Thursday, May 14, 2009

Helping Children Grieve

He seems okay on the surface. He or she has high grades, continues to play, and does not exhibit any outward manifestations of sadness. Children grieve differently than adults and so we often mistakenly assume that everything is okay and they aren't grieving at all.

A child's grief is masked because it looks differently than what we are used to seeing in adults and older kids. Kids grieve in small pieces at a time. They can't take the full force of the loss all at once. Their grieving is very inefficient. They approach it, feel it, take it in, and then go off and play something totally different. They'll come back again for another dose of grieving when they're ready.

I remember very clearly to this day how it was for me when my dad died. I was 16 years old, in the summer entering my senior year of high school. He died in April and we returned to school in June. My life went on, seemingly as normal as possible. I grew up 10 years that summer -- 16 going on 26 and my brother was 10. The year ran and then one evening, nine months after my father had died, while writing and my mother began to panic because I seemed inconsolable. So she took me for a ride around our village, let me cry it all out in the car. We talked about my dad for the first time in nine months. I had never brought the subject up for fear of upsetting her. Little did I know that bottling it all inside was so very unhealthy for my 17-year old psyche.

And in the years that followed, I continued to remember him. Through graduations, and weddings, and family milestones. Twenty-eight years later I continue to remember him so well. It never really goes away. When you lose a parent between the ages of seven and seventeen, at a critival developmental stage in your life, it just becomes a part of you forever. And this is why I have started to do Good Grief -- I draw from the experience of a childhood loss but this time I apply the tools I have learned in grief therapy to help make the road for other grieving children a much better one than the one I had to navigate 28 years ago.

Just because a child is playing doesn't mean that he or she is not grieving. Play IS a child's work. Often, adults will see kids at play and think "That death must not have made much impact because they're just going right on playing." They're grieving, but in their own way. The relative quickness with which a child moves in and out of her expression of grief, often belies the intensity of her feelings.

When a child experiences the death of a family member, "there is a great deal happening under the surface," according to Dr. John Baker, a child psychologist swho specializes in bereavement issues at Harvard Medical School. "And if they have to," he continues, "they will keep it down inside, locked up." The child appears to be doing well. But appearances here can be deceptive.

In his book Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies, J. William Worden reported that the Harvard Child Bereavement Study found many children are more at risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties two years after a death than they were immediately after or at one year after the death. More children feel fearful or anxious a year after the death than right away. And, two years after the death, many bereaved children reported significantly lower self-worth than nonbereaved children.

Every child needs to have a safe place where he or she can express their grief and this is what we hope to achieve with our Good Grief workshops. My daughter says it was so important for her back in 1998 to have found someone with a similar loss because after her brother, Migi died, she felt like the odd one out. In a workshop or support group, other children are able to meet and socialize with other kids who have experienced a similar pain, making them feel less alone, helping them find the confidence in knowing that they are not alone in their experiences.

Good Grief, a play and support group to help grieving children heal through storytelling, art, games and journalling activities, will be held on MAY 22, 2009 from 9:30 to 12noon in Makati. If you know of children (ages 6-12) who would benefit from attending this group, please email me at to reserve a slot. Class size will be limited.

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