"Can Children Really Mourn?" Revisited

"Can Children Really Mourn?" Revisited

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

More than a decade ago, I wrote an article, Can Children Really Mourn?, in which I discussed children's understanding of the concept of death at various ages and corresponding ability to grieve at the loss of a loved one.

The article was in response to questions from parents and teachers, such as, "Can children grieve? Do they grieve?" "Can they bear the grief or will they be totally devastated if we were honest with them about the loss?" "Do I have to tell my child right away and shock him (or her)? Wouldn't it sink in at some point anyway?"

The article has been available on the Internet through my website. In response to the article, I have heard from a lot of parents, but never from a child. This week I did!

Who I heard from is a teenager, who we will call "Mat." Mat is quite mature for his age. Mat has already written a paper for his school, "Parental Death and Its Effect On Young Children." He wants me to share his experiences in the hope that it may help another child.

When Mat's father died of cancer and brain hemorrhage, he was seven years old. Here is Mat's story in his own words.

"When my Father died, did I feel grief? Did I mourn? Yes, for years. I dare say it changed me like a scar does the skin. Perhaps, like scar tissue, my mental skin became stronger because of the thick patch. I believe, however, that this hideous scar also became a great blemish in response to a so-called battle wound."

"My Mother told us the same day what had happened, and explained the implications not long after. I guess I knew how sick he was, but I never expected him to die. I sometimes wonder if anybody really knew he wouldn't make it. If so, were they trying to protect us, his children? I can't hold anything against them. How can you tell a seven-year-old to say, "good-bye" to his father forever, but manage to explain the details of what's going to happen? It happened anyway, it's too late to say what you wanted to say. Like a sick joke, it went over my head and made its way back after the joke had expired; too late to be of any effect."

"I can still remember the physical sensations I experienced upon hearing the news. I was too young then to explain it, but now I can at least try. It felt like free-floating. Not like it does when you're in the pool or hot tub. If you can imagine: It felt like every bone you possessed had deserted you, leaving your muscles to atrophy due to lack of use, and fail to hold you up. The trauma of the situation's truth robbed me of my memories for days. It took me years to remember the days after the incident.

"Oh, how I grieved and mourned. I know it's different when you're a child than when you're an adult, but many of the feelings are the same. Shock, then helplessness, then deep grief, then fear, lack of surety, anger, and bitterness. I felt them all. I knew what it meant when they told me he died. I was never going to see, hear, or touch him again. Abrupt severance. The corny revelations of receding into darkness and nothingness became real. The cold and the shivering, that unending pain!

"I'm terribly sorry if my letter has been too long. I guess I finally found someone to uncork the bottle of my feelings. Thank you. Feel free to use this letter in any of your observations or studies. I only hope I can help people understand that children do grieve and mourn. Like I said; "different, but all too much the same."

Undoubtedly, Mat is a highly articulate young man. His account of his grief experience of that time is facilitated by his current verbal capacity. However, based on his recall, he has told us exactly what he experienced then.

Here is how he describes his initial shock and grief: ""I can still remember the physical sensations I experienced upon hearing the news. .It felt like free-floating. Not like it does when you're in the pool or hot tub."

It appears that at the age when children are not very verbal, they might experience initial shock and grief though bodily sensations.

Adult may also experience the initial shock through unusual bodily sensations. Later, thoughts tend to take over though adults continue feeling the physical malaise. In the case of children, the process of feeling the loss in terms of bodily sensations might be more prominent and may last longer.

Even one year old children form strong attachment and bonding with parents. They feel safer and more secure in presence of their parents than they do in presence of any other human being. Once babies recognize their parents in a meaningful way, they feel uneasy when parents are out of sight. It is as if when parent is in sight, the baby is "grounded." When parent is out of sight, the ground becomes a little shaky.

Perhaps, that "free floating" sensation Mat describes is symbolic of the loss of the ground, which slipped from under him when father passed away.

Mat, it appears is doing very well now. Judging from his verbal skills, emotional intelligence and desire to help others, one day, he would be a successful man.

Isn't it comforting to know that "Time heals all wounds," or "scars of the mental skins," as told by Mat.

Can Children Really Mourn?
Return to Grief Work in Children
Return to Self Help 

Copyright 2004, Mind Publications 
Posted May 2004


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