In the blink of an eye, as an impressionable 13 year old navigating my way through the turbulent world of teenage-hood, I found myself plunged into a world of heartache and grief that I had never imagined possible. I had no idea who to turn to. I had my parents, who were navigating their own unimaginable grief, and I was conscious that they were struggling to make sense of it all themselves. Stuff like this wasn’t meant to happen to ‘us’! I shared with them, but for fear of causing more unnecessary emotion and sadness, I held back on sharing from the depth of my heart. I’m not sure I could even have handled what would have come out if I had. So I sought out other people to talk with. Friends, their parents, and a couple of close extended family members, as the opportunities arose.
I remember starting a new school year only 3 weeks after…unsure how I’d face people. After all I did live in a small country town. What would I say when I was asked how my summer holidays were? What if people didn’t know what to say? Or worse, what if they ignored me? How should I behave? What should I say? What if someone didn’t know my sister had died? What would I do if I couldn’t control my emotions? Who would I go to? A small snapshot of the ‘anxiety’ I experienced even before I had set foot in the school yard!
I don’t recall there being any school counsellor…and there was certainly no opportunity offered for me to ‘debrief’ on any level with a professional in or out of the school setting. (This was over 30 years ago now). I do remember the staff showing extra care and concern for me when I was in their classes. Beyond that I felt very alone. But I learnt to be somewhat stoic whilst in the presence of others. And remember crying myself to sleep most nights for a length of time I’d care not to recall. I lost count of the amount of times I had wished so desperately that it was me who had died, not her!
And then there was my 9 year old brother. While I was navigating my own game of emotional ‘survivor’, the extent of his pain and grief was something that myself (nor anyone else) knew little about until more than a decade later.
Looking back I concluded that many in our world made the assumption that my little brother didn’t really ‘understand’ what was going on at that time, and therefore was somewhat sheltered from the depth of heartache as a result of this tragic loss to our family. That could not have been further from the truth. Little did we know, that he had carried on his tender shoulders the self-assigned responsibility for our sister’s death, and with that an intense feeling of guilt and loneliness at never really knowing how or who to share with. Sadly, this is not an uncommon experience for many children journeying through grief.
As parents ourselves now, my brother and I both reflect on our children at the same ages we were when this tragedy hit our family. We have both recognised that children are incredibly aware of their surroundings, and understand much more than we may give them credit for. Certainly, they deserve the same amount of ‘airtime’ as adults to share and process their thoughts and emotions surrounding their loss. They may not have the eloquent words to articulate their grief. But they have their story. Their reality, which should be valued just as equally as any adults.
Thankfully, much has changed in the last 30 years. Awareness continues to grow. The signs and symptoms of children processing loss in their lives are more widely understood and recognised. I believe that children have a great deal more support available to them through schools and in the community to assist them and their families in dealing with grief and loss. However, there is still a way to go.
“So what can I do to support grieving children in my world?” I hear you ask.
My Top Tips are:
Never assume children don’t ‘understand’ what’s going on.
Assure them that what has happened is not their fault.
Allow children to ask questions and talk about their loss as much as they want to.
Encourage them to talk to another caring, trusted adult if they feel uneasy talking to you.
Provide clear and age-appropriate answers to their questions.
Let them know they are loved and will always be cared for.
Maintain child’s regular routine as much as possible.
I’m not exactly sure when life became ‘easier’ for me. But I do know that there were many seemingly insurmountable mountains to scale and perhaps even more valleys to navigate. But one step at a time I made it through each one – from the tender age of 13 through to today. I can honestly say that as a grown woman who has journeyed through my grief, there is barely (still) a day that goes by without consciously entertaining at least a thought or a memory of my sister. The pain has dulled, but the memories that remain have made my life richer and significantly more meaningful. I am so thankful for everyone who has allowed me to share my grief journey with them along the way. Each of them have been integral in helping me find my healing. It has been out of this very pain (and other losses since) that my purpose has been unearthed! I believe that yours can be too!
With you on this journey,
*NB: If you are a grieving parent or caregiver with grieving children, this can be a particularly overwhelming time. It is of absolute importance that you seek assistance for yourself from friends, relatives and other support networks during this time. You may need to consult your GP if you need professional assistance, either for yourself or for your child.
Call Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 for help 24 hours/7 days a week
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for further ongoing support.