Bereaved Parents Month Post: Sibling Grief Reactions By Age Group

Grieving parents often face the additional challenge of trying to help their surviving children process the death of a sibling.

While there are many factors that influence how a particular child understands and works through his or her grief, age at time of bereavement plays a significant role.

Children’s grief can look very different than that of the adults around them. And that grief may resurface later on as the child grows and matures, even long after the death of a loved one.

I came across this helpful article that lists common bereavement reactions by age group and have reprinted it in its entirety. It was originally published at KidsHealth New Zealand. http://www.kidshealth.org.nz

Key Points to Remember About Bereavement Reactions:

  • how any child or young person grieves when someone they love has died will depend on many things
  • babies, children and teenagers tend to grieve in bursts, and at other times will look for reassurance and comfort in their normal routines and activities
  • bereaved children and teenagers will need ongoing attention, reassurance and support – it is not unusual for grief to resurface later on, even well after the death

How any child or young person grieves when someone they love has died will depend on many things, such as their:

  • age
  • gender
  • their developmental stage
  • personality
  • ways they usually react to stress and emotion
  • relationship with the person who has died
  • earlier experiences of loss or death
  • family circumstances
  • how others around them are grieving
  • amount of support around them

Babies, children and teenagers may often seem unconcerned, playing or doing their usual activities, so adults can assume they are not properly aware of the death, or affected by it. They are, but in their own ways. Babies, children and teenagers tend to grieve in bursts, and at other times will look for reassurance and comfort in their normal routines and activities.

Bereaved children and teenagers will need ongoing attention, reassurance and support. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later on, even well after the death. This can happen as they move through different life milestones, and develop as individuals.

Babies and Toddlers:

At this young age babies and toddlers don’t have an understanding of death nor the language to say how they are feeling. However, they can definitely experience feelings of loss and separation and are likely to pick up on the anxiety or distress of close adults or others around them.

Common reactions can include:

  • looking for the person who has died
  • being irritable
  • crying more
  • wanting to be held more; being clingy
  • being less active – quiet, less responsive
  • possible weight loss
  • being jumpy, anxious
  • being fretful, distressed

How to help them:

  • keep routines and normal activities going as much as possible
  • hold and cuddle them more
  • speak calmly and gently to them – and be calm around them
  • provide comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket etc

Preschoolers

At this age children find it hard to understand that death is permanent. They are also at a stage of magical thinking, for example, thinking someone will come alive again or thinking somehow they made someone die. They understand separation though, and feel insecure and frightened when the familiar things around them change. This age group needs a lot of reassurance that they will be safe and looked after.

Common reactions can include:

  • looking for the person who has died
  • dreams, or sensing the presence of the person who has died
  • fearfulness, anxiety
  • clinginess
  • being fretful, distressed
  • being irritable; having more tantrums
  • withdrawing, being quiet, showing a lack of response
  • changes in eating
  • difficulty in sleeping
  • toileting problems, bed wetting, soiling
  • regressing in progress; for example, returning to crawling, wanting a bottle

How to help them:

  • keep routines and normal activities going as much as possible
  • tell them you know they are sad – start to teach and use words that describe feelings
  • tell them they are safe, and who is looking after them
  • keep separated from them as little as possible
  • comfort them with hugs, cuddles, holding their hand, and by encouraging them
  • speak calmly and gently to them – and be calm around them
  • explain death as part of life, so they come to understand it bit by bit. Using some examples in nature may be helpful, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons change
  • provide comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket etc
  • encourage play – children can often use play to help them process what’s happened; for example, sand play, puppets, dolls, writing, drawing, painting and various physical activities

Primary School Children

Primary school children are still learning to understand death and can have some confused thoughts about it. They may think death is temporary, or that the person who has died may still feel things, such as coldness, hunger or loneliness etc. They may ask where the person is now, and have blunt questions to ask about what happened to them and to their body. Explaining death to them is very important.

Common reactions can include:

  • looking for the person who has died
  • having dreams about, or sensing the presence of, the person who has died
  • blaming themselves for the death
  • being easily distracted, forgetful
  • being anxious; having increased fears, such as of the dark, of others’ safety
  • clinginess – wanting to be near you or others more
  • withdrawing, being quiet, showing a lack of response
  • being fretful, distressed, not wanting to go to school
  • feeling embarrassment; feeling different from others; may conceal their loss
  • physical complaints, such as tummy aches, headaches, aching
  • being irritable, having more tantrums, being defiant, or developing antisocial or aggressive behaviour
  • changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • toileting problems, bed wetting, soiling

How to help them:

  • frequently reassure them they are safe, and who is looking after them
  • keep routines and normal activities going as much as possible
  • tell them you know they are sad – start to use words that describe feelings
  • keep separated from them as little as possible
  • allow questions and provide honest answers
  • comfort them with hugs, cuddles, holding their hand, and by encouraging them
  • speak calmly and gently to them – and be calm around them
  • explain death as part of life, so they come to understand it bit by bit. Using some examples in nature may be helpful, such as watching plants grow, bloom and die or seasons change
  • let them help in planning the funeral or something to remember the loss
  • provide comfort items, such as a cuddly toy, special blanket etc
  • encourage play – children often can use play to help them process what’s happened; for example, sand play, puppets, dolls, writing, drawing, painting and various physical activities

Older Children (10-12 years)

Common reactions include:

All of the above relate to this age group, but it’s important to be aware that by this age children know death is final. They are also more aware of how adults and others around them are reacting to death. This group may also:

  • be especially anxious about the safety of family and friends, and themselves
  • try very hard to please adults and not worry them, and so not let themselves grieve
  • feel stronger emotional reactions, such as anger, guilt, sense of rejection
  • want to take on more adult responsibilities, trying very hard to please
  • feel embarrassment; feel different from peers; may conceal their loss
  • become more focused on what’s happened and ask questions, think about it a lot, have dreams about it, and perhaps want to talk about it often to others

How to help them:

They need all of the help in the previous section plus:

  • time to talk with you and other trusted adults, when they need to
  • regular reassurance – spoken, and with encouraging physical touch (such as hugs, pat on the back etc).
  • honesty about events, and feelings
  • to know you understand their grief
  • regular encouragement
  • avoid expectations of adult behaviour – allow them to be the age and stage they are

Teenagers

By adolescence, death is accepted as part of life, but it may not have affected a teenager personally yet. Their reactions may fluctuate between earlier age group reactions and reactions that are more adult.

Teenagers will often want to be more with friends than family as they seek support. They may find the intensity of emotion overwhelming or scary and not be able to find the words or ways to talk about them with others. They may want to feel they’re coping, and be seen to be, but inside be hurting a great deal, or be putting their emotions on a shelf for a later time.

Death can so shake teens that some react with risk taking behaviour – to escape the feelings and reality and as a source of comfort; for example, drinking, drugs, more sexual contact or reckless driving.

Common reactions can include:

  • being easily distracted, forgetful
  • having difficulty concentrating at school
  • being unsettled in class, a change in class performance, not wanting to go to school
  • being overwhelmed by intense reactions, such as anger, guilt, fear
  • having difficulty expressing intensity of emotions, or conflict of emotions
  • blaming themselves for the death
  • anxiety – increased fears about others’ safety, and their own
  • having questions or concerns about death, dying, mortality
  • dreams about, or sensing the presence of, the person who has died
  • wanting to be near family or friends more
  • withdrawing to be alone
  • physical complaints, such as tummy aches, headaches, aching
  • being irritable, defiant, more antisocial or displaying aggressive behaviour
  • risk-taking behaviour to escape, to comfort, or to prove they’re alive and strong; for example, drinking, drugs, more sexual contact or reckless driving
  • changes in eating, sleeping habits
  • bedwetting
  • jokes or humour, masking feelings
  • saying, or acting like, they don’t care
  • wanting to take on more adult responsibilities, trying very hard to please
  • strained relationships with others – fear or awkwardness about being close to others
  • feeling embarrassment; feeling different from peers; may conceal their loss
  • a sense of loneliness – isolation
  • a change in self-image, lower self-esteem
  • possibly suicidal thoughts
  • possibly moving from sadness into depression

How to help them:

  • be honest and let them know what’s happening
  • be willing to listen, and available to talk about whatever they need to talk about
  • acknowledge the emotions they may be feeling—fear, sadness, anger
  • it can be helpful for parents, or other adults, to share their own feelings regarding the loss
  • frequently reassure them they are safe, who is caring for them, and which adults they can trust to ask for further support
  • keep routines and normal activities going as much as possible
  • talk to them about grief – what it is, that it’s normal, that everyone is different
  • avoid expectations of adult behaviour – allow them to be the age and stage they are, encourage them to express their thoughts and feelings – give them ideas of things they could try, such as doing physical activities, writing, singing, listening to music, talking with friends, reading etc
  • allow questions and provide honest answers
  • comfort them with hugs, cuddles, holding their hand, and by encouraging them
  • speak calmly and gently to them – and be calm around them
  • talk about death together; answer any questions they may have
  • let them help in planning the funeral or something to remember the loss

Bereaved children and teenagers will need ongoing attention, reassurance and support. It is not unusual for grief to resurface later on, even well after the death. This can happen as they move through different life milestones, and develop as individuals.

If you are concerned about any extreme reactions, or if you think the young person may have become depressed, contact your doctor or other trained adviser, such as a counsellor, senior staff member from their school, social worker, community or youth worker or a local family support agency.

Originally published on: http://www.kidshealth.org.nz

Full of Joy and Safe in His Father’s Arms

I’ve mothered things all my life.  

Kittens, puppies, hamsters, other people.  

And then I had my very own children. 

What a privilege to pour my life into them!  What joy to see them grow and mature and become people I not only loved but admired and respected!

dominic and siblings little children at nannys

I learned so very much while raising my children.  The Lord used them to shape and mold my heart to be more like His.  They were instruments of grace and discipline.  Over and over and over I had to lay down my preferences and priorities to make way for theirs.

Now I have a grandson. 

ryker hands up and paci (2)

Another generation to snuggle and teach, comfort and care for.  

I’m already learning even more in this season.  

This little guy’s early and rocky start in life reignited passion for prayer in mine.  Watching him grow and thrive sparks hope and joy like I haven’t felt in the years since Dominic left us for Heaven.

His smile lights up my heart and the room.

Just the other day his daddy shared this picture with me:  

ryker smiling big in daddys arms

James Michael was being silly with him, oohing and aahing and making him giggle.

As I stared at the photo I realized this child was experiencing such joy, such complete contentment, fulfillment and utter sense of safety it was uncontainable.

So it spread all over his face.  

Then I had an epiphany-that’s exactly what Dominic feels right now. 

This very minute the child I am missing is missing nothing.  Precisely when I am wondering if God cares, if He hears, if He’s even near, Dominic is filled to overflowing with undeniable and uncontainable joy because what I hope for he SEES. 

And one day that will be me. 

All the heartache of this life will fade away to a tiny, tiny dot in the distance.  What has been stolen will be restored.  What has been bartered away will be redeemed.  Wounds will be fully healed and my heart will be whole.  

I’ll be full of joy and safe in my Father’s arms.  ❤

no eye has seen no ear has heard

 

 

 

Thirty-Five Years and Counting

Some people say they’d love to know what life has around the corner.

Not me.

At least not much past tomorrow morning.

If my husband and I had known thirty-five years ago what our lives would be like along the way, we may very well have turned tail and run in the other direction!

hector and me 29 anniversary

There have been many, many good things in those years.

We have four beautiful children whom we love so much.  Two are married and their spouses are a blessing to our family.

And this year our first grandchild made his dramatic appearance at only twenty-eight weeks!  We are oh, so thankful he’s doing well.

It’s a brand new feeling to watch your son with his.

ryker and jm june 19

There have been a fair number of not-so-good things too. 

Job layoffs, illness, the death of Hector’s parents one right after the other and the stress and strain of life’s details when it seemed we couldn’t get a break.

But nothing compares to burying Dominic.  

How does a heart learn to live with a giant piece missing?

IMG_1813 (1)

We have, though. 

We’ve muddled through.

The commitment we made all those years ago has stood firm.

It’s battered, crumpled, muddied and torn, but it remains the guiding promise of our lives together.

traditional wedding vows

Crossroads: Celebrations After Child Loss

I want to be everything my living children need me to be.  

I try hard to celebrate them, be available, listen closely and love them well.  

I never, ever want them to feel they are competing with their missing brother for my affection or my attention.  

But I’d be lying if I said it was always easy.  

Sometimes the happy moment so closely resembles a shared memory that includes Dominic, my heart takes my head in directions I wish it wouldn’t go.  Sometimes it’s a long awaited once-in-a-lifetime occasion and Dom’s absence is a giant, gaping hole everywhere I look.

It’s really hard to be stuck at the crossroad of being happy for a child still here while mourning and missing the child that’s gone.

brandon and fiona wedding her laughing not screenshotI’ve had to do that many, many times in the five years since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven and I’ve found a couple of things that help.  

I put something in my pocket or wear a piece of jewelry that is a token of my love for Dominic. 

IMG_1815

It helps me feel as if he’s represented even if no one else knows about it.  Then I lean in and take hold of the celebration as best as I can. When I feel overwhelmed, I touch my little token and/or escape to a quiet corner or bathroom for a minute or two and collect myself.

I also try to do something called “pre-grieving”. 

coffee and journal morning

I allow myself time early in the morning of an event to be alone and cry if I need to.  If the tears won’t come, I listen to music that helps my heart reach that place of release.  I journal my feelings.  I walk through the day and admit where it might be especially challenging.  I think through how I can deal with that and make a plan.

It makes a difference.  

So much has been stolen from my surviving children. 

I don’t want them robbed of their mama too.  

beach-and-family-better

 

Child Loss: Missing The Family I Thought I’d Have

I miss a lot of things since Dominic ran ahead to Heaven.  

I miss HIM-his deep voice, his perspective and his thump-thump-thumping down the stairs and the rhythm of who he is.

And I miss how his absence has reshaped the family I thought I’d have.  

Raising four children, investing my time, heart and energy into who they were turning out to be, I naturally projected into the years ahead.  All that love poured into them would create a legacy we’d all enjoy.  Marriages, careers, grandchildren and experience would blend together into a (if not perfectly harmonious) at least a shared future.

desimones uab family

I never imagined turning a calendar page without one of my children to turn it with me.  

Dominic’s death has touched each one of us.  His missing is as powerful a force as his presence.  We are absolutely NOT THE SAME as we would have been if he were still here nor as we were when he was still here.

When Dom first left us, I was primarily mourning him.  I still miss him like crazy.  

But a lot of my mourning during the past twelve months has been for the family I thought I would have.  I see each of my surviving children are processing Dominic’s absence in ways that influence their decisions.

In some ways it’s beautiful-I see twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings making choices with wisdom way beyond their years.  In some ways it’s brutal-they set up safeguards because they know by experience that leaving the house doesn’t always mean you return.  They have back up plans for everything.

Which wasn’t something I even thought about when I was their age.  

My husband and I expected to drift into retirement years full of energy and vigor.  Much of that has been stolen from us by child loss too.  Oh, how we long to be the fun grandparents, the traveling duo, the footloose crazy pair but it’s much more effort than we anticipated.

Sometimes we can’t muster that energy at all.  

I know some changes were inevitable.  Dominic’s death coincided with a natural progression toward an empty nest.  I’m not a helicopter mama and I’ve always said my goal was to raise children who could function well without me so I think that as much as possible, I prepared my heart for them to grow up and grow apart.

But in addition to normal changes, there’s an utterly unnatural and unwelcome transformation from nuclear family to brokenhearted family.

I am so, so thankful that we have chosen the hard path of running toward one another instead of running away.  

I’m grateful that we have grown from five left behind to a table for eight-two new spouses and a precious grandchild. 

I do not take a single second for granted because I know that seconds are not guaranteed.  

But I sure wish Dominic were here to share it with us.  

dominic at olive garden

 

 

 

Grief is a Family Affair

Child loss is also often sibling loss.  

In addition to their own heartache, bereaved parents carry the heartache of their surviving children.  

The family everyone once knew is now a family no one recognizes.  Hurting hearts huddle together-or run and hide-and it is so, so hard to find a way to talk about that pain. 

There is definitely a time and place for professional counseling.  Many, many families benefit from having a trained individual, outside the immediate grief circle, guide them in exploring feelings, developing coping strategies and learning to live life this side of loss.

But there is also something to be said for arranging casual open-ended activities with surviving siblings, parents and even grandparents where space and a more relaxed atmosphere often leads to honest sharing.

This graphic has lots of excellent suggestions for how to craft such a space.

Not all will be suitable for every family, but every family should be able to find a few that fit.

I’ll add these guidelines that may help your family make the best choice for YOU:

  • Don’t force it.  If you make an offer of an activity and it drops with a thud to the ground, let it go.  You might be able to do it another time.
  • Don’t make it (what my kids like to say!) a “mandatory option”.  There must be no guilt or coercion invading this space.  If one or more of your family members consistently refuse to join in, consider asking a close family friend to take that individual out alone and see what might be going on.
  • If you choose a movie or other story-themed activity, LOOK UP THE PLOT!  I can’t tell you how many times we were sideswiped by a death scene or some other heavy emotional plot twist.  There may be a time when your family is prepared to experience those things together (we can now) but it may not be yet.
  • Mix and match more structured activities with open-ended ones like walks outside, watching the sunset, sitting on the beach, hanging at the pool, playing a game (not too competitive-that will sometimes bring out hidden anger).
  • If you have a family with a broad range of ages you might have to do some things with the littles and some with the older kids.  You can always add one or two activities a month or quarter where everyone (or as many as are available) gets together.
  • If your children, spouse, parent or other close griever begins to talk-let them.  If tears flow-that’s progress!  If ugly feelings are expressed, listen.  Try not to be defensive.  Try to hear the hurt behind the words.  It’s OK to set ground rules like using “I” statements and not blaming.  But don’t shut them out or shut them down.  

These are just ideas.  

Google is your friend and your phone is probably already in your hand or pocket-use it.

Find things that fit YOUR family. 

The only way through is through.  

You have to feel and deal to heal. 

selfcare for families

Wedding Day!

Today is the day!

All the preparation and anticipation meet under a covered outdoor chapel as my daughter and her fiance exchange vows and become one.

By the end of the evening, we will have laughed (and cried!), danced and toasted our way through this very important event.

And they will leave changed in ways they can’t imagine nor fully understand.  It takes time to grow into lifelong commitment.

It takes years for singleness to be sanded down to a perfect fit one for the other.

Weddings are fun.  

Marriage is work.  

My parents have been married for 58 years.  My husband and I for nearly 35.  None of us has a magic formula for marital longevity.  Mostly it’s been leaning into the commitment we made at the altar so many years ago even when it seemed easier to give up and give in.

We’ve all faced so many challenges in our decades together.  Some we saw coming and some landed suddenly on top of us without warning.  Life, death, moving house, illness, accident, floods, hurricanes, and dozens of smaller crises have forced us to change course, adjust our sails and adapt to new and often unwelcome directions.   But we haven’t abandoned ship.

Sometimes it’s been pure grit and determination that see us through.  Other times it’s holding on to the good things we’ve shared together.  

I’m thankful we are celebrating today.  

I’ll be tucking this memory in a safe place where I can pull it out on days that aren’t so beautiful.  

It’s my prayer that Fiona and Brandon do the same.  

fiona and brandon at farm

When life gets hard (and it will!) may they remember the promises they made to one another and weather the storms together.

Now this is the reason a man leaves his father and his mother, and is united with his wife; and the two become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 VOICE