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Helping Your Child Through A Death in the Family

Posted Aug 24 2008 1:49pm
LISA CLARK: Thank you for joining us for this webcast. I'm Lisa Clark. When there is a death in the family, everyone takes an emotional hit. But the impact can be especially intense on children, who not only have to deal with the immediate loss of someone they love, but they are also vulnerable to many fears which may never occur to an adult. For the next few minutes we'll take a look at how you can help a child who has been devastated by loss, whether it is your own child or someone that you care about.

Joining our discussion this evening is Benyamin Cirlin. He is a clinical social worker and the executive director for the Center of Loss and Renewal in New York City. He is also the coordinator of bereavement services at Jacob Perlo Hospice of the Beth Israel Medical Center. Welcome, Benyamin. Also joining us is Patty Donovan-Duff. She is a registered nurse, and she is the director of the Bereavement Center of Westchester, where she has also done a lot of hospice care. Thank you so much for being with us as well, Patty.

You've also worked very extensively on a program that targets children who are in the grieving process, and I definitely want to ask you about that in a moment, but I want to start with a story from personal experience. It seems that people have only very recently started to pay attention to the grief process for children. One of my good friends, who is now in his 40s, lost his father when he was only 6-years-old. He recollects being excluded from the funeral, excluded from his mother's grief, excluded from most expressions of feeling relative to his father's death. He still has a lot of difficulty dealing with this in his adult life. I know that no one intended to hurt him, that the idea was to spare him from this grief, but you think that is definitely not the right approach to take anymore?

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: And I think it's not being taken as much as it used to be. I think in those days people-- parents, especially-- wanted to protect children from any pain. They thought by not including them in the dying process of the family member, the funeral, or their showing their emotions of their grief, that would be protecting them, when it really made it probably more lonely and more confusing for children. I think in the last 10 to 15 years we certainly have come a long way in recognizing that children also grieve, very much so.

LISA CLARK: But the behavior may be very different than that you would expect in an adult. Tell us a little bit about the things that children may do that mask their grief.

PATTY DONOVAN-DUFF, RN: Children feel a lot of the same things that adults feel, if you talk to them. But they do it differently. They show it differently. One of the big differences is, they grieve developmentally. A child who is 4 certainly doesn't understand death the way a child who is even 6, 8, 10, 12. As they grow, they understand the permanence of death, the fact that it can happen to them, that it can happen to someone else in their family. As they get older they understand it differently. They also have a very short sadness span. They have what I would call kind of a natural anesthesia to pain. They can't be with it for very long. That's confusing to parents, sometimes, because it looks like they're fine. An 11-year-old boy whose father just died in his home after a long illness might go out five minutes later and shoot baskets after the death of his father because he can't be with that pain like we can as adults. So they have a very short sadness span. They come in and out of it. That doesn't meant that they don't come into it.

LISA CLARK: Exactly. Benyamin, what has your experience been with children?

R. BENYAMIN CIRLIN, CSW: I think this last point that Patty made about the resilience is very important. I think there's still a myth that children can overcome grief, that they're young and they've got a whole life to overcome it, and I think that's a very dangerous myth. It's really a way of avoiding the pain of the child. When I was 10 years old, my grandfather died, and it was a very grievous event for me, but there was very little attention given to me, very few questions asked about "What's the impact of this? What does it mean to you? How does it make you feel about life?" It took me a long time to really come to terms with that event.

LISA CLARK: Well, I'd like to thank both of you, Benyamin and Patty, for being with us and for your insight into helping children grieve. It's a very important process for all of us, but especially, I think, for children, because they have to deal with this for their entire emotional lives. Thank you again. Thank all of you for joining us. I'm Lisa Clark.

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