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The Last Thing You Want to Learn

Once a year, a group of slow-moving people gathers in my driveway to accomplish a major feat – walking across the street. They have cancer and are in the active phase of treatment which may weaken them physically, but not in the ways that count. They head toward the Wellness House, a cancer support center that sits across from my house. Instead of staying home which they could easily justify, they come out to kick off the 5 and 10K walk that raises funds for the center. There are balloons, music and prizes. While the walkers set out, runners pace around trying to stay loose in the early morning air, dressed in team T-shirts with a loved one’s picture on the front, or a team slogan like Cancer is a word, not a sentence.

The whole event is bathed in grief. No one wants to be there, wearing a picture of a person they love. No one wants to watch someone find it hard to walk across the street. No one would wish this trouble on another.

But life being what it is, you don’t get what you want; you get what you get. And what you get gives you a chance to learn things you never wanted to learn. So the people show up, and what comes out is the resolve that rests underneath the grief.

Anytime of the week, I see folks walking through the doors across the street for a support group meeting, or lecture, or exercise class. Some of them have cancer; some of them love someone with cancer. I feel glad for them that they have this place to go. I feel sad remembering my friend and her family who had no such place to go when she faced cancer back in 1990, when her children were young teenagers.

The ones that hitch my heart the most are the children, hurrying in to join a bereavement support group. The arrival of grief into a child’s life introduces reality, roughly and suddenly. It begins with the illness: Instead of Grandpa being the guy you love to play with, he becomes a sick person you have to take it easy around. If Grandpa dies, the child begins a lengthy walk with grief, and the adults who remain must learn how to help.

Some of the basics of helping children to grieve are well-understood:

  • Let them see you cry, and tell them that it is normal. It gives them permission to express emotion when they need to. And it lets them know that they don’t need to hold theirs in to help you.

  • Communicate clear and realistic messages. “Grandma died.” “Her body stopped working.” “It cannot be fixed.”

  • Avoid confusing statements like “She’s gone away,” or “She’s sleeping,” or “She’s gone on a trip far away.” Children are concrete thinkers and will misunderstand those references and wait for their loved one to show up one day.

  • Watch how you portray God. Instead of implicating God in the disappearance of a loved one, as in “God needed her so he called her home,” promote him as a source of comfort and help, if you so believe.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions of your child, and encourage him to do the same. Find out what your child knows about death, and about the terms you are using to explain the death. Your conversations may need to be repeated again and again as your child grows in understanding. You may still be talking about this periodically for years, as kids need to reprocess their grief as they move through developmental stages.

Other realities about grieving children are less well-known:

  • Kids are masters of intermittent grieving. They may seem in the depths one minute, and then ready to dash out to play the next. It is as if they have a circuit breaker that saves them from overload. Be assured that this is normal. In fact, the rest of us might be smart to learn from them.

  • Kids often believe that they are responsible for the death of a loved one. Since they naturally believe that the universe revolves around them, they overestimate their power, and their responsibility. They can imagine that anything they did wrong could be the reason for a loved one’s death.

  • Grief is not one-size-fits-all. For children as well as adults, there are wide ranges of emotion, as well as different styles of grieving. Everyone has an individual grief footprint. Avoid imposing outside constructs like stages of grief or expectations about timing.

  • Expect siblings to grieve differently from each other, because they will. Make sure they know that and reassure them that as long as they do not stop themselves from grieving, they will be okay.

  • It is important to involve children in story-telling about the deceased, and in rituals of remembrance. But judge carefully how and when to carry this out. There is no rule about whether a child should attend a wake or funeral. That decision can even wait until the last minute, and the child should have a chance to weigh in. Whether they attend or not, let other rituals emerge over time. A visit to Grandma’s favorite picnic spot, or cooking a meal made up of her favorite foods, or remembering her birthday by going through family pictures can all be healing. Children can suggest their own favorite ways of remembrance.

  • Finally, make sure they know that grief gets easier over time, even though it never fully goes away. Tell them that the power of good memories grows, and the intense longing lessens.

This year when the day for the walk arrives, I plan to concentrate on the children in their T-shirts, who are doing what they can, and their parents, who are showing them how.

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