Children Have Their Own System Of Grief

Children Have Their Own System Of Grief

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

"Charlotte's Web," by E.B.White, a classic in children's literature, is a wonderful book for teaching children that death is nothing but part of life's cycle.

I never got to read the book, but I recently watched the home video animated version which carries the same title. I have paraphrased and abbreviated the story so it can be told to a child in a brief sitting.

Charlotte is a very motherly type of spider who comes to care a lot about a little pig, Wilbur, and takes it upon herself to protect and preserve him from all dangers.

Wilbur, the little pig, gets very attached to, and dependent on, Charlotte, the motherly spider. Wilbur wants to have Charlotte prepare Wilbur for such facts of life as one day she will be gone and he will have to be on his own.

As Charlotte says, "A spider's life is an uncertain thing, but I promise to be here as long as I can."

So on the farm, where Wilbur, Charlotte and their other animal friends live, life goes on. Winter comes, followed by spring, followed by summer, which is followed by fall and the cycle of seasons is repeated over and over again. One day, Charlotte breaks the news to Wilbur that she is feeling her age. She is getting old and languishing. Wilbur sinks into sorrow, realizing that Charlotte is not going to be with him forever.

Wilbur asks Charlotte if she is sad because she is dying. Charlotte then explains to Wilbur, "We are born. We live for a while. Then we all die. By helping you, I have lived my life a little more." Leaving these words of wisdom and 500 little spider eggs in the care of Wilbur, Charlotte dies. That means that Charlotte will not be eating, drinking, breathing, or doing anything that you or I can do.

Wilbur goes through the mourning and the sorrow of Charlotte's loss. But life goes on, as ever. Those 500 spider eggs break into "teeny weenie" spiders. The cycle of the seasons goes on. Winter throws snow on the mountains, and plains. But after a while, the snow melts. Then spring comes, bulbs sprout, and the earth is green and good again. One day the baby spiders grow old enough to branch out to the other parts of the land.

Wilbur misses Charlotte for a long time and, in the beginning, it hurts a lot. But, gradually, he started getting used to being without her. Wilbur, who was once too little to take care of himself, grew big enough to care for the baby spiders. Then they became big enough to care for themselves.

The story can help a child to understand that there is a purpose and hope for those who suffer the loss of a loved one.

A play therapist who works with grieving children gives each one of them two paper bags and crayons and asks them to make two puppets, one of themselves and the other one of the lost loved one. The therapist then asks them to have a "let's pretend" conversation. Having made the two puppets, children wear them on their hands and have a conversation between themselves and the lost person. The therapist has overheard fascinating conversation that only children can come up with. Here are a few examples:
"What is it like there?"
"Is there Disney World up there?"
"Do you eat ice cream every day?"
"Is it true you don't have to do any homework there?"

Balloons can also serve a useful purpose in helping a child to communicate messages to a lost loved one. A message could be something the child wanted to say but never got the opportunity to say to the loved one or something that he or she wants to convey after the loss. The child or you can write the message on a small piece of paper, put it in a balloon, blow it up with helium and let it go up into the air.

You may also ask a grieving child to make a "fear card," if the child seems worried or fearful about something. Ask the child, "Before you go to sleep, what do you think about?" Some of the fears commonly expressed by children run like this: "Will I die?" "Will you die?" "Will we have enough money to live on?" "Will we move out of this house?" "Will you remarry?"

You may also ask a child to make "worry beads." Let the child pick up one bead and name it after a specific worry. Then let the child put all the beads in a "worry cup" and go to bed.

After his father died, a do-gooder relative took the little boy aside and said, "You are the man of the house now. You must take care of your mother, your little brother and your little sister." The boy took his new assignment in dead earnest. He called a temp agency for a job, picked up his stuff from his room and moved into his mother's room. Luckily, his mother didn't think it was necessary.

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted July 2003


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