“Why does a loving God allow tragedy? Why doesn’t He just stop terrible things from happening? What is going to happen next? How is this going to affect me and my family? Am I safe? Is there going to be a war? Can I go on my high school trip without being killed? What is going to happen next?” How can parents explain death, divorce, or terrorism to children and teens when they don’t even understand it themselves? These questions keep running through everyone’s mind, adults and kids alike. We feel so angry, so sad, so helpless, even so guilty for having a good day. What we all feel is grief. It’s a short word that stands for a whole array of excruciating emotions. Now, while in the midst of one of the most difficult times in our country, we have to go to work, or mow the lawn, or do the laundry, or balance the checkbook, or even be a parent to a child or teen we dearly love- previously sheltered youth who are hurting as much as we are and understand their own sorrow even less. There’s only one thing we can do. Wrap ourselves in the love of the Lord and let Him carry us through. Grief, this confusing, devastating, volatile mixture of emotions, is a natural response to any loss: death, divorce, loss of health, familiar surroundings, or treasured possessions. This article will discuss the impact of grief on the family and give suggestions for parents on what to expect and how to help. Much of the discussion will center around the death of a family member, but grief also accompanies a divorce or national terrorism. The only difference is the intensity.
Grief affects the mind, body, and spirit. It seems impossible to concentrate or think clearly enough to make even the simplest decision. The body reacts in unexpected ways: pain, sickness, sleeplessness, difficulty breathing, overwhelming fatigue for some, and for others, amazing bursts of energy. For a few, grief brings a deeper, more satisfying walk with their Lord. For many, a massive wall is built between them and their Savior. Surely, all who take the journey through grief find that it transforms their relationship toward God. For example, Susan, a high school student, couldn’t think clearly and had a sharp drop in her grades after a loss. She tried to deny the pain, but it showed. The stress caused her skin to turn a bright red and she quickly gained twenty pounds. Despite this, she learned to depend on God to help her though the sleepless nights. Stephen, on the other hand, has not been to church since he lost his father five years ago. He, like many, is mad at God. Even now, his grief is unresolved. Normal grief is an essential part of healing. Abnormal grief occurs when a person withdraws too long, pushes others away, or becomes bitter and depressed. Unresolved grief may cause involvement in detrimental activities such as drugs, alcohol, or other addictions. It can even affect the immune system and increase the risk of cancer. Grief seems like a silent enemy, but if you face the enemy head-on, it can become your friend.
Since the loss of security and a sense of trust can cause grief, we are currently a nation of mourners. We all hurt for the families of those lost on September 11. Those who have already experienced a loss, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, can have a particularly difficult time in a national tragedy. The following information is written for those who have had a personal loss, yet the process is the same for all grief. Certainly it is infinitely longer and more profound for those who have lost a family member, yet the information and suggestions can be used by anyone who is concerned about how their kids are coping with the nation’s tragedy. Parents need to find ways to tenderly touch the fragile hearts of every family member so they can talk about their most sensitive emotions and encourage one another in Christ.
A major loss often causes such a disruption that the family system can never fully recover. There are families that learn, with the help of the Lord, to comfort and support one another and, through the process, become closer and stronger. What is the difference between the families that survive the loss and those that fall apart? It seems that the survivors learn to communicate their feelings with each other and with God. This is agonizing at first, especially to children and teens. Children have active imaginations and think they can cope by pretending the loss didn’t happen and nothing has changed. Teens are usually reluctant to share their feelings with the family, so they try to work through their grief alone and pretend they are unaffected by the loss. This pretending is not healthy for adults or teens.
Everyone will experience some type of loss, and loss often leads to misconceptions. These misconceptions are often called magical thinking. Adults often use magical thinking somewhat jokingly when they say, “I’m going to take my umbrella so it won’t rain,” or “I knew it would rain because I just finished washing my car.” We know we can’t control the weather, but there’s an almost imperceptible feeling that we can. With kids it is a strong but silent feeling that causes much pain. Just like adults secretly think they control the weather, kids believe their thoughts control the world around them. In the deepest part of their being, they know the loss is their fault. Sometimes they believe in their hearts that a certain thought or action caused the loss, but sometimes they just know they are responsible. They only wish they knew what they did so they would be sure not to do it again. Just like Kevin in the movie, “Home Alone,” who wished his parents would disappear and woke up thinking his wish had come true, a child will believe an angry thought or wish was responsible for the loss.
Because it’s very difficult for children to admit these misconceptions, it’s important to keep communication open so they feel free to talk about these feelings. Adults and teens usually think this way after a loss, too. “What if I hadn’t had that fight with my Mom?” “What if I had called the doctor sooner?” “What if I had driven that day?” “What if I had been at home?” It’s easy to get caught up in this type of thinking, especially after a death, but the simple truth is that God has a time appointed for each person to die and there’s nothing anyone can do to change God’s timing. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2) We can only trust that He has an eternal reason. Each life is like a mural on a wall, and He sees the whole picture before we are ever conceived.
Death is abstract and children think in concrete ways. Yet it is essential that they know the truth about the death of their loved one and the spiritual significance surrounding it. Most teens have begun to think abstractly. They want to find meaning in the loss. Be honest about the events surrounding the death, but keep the explanation simple. Answer questions honestly, but leave out the dreadful details.
Liz, a woman in her thirties, told this story while in a drug treatment program. When she was young, her father died of a freak accident. Her mother never told her anything. She just whisked her away to the neighbor’s house. Liz asked questions when she saw her dad’s picture on television, but instead of getting answers, she was rushed out of the room. No one even told her that her father had died. The philosophy then was to protect kids from hearing about tragedy, but it’s no surprise that Liz had an addiction, how could she ever grieve the loss of her daddy when she didn’t even know why he never came home again? She turned to drugs to deaden the pain of her unresolved grief. In trying to protect her from the truth, her family left her to the lies of her own imagination.
Kids need someone to explain to them what is happening in their lives and to assure them that they won’t be alone. One of their greatest fears in a loss is that there will be no one to take care of them. They need to be told who will be there for them. In most cases, children are attached to both parents and feel that a part of them is missing if a parent leaves or dies. They are also bonded to siblings and grandparents. After a loss, they see their families as a puzzle with one of the pieces missing. They often feel fractured and powerless, with no sense of direction in their lives. Teens feel sad, but they are more comfortable expressing their anger. Many try to fill the role of the missing family member and become prematurely faces with grown-up responsibilities. Kids need someone outside themselves on whom they can depend. They need someone to hold them and tell them that when everyone else is busy trying to rebuild their own lives, God is always there. Adults need this, too, so a wise parent looks to their friends and their church for support during this troublesome time.
No two people react the same way to loss and each individual’s feelings and reactions change from minute to minute. Children’s understanding of loss changes as they get older. Infants and toddlers believe that when an object is out of sight, it ceases to exist. They enjoy the game of “peek-a-boo” because it helps them begin to accept separation and loss. Since they are incapable of understanding that some people do not return, they can’t conceive of the permanence of death. If an infant loses the nurturing parent, bonding will be broken. It is essential for their future emotional health that they bond with another person. Children who have not completely bonded might be quite charming and make friends quickly, but they have difficulty developing long term relationships because they have never learned to trust. Some have more severe problems. These children need much emotional support and often could benefit from Christian counseling.
Preschoolers are still trying to grasp the idea of object permanence and they are dealing with much magical thinking. Because they feel responsible for the loss, they may feel guilt and shame. They think death is reversible, like it is in cartoons, and may ask many questions about biological functions. If parents get divorced, they will try their best to get them remarried. They can get lost in play and temporarily forget about the loss. Because their imaginations are so active, it is important that they be told the truth about the cause of the loss at a level they can understand. Children who are not told the truth will make up an explanation for the changes in their lives. Their imaginations run wild and adults would often be amazed to find what irrational thoughts are going through the minds of children. Before they can be completely free of the grief, little ones need someone to listen to their version of the story and correct their wrong thinking.
Between the ages of six and ten, children begin to understand that death is final, but they often personify it. It is important that euphemisms not be used, because children are very concrete and take what is said literally. A couple of stories demonstrate the literal thinking of children. Eight-year-old Devin said he is afraid of going to heaven. He thinks eternity is such a long time that he might get bored. He did admit, though, that heaven sounds better than hell. Jenny, age six, tried to console her grandmother after the death of her husband. She overheard Granny asking the undertaker if water would get into the casket. “Don’t worry, Granny,” said Jenny in her most reassuring voice, “God will give Granddaddy a drink of water.”
Death can be explained to a school-age child as the time when the body stops moving and breathing and the spirit leaves. Use a puppet to explain this in a concrete way. When the hand is in the puppet, it moves. When the hand is removed from the puppet, the part that makes it move is gone and the puppet is lifeless. That is like what happens in death. The spirit leaves the body and the body no longer moves or breathes.
Children who experience the death of a family member while in elementary school are overwhelmed with sadness, but they feel they must control it. For many children, especially boys, anger is more socially acceptable. Some children resist the expression of any emotions, but their behavior shows how much they are suffering. Jonathan, age seven, refused to talk about his trauma, but he loved jabbing pencil lead into paper plates. As he was doing this, he was exclaiming, “I’m not angry! I’m not angry!” Jonathan needed help learning to admit his normal anger. If children are not encouraged to express their feelings, they may never resolve their grief.
Teens try to find meaning in their loss. Although they feel sad, they are also more comfortable expressing their anger, which in some cases can lead to violence. Teens who experience the divorce of their parents may find it difficult to trust in dating relationships They long to retreat to their childhood just when more responsibility is being expected of them. They may feel guilt about their normal adolescent rebelliousness, thinking they should have spent more time with the person they lost.. If a parent dies during a time the teen is in rebellion, this can cause a strong feeling of shame, which is too embarrassing to admit, but can haunt the person for years. Allen, a man in his forties, wept when he finally revealed that, as a teen, he had chosen to play tennis rather than go to the hospital the day his father died.
Kids of all ages who are grieving may feel sad, lonely, guilty, and very angry. To avoid thinking, they are often in constant motion and have difficulty concentrating in school. They need the opportunity to express these strong feelings in appropriate ways. Like adults, kids need to grieve, but also like adults, they can resolve the loss. It is important that they receive prompt and accurate information about the loss and are allowed to ask questions, participate in the family grieving rituals, and have a comforting adult to rely upon. In telling kids about a loss, whether right after it happened or while discussing it later, be sure they know they are not alone. Use physical contact and be direct. Reassure them it was not their fault and it is not going to happen to them. Then encourage them to talk about the loss.
Children, teens, and adults move through the grief process in their own unique way, yet kids can experience the stages differently from adults. Jewitt (1982) describes the ways grief might affect kids. In the early stages of grief, youngsters may experience shock, denial, and a feeling of numbness, as if God is letting the loss sink in slowly. They will seem lifeless, smiling on cue, with possible outbursts of panic. Some may act as if they are not bothered by the news. Physical symptoms can include increased heart rate, tension, sighing, and relaxed bowel and bladder control. There is a possibility of sickness, nervousness, and trouble sleeping. The child needs comfort, warmth, and structure.
There are several forms of denial. Children may seem to forget the loved one is not returning. They may reject the loved one or refuse to admit that the person ever existed. For teens, it may be the feelings that are denied, as if to say, “This isn’t happening.” Children and teens often use excessive talking or hyperactivity to keep from thinking about the loss. Many will fear being alone. Some kids are too busy adjusting to a new situation to grieve. If denial lasts longer than three to six months, professional counseling may be needed.
As youngsters begin to face reality, their grief becomes overwhelming. They go between thinking about the loss and ignoring it, strong emotions and apathy. They need free time for this period of grief, so too many extracurricular activities can delay the grief process. They are often preoccupied with the lost person and wish he or she was still in their lives. They may be very active or bargain to get the person back, as if they are thinking they have some control over the loss. Since kids model the way their parent expresses grief, they should be included in the mourning process. Sharing tears can be a healing and bonding experience.
Just before kids begin to reorganize their lives, they go through the worst, but fortunately the shortest stage, depression. There is a sense of hopelessness, which may include slower movement, physical symptoms, helplessness, loss of appetite, and even fleeting thoughts of suicide. After this difficult period, kids begin to realize that life can go on and they are going to be all right. This doesn’t mean they are happy, but the strong, overpowering feelings are gone. Even small new losses, such as a move or the loss of a pet, can bring back the waves of grief. These secondary losses can revive all the previous emotions with a vengeance.
Adults must also journey through the grief process in their own way. As with children, the initial reaction to loss is shock and denial. The griever is not ready to accept the loss and reacts with a numb, empty feeling. There may be tears, some difficulty breathing, disorientation, and a need to do nothing but sit and stare. This fatigue may continue as the numbness gives way to overpowering emotions: anger, guilt, fear, panic, loneliness, sadness. There may be physical illness, tension, and aches and pains. Sleeping may be difficult, or the griever may want to escape into a slumber or some other type of isolation. The person will be edgy and may react to life’s little difficulties more strongly than usual. As time goes on, those who are moving normally through the grief process will begin to find new interests or revive old ones and find a new life without the loved one. This doesn’t mean they miss the person less or are happy about the loss. It just means they have found a way to resume their own lives.
For adults, teens, and children the grief comes in waves and can be brought on unexpectedly by a sound, a smell, or a thought at any time or any place. Something as simple as a trip to the grocery store can bring back memories that make the loss seem as if it has just happened. A smell of fresh lemons, a song played so low on the PA system that it’s not consciously heard, or a glance at the loved ones favorite food can produce a tidal wave of almost forgotten emotions. Talking about the loss and the loved one seems to facilitate a healthy progression through the grief process. Getting your family members to open their hearts and face their sorrow this way can be difficult, but there are some communications skills that may help.
Communication Despite the loss, you want your family to feel lovable and important. Your communication is like a mirror in which others see themselves; so it is important that you use good communication skills in discussing your loss. For children, especially young children, nonverbal communication speaks louder than verbal communication. If your nonverbal communication agrees with your verbal communication, then children feel they can trust what you say.
The most effective communication skill is listening carefully for feelings. Children don’t always have the words for their feelings, so they may need help in labeling them. Teens often have a difficult time talking to their parent about their feelings, yet a wise parent finds ways to draw out the emotions of their teens. Even adults feel understood if the listener responds with a word that describes their emotions. Practice using a skill called reflective listening. That involves listening for the feeling in a communication and reflecting that feeling back to the speaker. A good way to use this skill would be to listen and then say, “It sounds like you feel _________.” If you are wrong, the speaker will correct you, which makes the person have to think about his or her feelings to answer you. It is even more effective if you add the reason you think the speaker feels that way. Reflective listening requires sensitive listening to the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal messages and reflecting back the total message empathically without judgment.
This kind of communication can be helpful to a kid who is having behavior problems due to anger, because negative feelings always exist before negative acts and another feeling always comes before anger. It is usually fear or sadness. When we respond to the anger by reflective listening, then kids lead us to the underlying feeling. When youngsters have strong emotions, it is important to listen carefully to what feelings they are trying to express, accept the feelings without necessarily accepting the behavior, and providing an acceptable outlet for the expression of the feelings.
Another communication skill is called “I” messages. An “I” message can be used when the speaker’s behavior causes a feeling in you. This is a way to model the expression of feelings. “I” messages are effective because they express feelings without blaming. Follow this formula: “When you do _________________, I feel _________________, because ____________. For example, “When you say unkind things to Billy, I feel sad, because I care about Billy’s feelings.” It is important to help your family move through the grief process by working through their emotions. This is accomplished by allowing each member an opportunity to tell their story and explain their feelings. This can be difficult; so a parent can help by using good listening skills. Some of the skills that would be useful are:
1. Restatement – Let the speaker know you are listening by restating what was said in your own words.
2. Interpretation – Try to find the “why” behind the speaker’s behavior. Behavior that is understood is easier to accept and change, however, asking a direct “why” question can often put speakers on the defensive. The truth may be that they don’t even know why.
3. Confrontation – Point out the discrepancies between the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal behavior. For example, “You say you are sad, but you are smiling.” This helps family members to see that their behavior is not matching their feelings and the behavior may need to be reevaluated.
4. Minimal encouragers – Add the little “umhums” that show you are listening.
5. Summarization – Bring together the main points of the conversation.
6. Open-ended questions – Ask questions that encourage the family members to explore their thoughts and feelings by having to give an explicit answer. These questions usually start with how, what, would, or could.
7. Closed-ended questions – When there is a need for facts, ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no or other specific information. These questions are necessary sometimes, but they do not encourage communication on a feeling level.
8. Looking for misconceptions – Listen carefully for misconceptions about the death and the beliefs surrounding it. When you discover these misconceptions, be aware that they can be deeply held beliefs and it may take time and effort for a person to internalize the truth.
Whether a loss was the death of a family member, a divorce, or terrorism and the accompanying loss of security, the grief process is the same. A death or divorce is more devastating, while terrorism can cause a great increase in fear. A caring parent gives lots of hugs, even to teens who act like they don’t want them. A wise parent listens and encourages the younger members of the family to talk about whatever feelings they have. Even if the parent doesn’t agree with the feeling, it should be accepted as legitimate to the person who shares it. The following verses may be helpful for dealing with some common emotions:
Fear- Philippians 4:6-7 and Hebrews 13:5
Anger- James 1:19-20
Guilt- 1 John 1:9
After a loss, the best thing a parent can do is turn to God for comfort and lead the family to do the same.
Jewett, C. L. (1982). Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss. Harvard Common Press, Harvard, Mass.