“Boys don’t cry, darling. You’re the man of the house now.”
“Sweetheart, grandpa wouldn’t want you to cry. He’d want you to be the perfect elder sister to your siblings.”
And that’s how emotions get bottled up!
Advice like this makes me cringe. Why, why do we do this to our children? Why are tears so wrong? Why does someone who has just lost an important person in his/her life have to put on an I’ve-got-my-shit-together mask! I lost my thirty-eight-year old sister to Breast Cancer last year, and I was a ball of nerves, ready to explode any moment. But I gave myself the liberty to come to terms with my loss in a way that suited me. I was in no rush to get to the other side. Believe me, the last thing I wanted to hear was, “this too shall pass”.
Dealing with grief is hard. Of course, we want to protect our children from the hurt and pain, but it can’t be done by denying them the process of grieving. In order to move forward, one has to come to terms with the loss that he/she has experienced. Whether your child is mourning the loss of a parent/grandparent or the death of a pet or reeling from parental separation, it is important to acknowledge how she feels. Emotions go rogue, but it is during these turbulent moments that a real-breakthrough occurs.
Many of you would have heard of Kübler-Ross’s The 5 Stages of Grief model.
Years ago, when I came across this model, I thought it was too clinical for the common man. I mean, who needs a grief checklist, right? I couldn’t imagine ticking off boxes whilst experiencing a myriad of emotions. It was only when I found myself at the epicentre of a catastrophic, emotional breakdown that I was able to identify with these five stages. It was a relief to know I wasn’t crazy and that it was perfectly normal to feel the way I did.
The grief model is relevant to children too. In the Denial stage which is usually the first stage, a child may appear to be unaffected by the loss. The truth is while he is well aware that a loss has occurred, he hasn’t processed it yet. He is in shock. At times like these, I would say, our brain has a mind of its own, and the rest of the body patiently awaits the green signal. I remember talking about the last eight days that I spent with my sister over and over again. My head was full of questions. Why-How-When did things get so bad? But I know now, it was the first step towards healing. As parents or caregivers it is important we find a way to answer as many questions as we can so that the child is not left trying to find answers on his own. The feeling of being abandoned can be excruciating, hence it becomes even more important to talk about it or may be even write it down. Encourage the child to spill it all out. It’s good to share. Death doesn’t need to be hushed. Children need to hear the truth, so let your guard down a little. They need to know adults grieve too. It gives them more perspective on the issue.
Anger: I am no stranger to this stage. For me, it came in waves, large I-will-sweep-everything-with-me ones and little ones, too. Anger manifests itself in many ways. When heat is building up, the need to pin the blame on somebody else becomes unavoidable. Doctors, family members, friends or even God, become easy targets. Some may even redirect that anger towards themselves and experience bouts of guilt. Once again, don’t bottle up. Children need to know that anger is not unnatural. We need to help them recognise the emotions they are experiencing and direct them away from self-harm. Some children might show signs of complete withdrawal, others might throw tantrums or act out their unresolved feelings. These moments become tricky, but they need to know they are loved despite their change in behaviour. An intimate activity like reading together may help during this rough phase. Reading allows for a two-way interaction – the child gets to ask questions, and the parent has a window to subtly address the confusion the child is experiencing. My personal favourites are No Matter What by Debi Gilori, The Invisible String by Patrice Karst and Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman. These are sensitively written, heartfelt, picture books that can help the child cope with her feelings.
Bargaining: I believe my grieving process began a week before the actual loss. Bargaining became my first stage. I pleaded with God because I knew my sister’s situation needed divine intervention. Children, on the other hand, might begin the bargaining process once they’ve realized the loss. They might believe that if they do a good deed, or trade something with God, their loved ones will return. They eagerly search for a time machine that will bring things back to normal, just the way it used to be. A word of caution: Do not indulge in make-believe stories of their loved one returning in another shape or form or as another human being. A child shouldn’t be made to cling on to an idea that will only hamper the healing process.
Depression: This is when reality begins to seep in. Friends and dear ones who were with you during the initial period would have returned to their respective lives. The walls around you will feel like they are caving in. Your body is under attack—negative thoughts won’t leave you alone—you feel vulnerable, yet capable of the unimaginable. If you notice your child experiencing a sudden weight loss, listlessness, hostility for several weeks or months, it is time to seek professional help. It is better to be safe than sorry. Sometimes it is easier for a child to talk to someone other than a family member, and there is no shame in that. Be patient; while it’s easier said than done, that is the only way to get to the final stage.
Acceptance: I loathed people who told me I needed to make an effort to move on. It felt like I was expected to just forget all those years we shared together. I was terrified of my sister becoming but another memory, or a photo frame on my shelf. I guess my own insecurities were playing up. Someday I would leave this world, too, and people would move on. But that’s the truth, we have to move forward. We can take those beautiful memories with us or leave them behind to start afresh. The choice is ours. Relationships will be like fine porcelain during this stage. They need to be handled with care. The choices we make at this point will likely shape the future.
So, be alert; be calm; be patient; be available; but above all, be human. Grief is inevitable. It catches up with you one way or another. So sit down and have a heart-to-heart with it, and when you’re ready, release it to the universe. Help is never far. Remember you are not alone.
This article was first published on First Moms Club on August 23, 2017