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Losing a loved one is the most stressful and painful life event one can imagine, and parents who lose a child are sometimes faced with polar experiences: the loss of a child and the demands from surviving children. As noted by York University Psychology Professor, Stephen Fleming, “The challenge that parents face is this: In the midst of grief, how do you stop parenting the deceased child while you are simultaneously struggling to meet the parenting needs of the children who remain?” Fleming notes that in the face of such great loss, there is no ‘recovery’. Rather, there is regeneration: finding a sense of self and of family in time.
Coping is Different for Mothers and Fathers
Fleming’s research has shown that fathers tend to face grief by going back to work and trying to obtain a sense of normalcy; they tend to overcome insecurities about their surviving children more rapidly than mothers, who “tend to be more intuitive grievers, more focused on internal feelings, and they have an almost paralyzing fear that if one child can die, another could die as well.” Life after the loss of a loved one can result in difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, trouble concentrating and other symptoms for both partners, who won’t necessarily verbalize their feelings in the same way. How can we take these different approaches into account and ensure that everyone in the family is able to express grief in their own way?
Children Grieve Differently
As noted in cancer.net, children sometimes express their grief very differently from adults: “Some may be sad and verbalize the loss like many adults. Depending on their ages, however, they may show sadness only sometimes and for short periods. Children may complain of physical discomfort, such as stomachaches or headaches. Or they may express anxiety or distress about other challenges, such as school or sports.” Research has shown that children are rarely prepared for the death of a sibling, yet mourning is aided when they know of the imminence and inevitability of death. Some express a need to see the loved one they have lost or to attend a funeral, though they may need protection from the intense grief expressed at this moment. Attending with someone who is less affected by the death (such as a family friend) may be helpful. Moreover, preventive counselling for both children and parents can help to prevent depression and other conditions. Children and parents who do have symptoms of depression should see a specialist to reduce trauma.
Accepting the Stages of Grief
Survival from loss is cyclical, as espoused by Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ Five Stages of Grief theory. Kubler Ross noted that those facing loss tend to experience five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ‘acceptance’. Her research found that people do not go through the stages in a determined order at all; sometimes, they will feel that they have managed to regenerate themselves, only to find that they suddenly feel very depressed once again, or angry… thus, grief involves riding several ‘waves’ which, as painful as they are, are ever changing. There is always a chance of having a good day after one that feels like it has no light.
Finding Support in Each Other
It is important for family members who need to talk about their grief, to feel free to do so. During talks, parents can make clear that the child is not to blame for the death of their sibling (since some kids may develop ‘survivor guilt’). Affection and reassurance are key. Children and parents should also find additional ways to express themselves. Journaling, in which one reflects on the significance of emotions and experiences, has been found to aid in the reduction of stress hormone, cortisol, enabling us to recognize and accept difficult emotions without judgement.
Mindfulness based practises such as meditation can also be helpful, since mindfulness espouses the impermanence of even the most difficult thoughts and emotions. When talking about loss, families should let children know about the stages of grief, explaining that they may go through various stages several times before they start feeling better. Children and adults should strengthen connections with friends and children should know that they can turn to family friends or teachers when they need to. Finally, help from a mental health professional should be sought for anyone who is struggling.
Each family member should feel free to grieve in their own way. While attending to their own emotional needs and trying to reduce stress through holistic pursuits such as meditation, parents can ease their children’s lot by helping them understand the range of emotions they are feeling, keeping routines as consistent, and continuing to set limits on behavior. Social interaction, mindfulness activities, and speaking with a grief counsellor can help everyone in the family: children and adults alike.