Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience

CHAPTER VII

Separation, Divorce and Death: Helping Your Child Move through the Grieving Process

The focus of this chapter is on helping your child cope with the grief that accompanies separation and loss. Sometimes the leave-taking is temporary, such as when a parent travels frequently for work or is in the military. Sometimes the loss is unexpected, abrupt and permanent like a tragic accidental death or terminal illness. Perhaps the threat of a separation has been looming like a dark cloud for a long time, as often happens in divorce. In any case, kids are affected to varying degrees and can suffer from both stress and deep sorrow. When the parting is like a bolt from the blue, shock and grief are inextricably woven together. The following information is offered to assist you in guiding your child through the painful terrain of both.

Symptoms of Grief versus Symptoms of Trauma

Whenever there is trauma, there is grief. Grief is the emotion that accompanies loss. Whether the trauma is from a disaster, such as a fire or flood, or from a betrayal, such as molestation or abandonment, something of great value has been lost. Whether the loss is material, such as a home and personal possessions, or something as intangible as the loss of innocence, the sense of the world as a safe place is gone. It is possible to have grief without trauma; it is not possible to have trauma without grief.

The symptoms of grief and trauma are different. When a child experiences deep sadness—such as with the death of an old, ill pet—it is easier, and often helpful, to talk about it. With shock-trauma, a child is left speechless. If a puppy is struck by a car right in front of a child’s eyes, the grief becomes complicated by trauma. Because the death was unexpected and dramatic, the feelings and images cannot be assimilated all at once. The horror needs to be worked through so that the shock of it can be released from the child’s body and psyche.

In contrast to the day-to-day reality of caring for an ailing pet through its final days, the tragic death of an active dog or cat seems unreal. While grief feels emotional and real, shock seems surreal. This is one major difference between trauma and grief, despite the fact that in both cases, the loss of a pet is a painful experience.

In 2001 social researchers William Steele and Melvyn Raider compiled a chart illustrating significant ways in which trauma reactions differ from grief reactions.1 Our adapted comparison below is more suited to our body-based approach.

GRIEF

TRAUMA

Generalized reaction is SADNESS

Generalized reaction is TERROR

Grief reactions stand alone

Trauma generally includes grief reactions

Grief reactions are known to most professionals and some laypeople

Trauma reactions, especially in children, are unknown to the public and many professionals

In grief, talking can be a relief

In trauma, talking can be difficult or impossible

In grief, pain is the acknowledgment of loss

In trauma, pain triggers terror, a sense of loss, of overwhelming helplessness, and loss of safety

In grief, anger is generally non-violent

In trauma, anger often becomes violent to others or self (substance, spousal & child abuse)

In grief, guilt says, “I wish I would/would not have …”

Trauma guilt says, “It was my fault. I could have prevented it” and/or “It should have been me instead”

Grief generally does not attack nor “disfigure” our self-image and confidence

Trauma generally attacks, distorts, and “disfigures” our self-image and confidence

In grief, dreams tend to be of the deceased

In trauma, dreams are about self as potential victim with nightmarish images

Grief generally does not involve trauma

Trauma involves grief reactions in addition to specific reactions like flashbacks, startle, hypervigilance, numbing, etc.

Grief is healed through emotional release

Trauma is released through discharge and self-regulation

Grief reactions diminish naturally over time

Trauma symptoms may worsen over time and develop into PTSD and/or health problems

Why the Distinction between Trauma and Grief Is Important

The distinction between trauma and grief is important for several reasons. While the sadness and sullenness of a bereft youngster is easy to recognize, often a child who has been stunned by separation suffers silently. She may display behavior problems, headaches or stomachaches that parents do not link to the stress that she is going through. Because of this she may be ignored or punished for her “misbehavior” or misdiagnosed with an elusive medical problem. When astute parents are savvy enough to make this distinction, children are less likely to suffer from misunderstanding and mistreatment.

Another reason it is essential to know the difference between grief and trauma is that the tools to help your child work through his initial shock reactions are different from the tools that enable you to guide your child through the grieving process. When a child is assisted to come out of a shut-down, traumatized state, the mixed emotions of the grieving process can more freely move through their normal course. On the other hand, a prolonged state of shock leaves your child with a lingering sense of powerlessness that heightens her vulnerability to chronic stress, abrupt mood swings and later, personality disorders.

When trauma is resolved, children can get on with the business of both grieving and living. When it is not, they may easily get stuck in a fantasy of how it was then—before the “terrible thing” happened—rather than be in the reality of now. The result is a failure to develop emotionally. There remains a disruption of a child’s life, as if frozen in time. As remarkable as it may seem, we have witnessed teenagers of divorce draw family portraits of their biological parents still living “happily ever after”; while their step-parents and step-siblings are conspicuously missing—even a decade later!

Unfortunately, the above example of denial and lack of acceptance of the loss is more the rule than the exception. The grieving process gets thwarted by a child’s traumatic reaction to the divorce, death or separation. Although the pain of loss cannot be avoided, it can be felt, expressed and “moved through” as it is put into the bigger picture of your child’s life experiences—those both disappointing and rewarding. Helping children untangle shock from grief and navigate the turbulent waters of divorce and death is the main thrust of this chapter.

Two Views of Divorce: Rosy or Dark?

  I did it for you, and the boys,

 because love should teach you joy,

  and not the imitation that your

 momma and daddy tried to show you.

     I did it for you, and for me,

 and because I still believe there’s only

 one thing you can never give up,

      or ever compromise on …

and that’s the real thing you need in love.

– Kenny Loggins (“The Real Thing”

from his album Leap of Faith)

Tammy Wynette, a famous American country-western singer, croons about divorce, calling it “a dirty little word”; while pop singer Kenny Loggins writes a poignant song for his daughter Amanda called “The Real Thing,” hopeful that she will forgive him for leaving her mother. He sings that he doesn’t want her to mistake what she sees for “the real thing,” fearful that Amanda will confuse the stressful marital dynamics for love.

We all know that there is no escaping the painful journey that begins when a family is in the process of breaking apart. Experts have published conflicting research on the long-term effects of divorce on adult children in terms of happiness and success in marriage, career and life in general. Currently, two extreme views exist: 1) Parents should stay together “for the sake of the children” because divorce leaves permanent scars that will follow them into their adult relationships; and 2) Parents shouldn’t stay together for the children because, as Kenny Loggins sings, an unhappy marriage is a poor model for relationships, and the kids will be adversely affected by the sham. Worse still, it is presumed that they will repeat the pattern when they get married, being almost hypnotically attracted to what feels, sounds and looks “familiar.”

An article entitled “Two Portraits of Children of Divorce: Rosy and Dark” by Mary Duenwald (The New York Times, March 26, 2002) examined the findings in both camps regarding the adult prognosis for children of divorce, with interesting theories on both sides. According to research by Dr. Judith Wallerstein, children of divorce typically end up ill-prepared to form their own intimate relationships. It’s not that they don’t recover, but they certainly do need help.2 On the more optimistic side, Dr. Mavis Hetherington’s studies—published in her co-authored book, For Better or Worse: Divorce Reconsidered—showed that although divorce is always traumatic for children, resulting in deep sorrow and pain, by the third year there is generally a fairly good adjustment.3 It is also important to note that although 20 to 25% of children from divorced families show psychological and academic difficulties, so too do 10% of children from families where the parents have remained married. Of course, in cases of domestic violence and child abuse, divorce was always the best choice.

Even more important, Dr. Hetherington found that the single best predictor of children doing well is the presence of an involved, competent, caring adult who has high standards for behavior. On the other hand, when children were caught in the middle—in the crossfire between parents—they had the worst possible prognosis for later success. Girls from this group frequently were depressed and anxious; whereas boys in this group were more aggressive and displayed anti-social behavior. When one parent demeans the other parent, sustaining the conflict after the divorce, it causes extreme distress.

Regardless of disparate views, both sides agree unequivocally: divorce hurts! Whether it is hostile or mutual, the child’s relationships, living arrangements, financial circumstances and family life are changed forever. Because of both their dependency status and their developmental needs, children are the most vulnerable, and their emotional needs must take priority even as parents may be dealing with their own devastating grief (which they need to get help with for themselves). Children experience the family coming apart as “their divorce,” asking revealing questions such as “Do we have to get divorced?” The adults suffer, but the children clearly suffer more.

Surviving Divorce: A Guide to Preserving Your Child’s Wholeness

Fortunately, we don’t believe that parents have to make a choice between two extreme outcomes. Between the “black and white” conclusions from research studies, there are a lot of “gray” areas that encompass factors within your control. Although some studies included children who had received grief counseling to support them in making adjustments to a new family structure, none of these reported studies included helping children work through their shock. Typical grief counseling involves talking, listening and helping a child to release their sadness and anger.

Although none of the counseling support mentioned in the research included working with the body, there is no lack of understanding about what the pain of going through a divorce feels like. In her article “Divorce: 10 Things I Learned,” freelance author Vicki Lansky wrote the following about her own experience:

Going through divorce is a physical experience. This one took me by surprise. My body seemed to experience a death-defying whirlpool. I hate speed, roller coasters and the feeling of one’s stomach dropping when on a turbulent airplane ride. But I can remember having all those feelings … simultaneously … while just sitting in a chair after we separated. Yuck! Fortunately this usually passes in three to nine months.4

If the above passage is an adult sharing her personal story, can you even begin to imagine what physical experiences children go through who have no control over what their parents do and what happens to them? We believe, however, that when parents divorce in such a way as to focus on becoming conscious co-parents, helping their children through the physiological and emotional reactions of shock and grief, the devastating effects of divorce can be significantly reduced. Despite the family’s distress, when parents provide the continuity of safety and security to their children by recognizing and honoring their needs, everyone fares better in the long run.

Buffering the Shock: What Do You Say and How Do You Talk to Your Child?

Whether you fought in front of the kids, discreetly hid your problems, or “swept them under the carpet” while your marriage died a silent death, divorce pulls the rug out from under a child. Although there is no escaping his reactions, you can certainly buffer some of the shock through preparation. We can’t stress enough how important it is for parents to work through their own shock and grief first so as not to burden their kids with their own baggage. This, in itself, will provide a buffer.

Once the parents have had time to assimilate their decision to divorce, they can take the additional time to plan how they will tell the kids and how they will work out the details so that it’s as easy as possible for children to make the transition. It’s important that your child knows that the parent who is moving out is not divorcing him and will remain an active parent who will still be taking him to soccer practice, tucking him in at night when he sleeps over, etc. Emphasize that the child will have two homes instead of one. It’s best that there be sufficient time to help your child get used to the idea little by little. For example, instead of saying, “Your father is having an affair, so I’m kicking him out!” you might say, “Your father and I don’t love each other anymore. But we both love you very much. We will be getting divorced from each other, but we will both still be very involved with you.”

Asking for your child’s input on negotiable decisions, such as how they would like their new room arranged and which parent they want to pick them up from school, can help to empower children at this time when they feel utterly powerless in a circumstance that is entirely beyond their control. Tiny adjustments and creative ideas from your children that you probably wouldn’t have dreamed yourself can go a long way toward improving the quality of their lives during an extremely difficult time. In certain decisions, however—such as whose house the child will spend Thanksgiving at—the child may feel burdened with the feelings of the other parent, including loneliness, anger and resentment. Remember to be aware of your children’s behavior. If they appear overwhelmed by the decision, help them to talk about how they feel.

Let’s take a look at an example of well-meaning parents who didn’t take the time to deal with their own reactions to the idea of divorce and did not formulate a plan before telling their son that dad was moving out. After the story, you will learn what they could have said and done instead to help their child with his stunned reactions.

SWEET HEARTBROKEN JACOB

Jacob’s parents’ marriage had been falling apart for some time. They were both very busy with careers. They spent little time together and seldom argued. They both cherished their son; whenever the couple was together the activities revolved around the three of them. As their professional lives were peaking, their marriage was silently dying. Because they were happy with their individual successes and friendships, no one expected a sudden break-up after fifteen years of a marriage that had been the envy of their friends!

Jacob’s father had an affair. His mother detected it immediately. She confronted him. Anger and grief filled the household. Jacob didn’t know why. His mother “protected” him, not wanting to say anything bad about his father. Although she went to counseling, she couldn’t contain her emotional outbreaks. The affair ended quickly and Jacob’s mother forgave her husband, even though he only gave lip service to working on their marriage. He promised to make room for special “couple time” at least once a month.

Jacob was almost thirteen years old and involved in scouting and sleepovers with friends, so this agreement appeared to be a way to rebuild their marriage. This raised hope for Jacob’s mom. The couple had one promising weekend before the pattern of living separate lives returned. It took only one couples’ counseling session for both of Jacob’s parents to realize that their marriage was over.

Reluctantly, Jacob’s mother accepted the fact that she had to let go. She also knew how important it was to keep their son’s established routines, disrupting his life as little as possible. Both parents agreed that it would be best if Jacob could remain in the same house and school and still have his friends. Since Jacob’s dad did not want physical custody, he was to be the one to pack up his belongings and leave. Having arrived at this amicable arrangement in the car on the way home from counseling, his parents never discussed another issue again! They had the illusion that this arrangement was sufficient to protect their son from the impact of divorce.

Without discussing the potential problems or making a plan about how they would tell Jacob, they drove home in an awkward silence. When Jacob was getting ready for bed, they both looked at each other and decided to “get it over with.” They went into his room and, without beating around the bush, told Jacob that they were getting divorced and that his dad would be moving out in two weeks.

Jacob went into shock. He didn’t cry. He lay on his bed frozen with overwhelm at the sudden news. Both parents, in shock themselves, held him in their arms. Young Jacob lay silent in bed with his soft brown eyes wide open as if he had just seen a ghost. His skin was pale. His mother tried to console him and let him know that whatever feelings he was having were okay. But Jacob wasn’t feeling his emotions. He was numb, paralyzed by the physiological shock reactions he was having. His parents had no understanding or awareness of what he was going through and felt helpless.

Within five to ten minutes after he was told that his dad would be moving out, Jacob said that he had a sharp pain in his chest. He asked his parents to call an ambulance because he was “having a heart attack.” He insisted it had nothing to do with the news of the divorce. He kept repeating, “You don’t understand I’m physically sick.… This is a different thing.” Unfortunately, they didn’t understand that Jacob was in a state of shock. Nor did they understand what shock was or how to deal with it. Had he been able to cry in his parents’ arms instead of being overwhelmed by his parents’ shocking news, he might have been comforted enough to begin the grieving process.

Discussion: A Happier Scenario for Jacob

Jacob’s initial reactions of shock and denial masked his deep grief. He felt misunderstood by his parents—and he was! He went to counseling twice before refusing to continue because he felt misunderstood again—and he was! What Jacob needed was for his parents to help his stuck physical sensations release (as you learned how to do in Chapters II and IV). If he could have been gently guided to release the tightness causing his sharp chest pain, Jacob’s sensations might have, in all probability, changed from frozen terrified shock into a softening in his chest, allowing his tightly locked tears to flow sooner—as he was held in his parents’ arms—rather than much later. Then Jacob’s emotional responses would have occurred naturally as his body began to open up.

If you refer back to the first five symptoms listed under the “Trauma” column on the “Grief vs. Trauma” chart at the beginning of this chapter, you will notice that Jacob’s initial symptoms are all characterized as trauma—not grief! Let’s take a closer look:

1. His initial response was terror, rather than sadness.

2. His grief was masked by traumatic shock.

3. Neither parents nor professionals understood his trauma reaction.

4. Jacob did not talk about his feelings—divorce was not a topic he had words for.

5. His pain was a reaction of terror, helplessness and a lost sense of safety rather than of grief.

In other words, Jacob’s world had been turned upside down in a few minutes’ time. Fortunately, you can do much to avoid the mistakes that Jacob’s parents made when and if a divorce or separation is imminent in your own family. Grief is unavoidable, but trauma is preventable! There were two things that could easily have been done for Jacob to soften the blow.

First of all, consider that one of the most predictable highimpact traumatic moments children experience in a family break-up is when the parents first announce that they are getting a divorce. Jacob was stunned by the sudden barrage of devastating announcements. Not only were his parents getting divorced in a decision they made earlier that evening, but in the same sentence he was told that his father would be moving away in two weeks!

While some parents go numb during divorce, others hide their troubled emotions; still others “wear their feelings on their sleeves.” None of these states helps a child to cope. What is best for the family is for the parents to be in touch with their feelings but to contain them in front of the children so that they can provide solid grounding to help the children digest and process their shock and grief. Jacob’s parents would have been wise to work through their own shock and to process their own emotions first, instead of announcing the divorce at bedtime while they were still in shock. After having a few days or weeks to recover, his parents could have brainstormed a plan focused on Jacob’s needs for stability and continuity. An example might be having Dad find an apartment while continuing to spend some time at home with Jacob for a month or two to get him accustomed to the change. Details of visits with Dad, including how often and how long, would have been worked out in a way that best preserved Jacob’s close relationship with his father. Later, Jacob could be involved in making some choices about the arrangement so that he would know he was important, instead of feeling powerless to affect, at least in some ways, circumstances that were forced upon him and for which he bore no responsibility.

Parents can buffer much of the shock at this most vulnerable time by paying very careful attention to how their children are told the bad news. Children need to know the specifics of how they will be affected right away. They worry, “Who will take me to swimming lessons or scouts?” “Will I still be able to see my friends?” “Will I be able to get to school on time; who will pick me up?” “Who will Spot, the family dog, go with?”

Simple things like keeping a color-coded calendar for tracking which parent the child will be with on each day and who will transport him to various functions can help your child to feel more secure, knowing that both parents will continue caring for him (if this is the case). It also gives your child something to anticipate that’s based on reality rather than wishful thinking.

Second, remember that the news, no matter how delicately handled, will still be fraught with some shock reaction. And you already know what to do! Using the same principles learned earlier regarding tracking sensations, images and feelings, you gently guide your child through any frozen, tight or scary feelings and sensations. Use the steps you learned in Chapters II and IV to assist your child with the shock of accidents, falls and other sudden impacts; the basic principles are essentially the same. The way shock affects the body is similar no matter what the cause.

Earlier, you also learned to assess a shock reaction in your child through quick observation. In the case of Jacob, his pale skin, wide eyes, shallow breath and severely constricted chest muscles (that kept his heart protected from feeling overwhelming grief) were dead giveaways of his trauma. Gently placing a warm, secure and reassuring hand over Jacob’s heart—on the spot he said was hurting—until it released might have softened the blow. If you are as fully present as possible, by dealing with your own feelings first, you can assist by using this kind of touch in order to bring the needed relief to your child that Jacob, unfortunately, did not receive.

The sensitivity illustrated in the discussion above can easily be applied to each item on the “Eight Most Vulnerable Moments” list below. As you guide your child, it may help you to know that there are predictable times when he or she is most vulnerable to having a traumatic reaction to divorce:

Eight Most Vulnerable Moments for Children When Parents Divorce

1. When you tell your child for the first time that Mom and Dad are getting a divorce

2. When you tell your child that Mom or Dad will move out (or has left)

3. When custody arrangements are being determined

4. When the marriage settlement/financial agreement is being hammered out

5. When your child begins living in a split world: Mom’s house/Dad’s house

6. When one or both parents start dating

7. When one parent decides to move a long distance away

8. When parents decide to remarry and a step-family is created

Divorce and Children’s Development

It is of primary importance when parents separate or divorce that decisions regarding child custody arrangements be based on the developmental and temperamental needs of the child and not based on what’s convenient for the parents. Children need close contact with both parents. Recent research shows that this is even truer for infants and toddlers.5 Security issues are paramount with babies and very young children since they need to feel safe in order to form healthy attachments. Daily visitations are important by the non-custodial parent, if possible. You cannot explain with words to a baby that Dad will be back next week.

Consistency of routines, sensitive transitions and regular visits to the extended family on both sides is usually best. Extended family is especially important if one parent visits infrequently or has abandoned the child. Babies feel safety through their senses. When they are held, rocked, fed, smiled at and otherwise nurtured by the adults in their family circle as often as possible, they will know they are loved by both sides of the family.

As children grow older and begin to separate from their parents, their unique identity is formed through the mirroring given by both mother and father. When they lose contact with one parent, it is as if a part of themselves is bad, has died or both. Be cautious not to diminish the other parent, as it has the predictable effect of diminishing the self-worth of the child as well. Since both parents live inside the child, whether or not you wish that were so, it is the way that it is.

Teenagers usually do fine with less frequent visits, yet they are still in need of strong parental figures who can set firm rules as teens venture forth into the world, becoming more and more independent. Just like toddlers, who want the stability of a parent nearby in case they’re needed, teens find that without a firm home base, divorce can be quite disorienting for them as they hazard out into their peer group. Step-parenting can be particularly awkward with teens as they mature physically. Step-daughter and stepfather can feel uneasy in the expression of affection. Research data reveal that children ten to fifteen years of age are the least likely to accept a step-parent.6

All children need to know that they can remain children even when their family has been permanently restructured. Often what happens, especially in single-parent families, is that children are forced to grow up too soon. If they take on adult responsibilities and emotional burdens, it compromises the development of their own unique identity and sense of self. Luckily, this distortion of self can be prevented by avoiding discord in front of the children (especially when it’s about financial or custody issues relevant to them) and not obscuring their childhood needs due to the adult’s own pain and inability to cope. If the divorce has been unbearably painful for you, the best way you can help your child is to get professional help for yourself. It can also be helpful for your child to join a “divorce support group” if one is available in your local community or at school.

Almost all children hold two fantasies: one is that their parents will one day reunite, and the other is that they (the children) are, at least in part, to blame for the divorce. This is called “magical thinking,” especially common in children between the ages of four and eleven. If they believe they had something to do with the break-up, then they believe they can fix it. This magical thinking must be dispelled. If a parent continues to hold false hopes of remarrying the spouse who has left, it becomes an almost impossible task for the children to accept the divorce and move on.

Another universal belief of children—one that leaves them frightened and shaken—is the fear that since one parent left, the other parent is likely to leave them, too. This is especially true of school-age children, who are sure that their behavior had something to do with their mother or father leaving. This age group is also more vulnerable to a variety of fears because they have the capacity for vivid imagination. The best antidote is to make it convenient—yes, even if you despise your ex-spouse—for the children to see him or her as much as possible.

Children often worry, “Who will take care of me?” and “Where do I belong?” If in both mom’s house and dad’s house kids have a special place of their own that is comfortable, with toys, clothes, books, CDs, stuffed animals or other favorite possessions that stay at each house, it can help a child substantially in knowing they have a firm place in each parent’s heart. It’s important for them to know that they live at both houses—not live at one and “visit” the other as if a stranger in a strange land. This holds true even though the child may, in fact, spend less time with one parent than the other. And, most of all, reassure, reassure and reassure your son or daughter that parents don’t divorce children. Adults divorce adults.

Even under optimal circumstances, when a mutual decision is reached by two mature adults who acknowledge that they are no longer a good fit, divorce is not pretty for kids. Knowing that their parents no longer love each other is both painful and inexplicable. It may even leave questions about the foundation of their existence. In addition, explaining to teachers, neighbors and playmates that they live in two places and have two families can be embarrassing and confusing.

It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the nitty-gritty of differing needs of children during different ages and stages when going through a divorce. The above information summarizes the most critical points for you to be aware of if you plan to, or have already, divorced your partner. There are dozens of excellent divorce books to help adults make decisions that will help kids. The following three are highly recommended: Mom’s House Dad’s HouseCo-Parenting Through Divorce and Good Parenting Through Your Divorce (based on the Kid’s Turn Workshop Program). There are also many beautiful children’s books readily available, such as Dinosaur’s Divorce, The Boys and Girls Book About Divorce, Parents Are Forever and It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear.

Helping Your Child Grieve

Now that we have addressed how to minimize the traumatic aspects of divorce, we will address your child’s grief. There is much you can do to help children cope with painful emotions. When children go through unwanted change and disruption in their lives, they may experience many confusing and conflicting feelings. For example, they may feel anger, hurt and fear while they are also feeling a sense of relief. Other emotions that may be expressed (or repressed) include emptiness, rage, disappointment, loneliness, sadness and guilt.

Learning how to support children through the grieving process is one of the most important ways you can help them to deal with the unsavory twists and turns that are an inevitable part of growing up—and living life in general. Children transform into mature adults not by protection from frustration and pain, but by having skillful parents who, through example, gentleness, compassion and support, help them to face their disappointments and frustration head-on.

Grief is not something that happens only when a person dies. Grief is a sense of loss and sorrow when someone or something we cherished is gone forever. Grief is a part of life. Joy and grief go hand in hand. We can’t have one without the other. For children, the most common sources of grief are divorce, death of a grandparent, parent or other relative, the loss of friends who move away, the loss of their home or special possessions and the loss of a pet.

The grieving process is not linear. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the stages of grief that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross delineated many decades ago in her classic book On Death and Dying is still a good guide.7 These stages will be passed through, visited and revisited by your child at various times. Just when you think a child is no longer sad, the feelings pop up again. This can be particularly true on anniversaries, holidays and other circumstances that serve as reminders of her loss.

The first stage of grief is denial or disbelief. A deeper shock reaction frequently occurs at this first stage. If this is the case, you will need to assist your child to move out of this frozen state by helping her identify and feel sensations until they shift and change. This is important so that she does not stay stuck in the fantasy that the death did not happen or that her parents will remarry.

The next two stages deal directly with emotions. In stage two, sadness and grief will emerge. Stage three involves feeling anger and resentment. Stages two and three, in particular, tend to alternate for a while. They also include more nuanced emotions, such as irritability, frustration, emptiness, disappointment and worry. There is nothing more difficult than being separated from someone you love. Being upset is a normal part of the grieving process. When your child is able to express feelings, it is a good sign that he is moving out of the immobility, helplessness and fantasy of the first stage. Your job is to help make a safe “container” to hold your child’s heartbreak and anger.

Bargaining is the fourth stage of grieving. At this stage it is important to help children maintain a strong sense of self—a sense of confidence that they can handle the pain in the here and now, instead of making a futile attempt to change the circumstances by wishful thinking to bring the past back. This is the stage of pining in which we hear: “If only I had …” or “If I woulda’, coulda’ or shoulda’, maybe this ‘terrible’ thing would never have happened.” It may also involve making deals: “If I pray harder or do my chores, please make him come back.”

This stage is similar to the first stage—denial. It is denial with a little more thinking, blaming and guilt tossed in. Again, at this stage it is important for your child to receive your help to move through the sensations that accompany her thoughts in order to avoid getting mired down in shame and guilt. Your child can be encouraged to express genuine remorse for what she wishes she had or hadn’t done before the person died or left, and then let it go. Later in this chapter you will learn other ways to help your child experience “emotional completion” as a prelude to saying good-bye to a person, pet, traditional family structure or favorite possession.

The final stage of grieving is acceptance of the reality of what happened, together with the willingness to go on with life to the fullest extent possible—sometimes with even greater vitality and purpose. This is fundamentally different from an attitude of “just get over it” or “it’s time to move on” or “burying feelings.” It doesn’t mean that your child will never feel sad again. It does mean that the energy formerly bound up in a combination of shock and grief reactions has been freed so that there is a genuine sense of completion. Your child’s energy can then be used for growing up as she meets the challenges along the road to maturity.

Dealing with the Death of a Pet

For many children the loss of a beloved pet is actually their first experience of profound grief. It is also an opportunity to learn about unconditional love. As mentioned before, grief is not linear. Although there are various stages, children grieve in their own unique way. Some of their behavior may seem illogical to adults. Most young children who are old enough to talk and express feelings will need only that you follow their lead, give compassionate support according to their cues and do your best to give them the space and time they require.

The following story about a little girl’s grieving process after the loss of her pet is a shortened version of a letter written to her by her parents to document their respect for their daughter Rachel’s grieving process. It shows how Rachel dealt with the stages of grief and shock and how her parents supported her in this process.

FOR RACHEL

On November 15, 2003, your cat, Briar Rose, was killed by neighbor dogs. How you handled this experience at six years old was quite amazing. I jotted it down for you to read when you are older.

When your dad came home from a soccer game, he kneeled down and said he had bad news. “Briar is dead.” You wailed for a long time in his arms. Ryan [Rachel’s brother] and I were right beside you. You suddenly stopped crying and asked if Rob [Rachel’s dad] had Briar. He said he would bring her inside. We all sat by the front door. You held Briar in your lap. She was still warm. As you stroked her, you said many things about her—what a great kitty she was, how she was too young to die and how much you loved her. You also had questions about how she died. Her tongue was hanging out; her eyes wouldn’t close. Why not? Are you sure she isn’t just asleep? There was no obvious wound, but a bit of blood by her nose. What happened to her? We answered your questions as best we knew, but most importantly, we all supported you, and each other, in letting the sadness out. Rob had wiped away blood from her mouth. All of us were tearful. Then suddenly you said that you were finished holding her and that Rob could take her back outside till we could bury her in the morning.

You were not hungry for dinner, but you sat with us. During our meal you said your head was really hot and you wanted to cool it with water. I suggested a bath … “no” … a shower … “no.” You replied instead, “I want to fill up the kitchen sink with cool water and put my head in.” You pulled up a chair to the sink, filled it, took off your shirt and dunked your head. You lifted your head from the water and wanted me to time you holding your breath under water—which I did. You had some fun doing that. Then you wanted to call some of your friends. So you phoned friends and left two messages: “Hi, this is Rachel. I’m calling to tell you I am heartbroken because my cat died tonight.”

Next, you said you needed to do something to make you laugh. You explained by saying, “When Daddy told me Briar had died, I had just been playing. All that sadness came into me and pushed all my laughter into my feet and now they don’t feel good, so I have to do something that will make me laugh.”

Moments later, you said everyone was going into the hot tub. When I got in, you said, “Mommy, the laughter got out of my feet!” I asked how, and you said, “Ryan tickled my feet!” I asked where the sadness was now and you said, “All that’s left now is love.” In the hot tub, you alternately wanted to be held or played with in the water, splashing, sinking and floating.

At bedtime, our usual routine of singing, hand massage and snuggling just seemed to make you sad about Briar. “Mommy, I can’t talk about it anymore.” So, you put on your headphones and within minutes were asleep.

In the morning, you told me about a dream you had. “I dreamed that there were two Briars—a good Briar and a bad one. The bad cat wanted to eat us up, but the good Briar said she would help us. I held her paw and you, Daddy and Ryan held her other paw and each other’s hands and Briar flew us up into the sky with her wings. It was really Briar. Her body came back to me and she saved us.”

Later in the morning, you participated in every aspect of Briar’s burial. You picked the spot and helped dig the soil. When Rob brought Briar’s body out, you were very surprised to notice that she was cold and stiff. We talked about the fact that her spirit and life force weren’t in her body anymore. You picked out several crystals that Granddaddy Pete had given to you before he died. You put them in the pillowcase with Briar and said that she wouldn’t be alone, that Granddaddy Pete would show her spirit around in heaven.

When the hole was ready, you helped Rob lower her body and put the first dirt on her. We all shared something about her; we were all crying. You knelt down and prayed just like in the pictures of little children—hands folded, head bowed. You weren’t quite sure what to say. You helped Ryan shovel, filling the hole with dirt. Then you wanted to sing “Home, Home on the Range,” which we did. In the afternoon, you made a cross to put on her grave and wrote “Briar Rose, Rachel’s cat, I love you so” adding lots of hearts.

Since then you have had many moments of tears and sadness over Briar. When you see a cat or are reminded of her, you feel your sadness again. It also triggers your sadness “for all my ancestors that I never got to meet.” You seem to bring up death more as you hear about it: Jesus dying on the cross, children dying from the flu, etc. We just listen to what you have to say and hold you if you want that.

It is a long process to come to grips with death, but you are doing such a marvelous job. What impressed us so much on that first day was how you knew exactly what you needed to do to help yourself—crazy things like dunking your head and having your feet tickled. We just supported you in your process and you took care of yourself in a most exquisite way. We love you so much, Rachel!

One Year Later

A follow-up with Rachel’s mom a few months after Briar’s death indicated that Rachel still missed her cat but seemed to be moving through her grief nicely. As the one-year anniversary of Briar’s death approached, I checked with Rachel to see how she was doing. Without my mentioning the anniversary, this seven-year-old told me that she still missed Briar and that it was “getting harder” because it was close to the date she died. At her request, Rachel adopted a new cat named Misty. But Misty was not like Briar.

Replacing the loss of Briar, of course, did not do the trick to complete the grieving process. No two pets or people are alike. Children usually adjust to a new pet, friend, step-parent, etc., more easily when they have completed the five stages of the grieving process, coming to an acceptance of their loss. That is because prematurely “replacing” a lost animal or person with which a child has formed a deep bond is usually nothing more than a vain attempt to reduce the pain.

It seemed to me that clever Rachel had done much to resolve her grief. She had even “pendulated” between pain and pleasure by alternating between crying and playing. However, she was still hurting. Wondering what might be causing this, I recalled that an obvious piece was missing from her grief process: Rachel never mentioned any regrets or remorse. And there is nothing that brings sorrow, with guilt as its companion, more easily than death. Guilt and regret can occupy a lot of a child’s mental and physical energy!

Debunking Common Myths

(The Continuing Story of Rachel and Briar Rose)

Attempting to “replace” the loss of a loved one quickly as a method of resolving grief is a common myth believed by many. Another common myth in our culture is that time alone will heal all wounds. This simply is not so. Of course, time and distance can “take the edge off” the pain; but this is sometimes done at the expense of burying the pain more deeply. This is another myth that adults seem to be adept at believing. Burying the pain is not an efficient method of coping with grief because of several reasons: a) Pain can come back to haunt you unexpectedly; b) Buried pain can create difficulties with bonding and intimacy due to fear of loss or abandonment; c) It takes a “truckload” of energy to keep the buried feelings entombed. In other words, burying pain resolves nothing and teaches people to avoid suffering to their own detriment.

As all spiritual practices and religious philosophies teach, pain is part of life. When children learn to tolerate emotional pain in small doses and realize that if they do, it won’t last forever, they have learned one of life’s most valuable lessons. They can enter adulthood with solid emotional and physical health, thus feeling more joy and being more resilient human beings.

Time did not heal Rachel’s sadness. However, anniversary dates offer another opportunity to complete “unfinished” business because they bring the suppressed emotions quickly to the surface. With the knowledge that Rachel had not “bargained” (stage three), showing remorse for anything she had done or neglected to do prior to Briar’s death, I asked her, “Did you take care of Briar?” She explained that she touched her cat, played with her, fed her and gave her water. Next I asked, “Is there anything you wish you had done differently?” Unhesitatingly, Rachel replied, “One thing—I wanted her to feel like she was in a good home.” She then went on to explain that she wasn’t sure if she had given Briar a good enough home because she held Briar too much when the cat clearly didn’t want to be held. Rachel sounded relieved just to let that “cat out of the bag” with her mother and me there to listen as she confessed what she had been holding inside. After Rachel’s planned anniversary ceremony for Briar, she will now be able to truly reach the final stage of grieving: acceptance.

More on Resolving Shock and Grief

Another myth about grieving in our modern-day American culture—unlike both old-fashioned extended bereavement rituals and the practices of so-called “primitive” cultures—is that you’re supposed to keep your feelings to yourself. In other words, after the funeral is over, if you’re not over it, you should grieve alone. In fact, the opposite is true. This is why grief groups are so important in helping both adults and children resolve their sorrow. Grieving as a family or community can move the process along so that grievers can avoid prolonged suffering.

When grief is accompanied by shock, it is more complex. With Rachel, two clues indicated that she had experienced shock: 1) the suddenness of her kitten’s death, and 2) her unusual “head-dunking” behavior that followed. For this reason, when I interviewed Rachel I told her that I was curious about why she wanted to dunk her head in water and how this may have helped. Rachel again responded without hesitation: “There was a blood stain on my pants from holding Briar. When I saw it, I was upset and wanted to barf [vomit]. My head was hot. Dunking my head made me feel less upset, not as tense and I wouldn’t have to throw up.”

Traumatic shock often creates nausea. Seeing blood can be horrible for anyone, especially for kids. It’s obvious that Rachel’s bloodstained pants triggered another shock reaction. Placing her head in water appeared to have the effect of “soothing her nerves,” which settled her tummy. This makes perfect sense from a scientific standpoint. Without getting too technical, it may be helpful for you to know that the vagus nerve travels from the head all the way down to the gut, where it can provoke nausea and reduce blood pressure (producing feelings of faintness) after seeing something gory. Remember that Rachel saw Briar’s blood; next, she felt like vomiting. The stimulus of the cold water on her face helped to counter this reaction. Placing a hand on your child’s tummy until it begins to settle can also prevent unnecessary discomfort. Rachel intuitively used the cool water to self-soothe as her compassionate parents stood by, letting her lead the way.

Steps That Help Children Resolve Their Grief

Besides moving through sensations of shock and the emotions of grief, there are a few tasks to be completed by the child before saying “good-bye” to his or her loved one. Recall how Rachel needed to “get it off her chest” that she felt sorry she had held Briar even when the kitten clearly didn’t like it, and she feared Briar might not have felt she was in a “good home” because of this. Saying what you wish you had done (or not done) is part of releasing yourself from a loved one—whether it’s a pet or a person.

EXERCISE: GRIEF RECOVERY

This five-part exercise helps a child take the steps that are a prelude to letting go. The directions are meant to be read by the parent to your child. It is suggested that you work with only one part at a time or even a bit less, depending on your child’s tolerance level.

Note: This exercise is modeled after the Grief Recovery Institute’s Program, founded by John W. James and Russell Friedman in Sherman Oaks, California, and discussed in their book, When Children Grieve(see bibliography).8

Part A

1. Make a timeline starting from the date you first met that person or pet until their death.

2. Write several happy memories that stand out as highlights of your relationship above the horizontal timeline in chronological order.

3. Add a few things above the line that you truly appreciated and wish you had told your loved one when he or she was still alive.

4. Write below the line several things that your loved one did that upset you.

5. Add several regrets below the line for things you did that upset your loved one.

Part B

List the memories you wrote under the following headings:

 Things I miss about my loved one

 Things that hurt me that I’d like to forgive now

 Things I feel guilty about that I’d like to be forgiven for

 Things that I appreciated and never said aloud or frequently enough

Part C

Sharing Your Thoughts, Memories and Feelings

Share the lists you made with someone who loves you and will understand. Ask this person or group of people to help you by listening to any feelings that may surface as you complete this set of exercises.

Part D

Saying Good-bye

When you feel ready, compose a special letter for your loved one. Use the memories you listed to express anything you want to say. Don’t hold back. It is valuable to balance your letter with things that helped you and things that hurt you. Express gratitude for experiences and feelings that you wish to say “thank you” for. Be open to your shortcomings and theirs. Forgive anything that you feel you want to forgive. Be honest. Don’t force yourself to forgive certain things that you don’t want to, but be sure to take this opportunity to forgive the things you do. Most of all, forgive yourself. Ask your loved one to forgive you for anything you feel ashamed of and wish you didn’t do. Now is the time to come clean so that you can say good-bye without anything holding you back.

This letter can be very hard to write. Have someone you love help you if you cannot do it yourself. But be sure to express your own thoughts and feelings, not someone else’s. If you are too young to write all those big words, you can have an older person write your words for you. If you can do it all by yourself, you might want a friend or relative to keep you company in case you have strong feelings that come up. You might want a hug, or someone to hold you if you cry or someone to share your memories and feelings with. In the final line of your letter you tell your loved one “good-bye.”

Part E

Sharing Your Letter

When you feel ready, read your good-bye letter to your loved one aloud in front of someone you can trust with your private thoughts and feelings. Then you might want to have a ceremony and bury or burn your letter. Or you might have some very creative ideas of your own to complete the process of grieving.

Giving Emotional Support through the Tears, Fears, Outbursts and Confusion of Grief

Whether children are grieving a death, divorce, separation or loss of some other kind, you can be assured that they will be experiencing a range of different emotions. Young children may not have labels for their feelings. Older children and adolescents may not want to talk about them. It can be very useful to have them draw their feelings instead. One activity that is particularly helpful for kids who are grieving is the “gingerbread person” exercise. After the sketch and color code are finished, the child simply fills in the outline with the various colors to show how they feel in different parts of their body. For example, they might color the entire person blue if they are extremely sad; or they might color the heart area blue, the feet and hands red, and the tummy yellow. (Please see gingerbread person example and directions under “Sensation Body Map” in Chapter III for this and other drawing activities.)

Drawings like this help in two ways: 1) The sensorimotor act of drawing helps to relieve the feelings through artistic expression as it engages the intuitive right side of the brain; and 2) The process gives you, the adult, valuable information about what’s troubling your child and what feelings still need to be expressed and listened to with compassion.

Sometimes children will draw their uncomfortable emotions first. As they start feeling better, they may shift and draw pleasant feelings that indicate their natural resilience and resourcefulness. Feelings can be worked through using clay and paints as well. Clay or play dough is especially good for expressing anger, since it can be pounded on, rolled and reshaped any way the child wishes.

Feelings Are a Natural Part of Grieving

Often children (and adults!) are embarrassed about their feelings. They might also try to hide them because they do not want to cause their parents additional pain. This is especially true in the case of divorce or when a sibling, spouse or grandparent dies. As is often the case, the parent(s) may be going through their own painful emotions. It’s OK for adults to cry together with their children. In fact, it’s important to tell your children that tears, fears and anger are a normal part of the grieving process. Modeling your own healthy emotions without embarrassment can help. Crying tears can release a great deal of pain and stress.

It is critical, however, that you not burden your children with your ongoing suffering or overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression, rage or sobbing (extremes do not bring relief). Get help from friends and/or counselors if your own grief is not resolving. Refrain from judging or making disparaging remarks about the parent who has left in front of your child. It will confuse him about his own loving feelings for that person.

It is important to ask your child often how she feels and what she thinks. Children may have very different feelings than adults do. Children sense emotions at a primary level (they don’t focus on why or whether they should be feeling something), while adults tend to analyze their feelings with an overlay of judgment. Children need to be able to express authentic emotions without having to filter them through an adult lens. They also need to feel safe enough to ask questions on their own timetable. Sometimes children aren’t ready to talk about their emotions. Try again later, giving them many opportunities to share with you and unload their burdens when they wish.

Many adults find it easy to hug and comfort a sad child, but find it difficult to deal with a mad one. It is normal to get mad when someone you love leaves. It’s important to let children know that mad feelings are normal, too. They may need to talk about it, stomp their feet, draw or write about it, tear up some paper or take a walk. Some children may want to be left alone for a while to work through their feelings on their own or talk with peers. This is especially true for teens. Just let them know that you are available to them when they are ready.

Children become afraid when they don’t know what’s going to happen next. Whether a child is about to move or his parents are about to divorce, he needs to know how he will be affected. You can avoid a lot of catastrophic worry by providing the details of how your child can continue contact by phone, mail and visits with relatives that are still in their lives. In the case of divorce, it helps children to know where they will live, what circumstances will change and which ones will remain the same. Providing telephone numbers, addresses and stationery (or e-mail) to encourage connections can help your child feel more at ease. Encouraging calls to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., on both sides of the family is important. Keeping a connection with extended families often gives kids a sense of continuity that helps them cope better.

Life Will Get Better!

When children’s lives go through upheaval, they may ask hundreds of questions in hundreds of ways. “Why can’t Dad live with us?” “Why did Grandma have to die?” “Why did Mom leave?” “Will she come back?” “Why can’t things be different?” You may not be able to answer every question. But reassuring your child that you are aware of his sadness, frustration, hurt, anger, etc., and that you are right there to listen, hold him, tell him a story or plan ways to make his new life as comfortable as possible can aid your child in the process of grieving and accepting such life-changing losses.

When children are dealing with difficult life transitions, they need to know that life will get better with time; things do shift and get easier. It’s a delicate balance between supporting your child to express difficult emotions while conveying the sense that “it won’t hurt forever.” One thing you can do is a regular “feelings checkin” as a daily or weekly ritual to see how emotions begin to change with time. Parents can also hold regular family meetings to share new feelings that come up and check to see how each family member is handling their new situation.

Even when Mom and Dad are with new partners, they need to remain sensitive, responsible co-parents. The emphasis can be on listening compassionately to each other’s feelings and problem-solving ways to help their kids manage. This caring and planning makes a huge difference in how well children adjust. Suggestions for family fun-time can also be made during these special gatherings. It’s important for children to have a balance between grieving and growing up, which means planning plenty of time for outings, fun, frolic and joy!