News Archive

Healthy Living - Grief Bereavement

In light of the recent school shootings of twenty 6 and 7-year-olds and their teachers and school administrators in Newtown, CT last December, I thought that this months topic might be helpful for the BSCTC community to consider.

Talking about death among adults is often awkward and a hard thing for many people to do. And, although death is a part of the human life cycle and is expected for people as they reach their golden years, we certainly do not expect it to happen to young people such as the ones it visited prematurely in Newtown, CT. When this type of horrific occurrence happens, many adults ask themselves How could this tragedy have been prevented? or What more could I have done to help avoid this from happening? As President Obama said in his condolence speech he delivered to the town of Newton on December 16th, 2013, we can do better.

Kail and Cavanaugh (2013) have suggested these steps that adults must go through when dealing directly with the death of a loved one:

  1. Accept the loss. Some people have difficulty actually believing that a death has occurred and may take elaborate steps to deny the death. You cannot begin to heal from a death unless you first accept that it has occurred.

  1. Experience the emotional turmoil accompanying the loss. Not everyone grieves that same way for the same person. Some people may be glad that a loved one is finally at peace while other family members may feel very sad and depressed over the loss.

  1. Endure life without the lost loved one. Many people have difficulty continuing family traditions when a member of the family has died. They may not be able to sit at the dining room table for meals, staring at the chair that will never be filled by the deceased person again. While it may take up to 2 years or more for a person to fully grieve for a close family member, if the survivor is still acutely overwrought by their loss beyond this time, then it may be time for them to seek help from a professional grief counselor.

  1. Loosen your ties with the deceased. Some people may find this the hardest step to take in recovering from the loss of a loved one. This may be because of the guilt that they may feel since they are still living while their loved one is not. In fact, most elderly people never remove their wedding rings when their spouses die and choose not to date or develop any new romantic relationships after the death of their spouse. This pattern becomes more problematic for younger widows or widowers because they usually have a lot longer lifespan to live without a significant other in their lives. It is important to note that loosening ties with the deceased does not mean forgetting about them and never thinking about them again. Instead, it means going on with your life and developing additional strong relationships with others and more fully engaging in life as you did prior to the death of your loved one.

Next, I want to focus on how we can better minister to our grieving children who may have seen some of the photos of the children who were killed in the school shooting or perhaps are suffering from news-overload about the story which continues to make headlines and top our local news stations.

There are a few things you should know about when dealing with children and the concept of death. First, it is important for adults talking with bereaved children to keep a positive demeanor and be reassuring to the child so that he/she knows that they are safe and protected at home and at school. This will help your child to develop the courage and determination needed to be a productive member of the learning communities at their school and in society.

Secondly, be sure to consider your words carefully before speaking to your child about the death of a loved one. For instance, you do not want to tell your child that his/her deceased grandparent is sleeping or has gone on a long vacation because your child may develop phobias about going to bed at night (because grandma didnt wake-up) or taking a subsequent vacation with your family (because grandma never returned). Instead, it is important to use the correct terminology that their loved one has died and answer only the questions that your child is asking about. To overload your child with extra facets of the death or their future losses is unnecessary and may lead to further confusion, anxiety, and psychological pain for your child.

Thirdly, many children do not fully appreciate the finality of death. They sometimes will feel that the death of a loved one is not forever and that the deceased family member or friend will come back as abruptly as they may have left the child. This may be the reason why your child may continually ask, When is grandma (who is deceased) coming to see us? Be sure to use patience and compassion when your child asks these types of questions in the weeks and months after the death has occurred.

Next, you should know that children sometimes feel personally responsible for the death of someone just because their last contact with the deceased may have been an unpleasant one. For instance, if Johnny yelled at his mother because she told him to clean-up his room and then later that day, his mother dies of a heart attack, then Johnny runs the risk of thinking that he had something to do with his mothers death. While seeming silly to adults, children may continue to harbor these irrational feelings even if they do not talk with anyone about them.

Fifthly, it is important to encourage children to talk about their experiences of grief and to ask questions that they may have about the death(s). It is also important for you to let them know that you are a safe person for them to vent their feelings to and that you are there to listen and want to help them through this trauma.

Finally, children grieve in different ways; some may have nightmares and/or insomnia, others may have digestive issues and either overeat or stop eating altogether, still others may act out aggressively, some may become excessively clingy, others may become afraid or worried, while others may withdraw into themselves and not say a word. It is important to become aware of your childs grieving reactions so that you can best reassure them and help them to cope successfully with the death(s) in their own ways.

To sum up:

  • Keep a positive and reassuring demeanor when addressing your child about death

  • Be mindful of the words you choose when talking with your child about death

  • Help your child realize the finality of death

  • Dispel your childs feelings of guilt or causation about the death

  • Encourage your child to talk about their grief

  • Assist your child to become resilient after their period of mourning

Some activities that you can do to help your child understand more about death and the customary ways that we honor the dead in our society include the following:

  1. Hold a funeral for a family pet including a short eulogy, prayers, burial, and marker so that the child can participate and ask questions about the processes on a smaller scale.

  1. Bring your child to a cemetery and look at the grave stones. You can discuss the length of life of the different people buried there and you may start a discussion on some of the reasons why people die.

  1. Include your child at wakes and/or funerals of family members or friends. This is important so that your child can learn the rituals routinely practiced in these events and so that your child can express his/her own grief about their loss among supportive mentors.

  1. Point out the Obituary column in your local newspaper to your child and have a discussion about the people mentioned there. You can talk about their ages, places they came from, important things they accomplished in their lives, and causes of death, if provided. This activity can help your child know that death is a natural part of the life cycle and occurs more frequently than they may have previously thought.

Suggested References:

Harvey, J. (2002). Perspectives on Loss and Trauma: Assaults on the Self. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

Kail, R. amp; Cavanaugh, J. (2013). Human Development: A Lifespan View. 6th edition. Wadsworth/Thompson Learning Publishers: United States.

Kelly, L. (2000). Dont Ask for the Dead Mans Golf Clubs. Workman Publishing: New York.

Rylant, C. (1997). Cat Heaven. The Blue Sky Press: New York.

Schiraldi, G. (2000). The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. Lowell House: Lincolnwood, IL.

Williams, M. amp; Poijula, S. (2002). The PTSD Workbook. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.: Oakland, CA.

Questions or Comments? Please contact: Sabra Jacobs, Professor of Psychology, Big Sandy Community and Technical College, 1 Bert T. Combs Drive, Prestonsburg, KY 41653; email sabra.jacobs@kctcs.edu; call (606) 889-4778; or stop by my office Pike Building, room 209 f on the Prestonsburg Campus.