Death is not an easy subject. The words simply do not effortlessly glide off the tongue and most people choke up at the very thought. As a society, we fail miserably at all facets of the process…we act shocked, surprised, dumbfounded, even inept when it comes knocking (or sometimes pounding) at our door! We’ve certainly all heard the joke that the only things certain in life are death and taxes, right? Then why do we hire professionals to assist with the preparation of one and hide our head in the sand when it comes time for the other? Maybe that’s your reaction to both? We even try to cheat on our taxes but deep down we know full well that ultimately we cannot cheat on death. To each his own.
As adults, we tend to say things like “He/She is in a better place” or “I’m so sorry for your loss”. Better place? Says who. Sorry? Why, was it your fault? And my favorite – Lost? Nope, we tend to physically know exactly where they are so I don’t consider them “lost” at all. It’s kind of like casually dropping the term “committing suicide” like the person that took their own life committed a crime…don’t even get me started on how hurtful and thoughtless that term can be to family left behind to pick up those pieces…As an adult griever, I’ve certainly learned what NOT to say to someone that is in the process of their own roller coaster of sadness. We all do it differently, in different phases and timeframes, and who is anyone to think they know how another is truly dealing on the inside with their grief?
Children grieve in their own time and space as well. In fact, grown-ups can learn a lot from children, especially sad ones. Recently I was given the gift of spending time with a group of children at a camp specifically for grieving kids. My group was comprised of ten such resilient young humans, third through fifth grade. There is no perfect age to experience the death of a loved one but if there was I would argue that this age group comes pretty darn close! They are guarded yet vulnerable; they are reflective, considerate, and overly compassionate and empathetic, especially with one another. They are stoic. They are matter of fact, brutally honest and seldom pull any punches or hold anything back. They have seen and heard and experienced things during their short lives already that most adults will never witness. They are old and wise beyond their years. If you pay close attention, they win your heart and break it all at the same time…
Sitting in a circle with this group is more like a middle aged AA meeting than a children’s support forum. We play games and participate in ice breakers to introduce ourselves and we slowly peel back the layers of our onions…except with these kids, there is nothing slow about their reveal. They cut right to it. They know and are constantly reminded that they are surrounded by friends in this safe place, other people going through the exact same thing they are trying to navigate themselves, all too often on their own.
There are three adult counselors assigned to this group including myself as well as a licensed therapist. I can’t speak for my counterparts but it would be my guess that they too struggled to hold back the tears as each child opted to share (or not) bits and pieces of their own stories. The wisdom, grace and forgiveness that came from these young people was staggering.
The exercise was simple enough – based on jelly bean colors, we discussed our feelings in order around the circle. Playful, grumpy, sad, mad, and love were all up for grabs. One little girl shared how it made her sad that coworkers of her mother’s refused to come to her father’s funeral because they didn’t like him much. She thought that was cruel and they should have come anyway to support her mother. Several of them were mad and confused that God chose their person to go to Heaven and simply wanted to know “Why?”. One little boy shared how he felt love every time he remembered his grandmother so fondly at Christmastime and in the next breath wondered how different this holiday would be without her. Another boy could only whisper the raw truth that his father had died and was unable to say another word.
Conversely, their siblings, the youngest campers, exist in the moment and react impulsively and instinctively to their immediate surroundings. They are capable of only so much, are driven by instant gratification and often are unable to articulate their feelings of loss and grief in a mature way so it undoubtedly manifests itself through other behaviors, words and actions. They are more easily distracted but make no mistake, if you scratch the surface, the pain and agony of their loss is right there hiding like a monster under the bed. For these children, death is a mysterious taker and something to be feared.
The older children and teenagers of this tribe are more reserved, most of them feeling the weighted responsibility of staying strong and looking out for their younger siblings. Teens often harvest copious amounts of anger through their grief which is their mask, their way of creating a wall that insulates and protects them. These self inflicted boundaries in turn keep them at a distance and numb. Adolescence is already a wild ride on its own – grief adds layers that compound this difficult and confusing journey. They are survivors on the outside but still little kids on the inside.
Every one of them is resilient but make no mistake, they are paying attention. They are hyper sensitive and absorb everything that they hear, see and experience. Too often, a well intentioned adult will plant a seed by deflecting their own inadequacies or guilt or sadness onto a child. If this is you, stop it right now! You have the power to build up and the free will to choose not to break down. Your words and actions matter and have the potential to create ripples that will last a lifetime. Think before you speak, take a deep breath before you act. Wisdom, grace and forgiveness are never wasted on the young.