Will Matilda ever remember Heath after he has long been gone?
Reading this entry on the Babyrazzi.com website made me stop, and reflect, looking into my own life and into my files (I teach a course on grief at the Ateneo De Manila) to answer this question that many people have wondered about since the day Heath died.
The very first question you would most likely as is -- Can a child this young understand the loss? My answer to that is, yes, they may not be able to fully comprehend it at this stage but they are able to feel it at his point, perhaps just as deeply as an older child or adult would but they will not be able to fully express the depth of their pain. Children this age do not yer understand the permanence of death and therefore will probably ask time and again, from out of the blue -- Where's daddy? or Where's mommy?. The important thing for the parent or caregiver to do is not to reply to the child with euphemisms by saying that he or she is asleep or that he or she in in heaven, or worse, say that God needed another angel. For a child this age, you can simply say that "Daddy died." and try to gently explain, in the simplest terms possible why he is not coming back.
Children also grieve in a cyclical pattern. Meaning, the grief or loss will revisit them at various stages in their developmental process and as they remember, there will be more questions because they are slowly inderstanding and coming to terms with the loss. A child, like Matilda, who lost her father at two, may feel the grief all over again at age seven, perhaps on an occasion such as Father's Day, and have new questions that she will want to ask of her surviving parent. That same issue may be raised again at age 12 or 13, upon an important milestone in the child's life, like a graduation, with even more probing questions, and then again in late adolescence. The most important thing to remember is to reply to the questions patiently, in a manner appropriate to the age of the child, to the degree with which they can comprehend it.
Children grieve differently from adults. They may appear okay on the surface but hurt deep inside. They may be sad one minute and playing the next. Play is one way of coping up to a certain age. Being the surviving parent, do not be afraid to grieve in front of your child. Of course hysteria is not encouraged but it's okay to cry in front of your children. That way, they will understand your pain and it can be a venue for you to share memories of your departed loved one.
It is also very important to have a support group available -- for yourself, as a parent and for the grieving child. You will not be able to answer all your child's questions and since you yourself are grieving too, it is very important to get some outside help. Teresa Vorsheck, director of the Highmark Caring Place, a center for grieving children, adolescents and their families in Pennsylvania, says the most important thing of all is just to listen and to be willing to admit you don't have the answers. For example, if a child asks where Mommy or Daddy is, and you don't know what to say, it's OK to say you don't know. If you come from a strong spiritual belief, that can help with the answers, but if you don't, don't be afraid to ask the child, "What do you think?" Try to find the answers together.
"As parents, when a child is hurting, we often feel we need to have the answers and to fix it, but there's no fix for this other than to bring the person back, and we can't do that," Vorsheck says. "This is a part of life, although a very difficult part, and we need to approach it with honesty."