Few phrases will cause such an immediate, intense, almost visceral reaction from me as, “You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that I have heard countless times over the last few years. On the surface, it sounds like a compliment that I possess the ability to hold and manage more than you would expect, and I work to receive this message as the one the sender is trying to convey. What it feels like the person is saying is that they are unable to deal with my sadness, grief, frustration, anger, or whatever emotion, and they need me to be strong because the emotions make them uncomfortable. I’m left feeling alone and dismissed.
In the early days of grief, the feelings of being overwhelmed with the “business” of death can feel paralyzing. Often, there are seemingly endless tasks that need to be completed within a very short amount of time. Sadly, most of these tasks require the next of kin, so that leaves the people that are in the midst of intense shock, grief, disbelief, anger, frustration, or whatever mishmash of emotions to navigate yet another emotional load; it can feel like too much.
The feeling of being alone is scary. Navigating really strong emotions without support and guidance is treacherous, we might make decisions or take actions that are counter to our actual needs because of the disorientation that strong emotions can evoke. So what can we do, as the person in the midst of a seemingly never ending emotional storm and as the person watching someone we care about struggle to fight the onslaught of emotional waves? Be there, be present, and be willing to listen. You can’t take away their pain for them, you can be that safe place where they don’t have to pretend to be “ok” or “fine”.
Providing people with the chance to not be strong, to be authentic and genuine with the feelings they are experiencing, no matter what those may be, can be just the thing that we all need to do truly develop that strength. If you are struggling finding that internal strength to deal with loss or grief, or just need that safe place to discover your strength consider reaching out to a therapist. You are strong! We can help you think it, feel it, and believe it!
Recently, I attended a funeral for my dear friend who had a significant impact during my adolescence. As the days led up to the funeral, I looked for a babysitter but was unable to find one so I needed to take my 5-year old son. I had concerns about what behavior he would have throughout the event and what he would think or take away from it. I was pleasantly surprised at the outcome. He was well behaved and respectful throughout the day. He showed sympathy by giving me a tissue when he saw my crying and empathized with my friend’s son who was visibly saddened.
A few days later, we were working on a holiday craft and my son started asking questions about the funeral. “Why did we go?” he asked and “Was she your family?” He was able to reflect on the emotions of others. He commented on my friend’s son’s emotions and said, “It’s good that it wasn’t his mom so he still has someone to care for him.” He stated, “I would be so sad if you died.” He then proceeded to ask questions about how people die.
This situation really had me reflecting about how to talk to children about death and should they attend a funeral.
How to talk to your children about death
When deciding how to talk to a child about death, consider the age and development of the child. Children process death differently than adults. They may realize that they feel sad but may not understand the permanency of death. Here are some suggestions to start the conversation.
Be honest and straightforward. Telling a child that a loved one is “in a better place” can be confusing and send a message that there is something wrong with this place. Instead, you could say, “Uncle Jack died in a car accident. That means that we won’t get to see him anymore.”
Answer questions honestly and directly. When your child asks when Fluffy the pet turtle is coming home gently remind the child that Fluffy has died and will not be coming home.
Don’t be afraid to show your emotions. Children learn from the way we act and respond in daily events. Shedding tears in sadness of the loss is appropriate for your child to see and it will help them learn how to cope with emotions when they come up. With this, encourage your child to express their emotions.
Remember that children will have their own reaction to loss. Offer empathy and understanding through emotions or disruptive behaviors.
Marriage is a wonderful change, but it certainly brings some challenges, not just for the couple involved, but also for the in-law relationship dynamic. I recently sat down with the Good Things Utah to share my top 3 tips for daughter-in-laws and mother-in-laws:
Most divorcing parents are greatly concerned about how their child will take the big change. Many expect sadness and worry but do not always feel equipped to help the child cope. Understandably, it is hard for moms and dads to offer ample emotional support to their child if they feel overburdened themselves. Parents are typically overwhelmed with grief, anger, financial concerns, residence changes, custody arrangements, and co-parenting issues, to name a few. Yet children cannot put their needs on hold until parents have fully adjusted. So in the meantime, something simple, like sharing a carefully selected book together, may offer some connection and understanding the child needs for that day. The following children’s books have been valuable in my work with child-clients, so I share them hoping they can help others too:
“The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst (Ages 3+)
Children whose parents divorce typically experience repeated separations from one or both parents. This versatile book reassures children they can still feel connected even during times apart.
“People who love each other are always connected by a very special string, made of love. Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it deep in your heart, and know that you are always connected to the ones you love” (The Invisible String by Patrice Karst).
:Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss” by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen (Ages 8+)
When a couple divorces, all family members usually experience grief to some degree. This book tells the story of a woman who makes “tear soup” after she suffers a great loss. She shares some essential ingredients of the healing recipe: feel the pain of loss, accept that it takes time, and recognize that grief is different for everyone.
If your child experiences distress due to parental divorce, call to schedule an appointment with Melissa at Wasatch Family Therapy – 801.944.4555.
The pressure to be cheerful and happy during the holidays can be particularly hard for people dealing with grief and loss: the death of a loved one, your first Christmas since being divorced, job loss, or just the passage of time. Lindsay Aerts, host of The Mom Show on KSL Radio, and I sat down to talk about how to manage painful feelings during a time when you’re “supposed” to be merry.
Children who are experiencing grief and loss struggle with identifying how and what they are feelings, as there are often no words to describe the emotions they experience. Oftentimes, they feel isolated and alone in their pain and confusion. Camp Gregory gives young children the experience of healing together with other children who have also suffered loss and are trying to process their feelings of grief. Join us for a weekend of play therapy, laughter and healing.
Location: Grandview Family Counseling, 1576 S. 500 W. Bountiful, Utah.
Dates: Friday, August 5th and Saturday, August 6th.
Facilitating: Holly Willard, LCSW RPT-S and Clair Mellenthin, LCSW RPT-S.
Ages 5-8 from 9am-12pm Friday and Saturday.
Ages 9-12 from 1pm-4pm Friday and Saturday.
To register, call (801) 406-9002 or visit grandviewfamilycounseling.com.
Loss and grief are some of the most powerful emotions we can experience and during the holiday season, symptoms of grief that have previously relented, might suddenly return. Such is the case with many clients I treat. For some, grief is new, for some their loss has occurred years earlier. Either way, the truth of loss is that we are never truly finished with grieving when someone significant to us dies. However, (and my clients challenge this!) there are many ways to live with the loss without suffering from it. Here are some suggestions to manage grief during the holidays:
1 – Create rituals and memorials of your loved one. It is helpful to draw on your personal spiritual and cultural beliefs to guide you in the creation of a meaningful remembrance. For example, one client put up a “Chicago Bulls” tree in honor of her son, who was an avid fan.
2 – Meditate by intentionally remembering both the happy and sad memories. Avoidance rarely works and leads to more suffering. Set aside time and space to do this meditation-either journaling, listening to calming music or looking at fun pictures shared with your loved one.
3 – Draw on your support system. Reach out to friends or others who share your grief and let them know this is a difficult time for you. Attend an event with them or just spend time with friends as a diversion. Isolation creates more suffering.
4 – Reconnect with a therapist or former grief group. Re-entering therapy for a session or two can aid in reminding yourself of tools used in grieving. Or just simply processing what you are experiencing with a professional can be helpful. Attending a grief group often helps as well.
5 – Change holiday gatherings to limit painful reminders. Maybe it’s time to gather for a breakfast instead of a traditional dinner that your loved one was the focus of. Having gift exchanges on a new day or omitting them and volunteering for a charity in behalf of your loved one can be very healing.
Using the above suggesting can decrease suffering. Of course there will always be a void when someone you have loved so much is no longer seen on
a daily basis, but many have found every year hurts a little less than the year before, and as one client stated ” I try not to focus on my own individual pain and try to focus more on the fact that those I have lost are no longer hurting”. Thinking about it that way can bring more comfort and solace.
Cindy sat in my office, seeking relief from the intense psychological anguish that she had been experiencing for the several months since having survived a fatal head on collision with an SUV. The driver of the other vehicle was intoxicated, swerved into Cindy’s lane of traffic and impacted her vehicle head on. That driver was pronounced dead at the scene. Since that time, Cindy had been experiencing insomnia, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and difficulty functioning – classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
From a neurological stand point, her brain was essentially “stuck” in a primitive survival mechanism known as “fight or flight” – a protective measure that is designed to identify a dangerous situation and put the entire system on the defense at warp speed, all in an effort to ward off any threat to survival. Fight or flight is a mode of defense that operates on a “better safe than sorry” mentality. In Cindy’s case, even though the threat to her safety had ended months ago, her system was still stuck in that defensive posture “just in case” the threat, or anything like unto it, resurfaced. Although Cindy understood on a rational level that the threat had long since passed, her neurology was reluctant to let it’s guard down in the event that there was a mistake and the danger had not really passed. Scenes from the event were relived again and again in her mind because literally that memory had been loaded into her neurological network in a manner that caused the rewind button to be continuously pushed by anything in her environment that even slightly resembled the near fatal accident – riding in a moving vehicle, the sound of a car’s engine, sirens in the distance, flashing lights, etc….