in the funeral or service? Often times children are left out to “protect them” from emotions. Maybe you wish there would have been someone who talked with you, answered your questions, and listened to your stories.

I was 16 before I went to my first funeral. My best friend’s 18-year old brother died in a car accident. I had no idea what it would be like. What was I to say or do? What I do remember is that I saw my friend and ran to her as we locked in a hug and both began to cry. I also remember the shocking look on her mom’s face, who seemed to be staring off in the distance as people offered their condolences. I remember going home and talking about the experience. My mom said, “Maybe you shouldn’t have gone.” I was surprised by her comment. This was my best friend, going through a very difficult time. I didn’t feel comfortable at the funeral but I knew I wanted to be there for her.

Times are changing. I have been to many funerals where children are present. They are often eager to take me to the casket or share stories about their grandma. I feel privileged to be the listener and one who also asks what may be hard questions that stir up emotions. “What do you miss most about your grandpa?” A 7-year old boy shares how grandpa taught him to fish and how now when he goes fishing sometimes it’s hard because his grandpa isn’t there with him. I simply acknowledge their feelings. A young boy (6) shares that his mom was “a beautiful girl.” He is proud to talk about her.

Nov. 18 was Children’s Grief Awareness Day. It is a day to remind us that children feel the impact of loss just like adults do. It can be hard to comfort them or talk with them about their loss but it is also a gift to both the children and the adults who venture into the realm of grief.

I thank Tides and all the children who have taught me about grief. I look forward to many more stories and opportunities to learn and grow in my own understanding of loss through the precious lens of a child.

Evelyn Wald is the program director for Tides. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org , whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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