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Grief in hiding…

January 15, 2012

We all grieve.  But each in our own way.  Grief as fact is universal.  Grief as experience is personal.  There are common themes, but even those are shaped by our personal touch.  Regardless of your way of grieving, it’s important to remember two things.  Loss may be an event.  Grief is a process.

What we know in theory, sometimes becomes blurry in reality.  We bring our own histories and personalities to this partnership with grief.  We are still at risk of assuming that others grieve like we grieve.  We forget that differences, like our age, or the number of times we have encountered grief, affect how we feel our grief.  Our experience in the dance of loss affects how we show our grief.

Our acquaintance with grief begins in childhood and continues through adolescence.  Friends move away.  We lose pets. Grandparents die.  Painful lessons about life and the passage of time, happening in an order we don’t like, but come to accept as life’s way.  Sometimes loss happens out of order, bringing painful lessons about time cut short.  Sometimes we are children facing the loss of a child, a peer.

I was in junior high school the first time I faced the death of a peer.  He was a year younger than me.  We didn’t go to the same school, or even live in the same town.  We weren’t best friends or extremely close. Perhaps it made a difference that we had become friends on our own.  Our parents didn’t know each other.  Our respective friends didn’t know each other.  I met him during the summer when I visited my grandparents.  We rode horses together, talking about incidentally important teenage topics.  At the end of the summer he stayed in the country, I went back to the city.  And then the news came that he had killed himself, with a shotgun, over a girl.  He left a note.  “She doesn’t love me anymore.”

I traveled the fifty miles, by myself on a Greyhound bus, to attend his funeral at the local high school. The gymnasium was filled with people from the rural community and beyond.  There were junior high and high school students.  Young people facing the loss of a peer, a death out of order.  I was there to pay my respects to a brief friendship, and perhaps to stand with other teenagers as we each found our voice of grief.

I lost and grieved other peers, all too young to die, as I finished adolescence and stepped into young adulthood.  In the years that followed I have sat with grieving children and teenagers as they found their own way through loss that came too soon, to those too young.  What should we take from young grief? Who should we be to the children and teenagers in our lives who are facing overwhelming and traumatic loss?

We’re used to learning from the wisdom of age and experience.  When children grieve we discover there are things to learn and lessons to be reminded of from the wisdom of innocence.  For the sake of the young let’s remember

  • they are not empty human-like containers who are here but devoid of feelings until they reach the magic age of majority at 18.  Our failure to recognize this means we may be insensitive to the ways their life has been disrupted.
  • not displaying emotion doesn’t mean a child isn’t feeling something.  Are we modeling a variety of ways to express feelings?  Are we respectful of their need to be with us, and to have time alone?  We may fail to acknowledge the hole left in their lives if we assume that silence means there is no hole.
  • they are not adults in smaller bodies.  They are not fully equipped to identify, feel, and express the complex range of emotions related to loss.  We may explain away their emotion by referring to their displays of grief as adolescent drama.  Defining their grief as overstated may allow us to hide our own discomfort with grief in understated ways.  Will we risk being uncomfortable to be with them in these raw moments?
  • they will accommodate us, at their own risk, if they believe we can’t handle shared grief.  If the things they need to say, the questions they need to ask “make” us cry or shut down, they will take care of us by keeping their thoughts and their questions to themselves.  We get to help them know it’s okay to cry, okay to be quiet, okay to step outside.  We get to show them how to grieve, even as grief continues to be our teacher.  It’s not our grieving that harms, but our determination to leave it the unnamed presence in our midst, and children to wrestle with it alone and in hiding.

“Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect.  The wisest know nothing.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson                                    

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2012 7:58 pm

    Dear Paulann,

    This is a very important post! My poor son has been through so much loss, some tragic and traumatic, including being in the next room when his grandfather committed suicide. Something like 9 deaths followed that tragedy in the next year. Without the help and guidance of a truly gifted child physchologist, we would not have had a clue what to do.

    I feel so sad for my Kid. He has been through so much loss in his short life. Thank God for professional with a heart. Like you Paulann : ) !!!!

    Parents need to read what you have posted. Even the death of a pet can upset their little hearts. We need to acknowledge the grief our kids experience.

    thank you!


    • January 17, 2012 12:23 am

      Jen, I’m so sorry that you son has had to experience such significant loss. I am glad that all of you had a psychologist as a presence and a resource. A family loss can be especially hard because everyone is initially swallowed up in their own grief. For children that sometimes mean they feel they’ve lost those present as well as those who are gone. It can feel like a burden to us as adults, how to help our kids. But we can also chose to live the process out as an important chance to be the message to our children that it’s okay to be human, to struggle,to weep, to rail, to question, and ultimately, to just do. So much of what you have written about your mother is descriptive of that process. I’m glad you son has a mom willing to step into this space.

      Thank you for your comments about my post. Writing about grief is a little intimidating, like stepping onto everyone’s hallowed ground. My hope is always that the conversation will be helpful, and that at the least, it will do no harm. I respect your view and your voice.

      ~ Paulann

  2. Carol Wiebe permalink
    January 17, 2012 5:24 am

    I agree that this is an important post, with crucial insights about dealing with grief. This line, especially, caught me:

    They will accommodate us, at their own risk, if they believe we can’t handle shared grief.

    I know this to be true, sadly true, for any child who feels this, and the adults in their lives who cannot share grief with them. Such children do risk much, and further grief may bring that out later in a much stronger form.

    • January 17, 2012 8:29 am

      Thank you for commenting. We have trouble in general with shared grief, and children can be very self-sacrificing where their significant adults are concerned. That gets played out in many different ways that are often misinterpreted. I agree that further grief adds to the problem, like compound interest in the worst sense.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Conversation creates a think tank or brain trust, and I think it’s better if my brain isn’t the only one thinking out loud.

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