How Can You Help Your Children?
Coping with your own grief is hard, but it is nothing compared to dealing with the grief of a child. What you do and say to your children in the early weeks and months will help to shape who they are, but also has the potential to damage them for the rest of their lives. Young children do not have the capacity to vocalise their emotions, so you have to give them a way to tell you how they feel. The best way to do this is by stapling a few pieces of paper together and giving it the title, ‘A book about how I feel about my daddy.’ Tell your children that they can draw in the book whenever they feel sad about daddy. I did this with Rosie and I was amazed at the pictures that she produced. It is hard to see your child drawing pictures about death, especially when he or she skips home from playgroup with a big painting of a graveside scene, but you have to understand that it is the only way children have of telling you how they are coping, and if all the people in the picture are smiling, then you know that you are doing something right.
Children learn by example. You must let them see you cry, and in that way they will know that it is all right for them to do the same. I have a friend who was told by her stepmother that she could not cry when her father died. She was only nine years old, and that part of her emotional psyche shut down from that day onwards. She found that she could not allow herself to release any sadness. She never cried, her sadness was stored inside her and the frustration of keeping it there came out as anger. She was so angry as a child that she used to pick fights with the large Alsatians that roamed her estate. She wrestled them, and she won.
It has taken years of counselling for her to be able to release what her stepmother made her lock away. But it was her stepmother who should have been locked away.
That is an extreme example, not all children have cruel stepmothers – some have loving mothers who simply cannot allow their children to see that they are sad. Perhaps the most damaging thing for a bereaved child is never being allowed to talk about his or her father’s death. If children cannot mourn properly, then they will spend the rest of their adult life trying to recover from the emotional scarring – and some people find that they never recover.
People will find it unnerving if your child talks openly about death, but you should never discourage a child from being open and honest to save the embarrassment of an adult. Rosie would walk up to total strangers and tell them that her daddy had just died. Some of the people that she spoke to were amazingly kind and some just couldn’t think of anything to say, but the point is that she felt able to express herself.
She had a little more difficulty at school, because although her teachers were very patient with her, there was only a certain amount of attention that they could devote to an individual child before they had to get the class back to normal. It was only when I was called in to see Rosie’s headmistress and form teacher that I knew that she was getting into trouble. She was clearly trying to get attention and couldn’t understand why she was being punished for doing so. She was also being taunted in the playground, which is a standard reaction to a child who is seen to be ‘different’.
Young children cannot dress up what they are feeling with artifice and invention – they just come right out and say what’s on their mind. My daughter often found comfort in the words of her classmates, but more often than not she would come home in tears because somebody in the playground had been cruel to her. There is nothing that you can do to protect your child from being hurt at school, all you can do is offer comfort and reassurance at home and try to explain the reason why other children say hurtful things.
Difficulties at school will compound all the problems that you will experience at home, but it is vital that you communicate with members of staff and make them aware that your child may need to be shown patience and compassion, long after it is deemed necessary to treat him or her like the rest of the class.
Some of the most remarkable people I know lost their father when they were young, and also some of the most damaged. Children will find strength of character that will last the rest of their lives, if you only give them the chance to look inside themselves and discover it. And if you try to stifle that need for self- enlightenment, if you keep them in the dark, then that darkness will overshadow everything they try to achieve in later life.
So let them go to the funeral if they ask to do so; let them talk until they have exhausted all of their questions, and if all they do is ask the same question over and over again, then you must answer it, over and over again.
Your child’s grief will not necessarily coincide with your own, it may come out a year or so later. If your child begins to display uncharacteristically antisocial behaviour, as my own daughter did, then you have to realise that they are doing so because they want you to react. If all you do is get angry, as I did, then you are not seeing what they are trying to make you see. It took a friend to open my eyes, and make me realise that Rosie was crying out for my undivided attention. She wanted to be treated as an individual, she wanted me to stay with her as she fell asleep each evening – she wanted to be made to feel special. It was so easy to remedy the situation, but if I hadn’t been made to see what I was doing wrong, I might have ended up with different and difficult child, instead of the balanced and loving daughter that I have now.
Once again www.winstonswish.org.uk will be able to give you expert advice on all aspects of helping your child.
The website www.childalert.co.uk is dedicated to child safety and wellbeing. It offers information, education and communication to parents about all aspects of parenting. The aim is to encourage all families with young children to be better prepared and more alert to the dangers that exist, often unwittingly, in and around the home. In particular Childalert gives advice on topics such as Internet Safety, Stranger Danger and Personal Safety.