Between Teacher & Parent: "I'm Not Going to Cry"
Helping a Child Handle Grief
THE TEACHER'S STORY
It happened so quickly. We went to the park for a field trip, and Sarah was running across the grass. She suddenly tripped on a tree stump and scraped her knee. "Sarah's bleeding!" one of our 4-year-olds shouted. Our teacher aide brought the first-aid kit while I rushed to comfort Sarah. She wouldn't accept any reassurance. "Would you like me to call your Mom?" I asked. Sarah shook her head "no" and then wandered over to a nearby picnic table and sat by herself. I stood there wondering about the poker face she has been wearing since spring vacation. Nothing seems to alarm or delight her any more. She doesn't laugh at things that once would have gotten big giggles from her. Yesterday, while Sarah was building a garage, someone grabbed her trucks. She simply walked away and moved to another activity.
This behavior had been very puzzling until an hour ago, when I learned that Sarah's Grandpa died suddenly during vacation. I knew they were very close. Now Sarah's changed behavior makes sense. But I still don't know how to help her. I certainly don't want to intrude on the family's privacy or the child's style of grieving. What should I do?
THE PARENT'S STORY
I've been totally preoccupied with my sadness over the sudden death of my father. I know I haven't provided the comfort Sarah needs. Ever since she heard the news, she's been distant. Nothing seems to excite her or upset her any more. Sarah and her grandpa were so close. They went fishing and to the movies together. She was the light of Dad's life. So I know there must be a real ache in her heart. But she doesn't talk about it. Now that I'm beginning to come to terms with my own loss, I don't know how to help Sarah do the same. Maybe her teacher can help.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
One way for children (or adults) to avoid experiencing the pain of loss is to blunt all feeling. But that always presents a special predicament for those who want to help. Ordinarily, we urge teachers and parents not to intrude on a child's mourning process. But in Sarah's case, her complete denial of feelings is blocking the comfort she could get by simply letting herself be involved with the people and activities around her. Some careful intervention is warranted.
What the Teacher Can Do
With sensitivity, the teacher can gradually entice Sarah to become engaged with her peers. If, for example, classroom pets intrigue Sarah, the teacher can enlist her help, along with a pal, to care for the hamsters. And without forcing the issue, the teacher might invite Sarah to join her in imaginative play. Following the teacher's suggestions will allow Sarah to risk expressing some of the sadness she feels through pretend characters. As she gradually lets her guard down, some anger and bewilderment about Grandpa's death may also emerge. This will help to free Sarah from her self-imposed isolation.
What the Parent Can DoNow that the shock and devastation of her loss is easing, Sarah's mother may be able to talk to Sarah about her own sadness. She should keep it brief, but not hide her feelings. The parent should not hesitate to let her daughter know that she misses Grandpa too. And it would be very helpful to bring up Grandpa in dozens of pleasant situations. "Remember when we did this with Grandpa? It was such fun." And when the moment seems right, tell little stories about Grandpa way back when Mom herself was a girl. Finally, the parent should make it clear that she and Sarah's dad are very healthy. And while they can't promise never to die, they can reassure their daughter that they expect to live a long, long time
Adele M. Brodkin, Ph.D., is a psychologist, consultant, and author of many books, including Fresh Approaches to Working With Problematic Behavior and Raising Happy and Successful Kids: A Guide for Parents. In addition, she has written and produced award-winning educational videos.