“A Grieving Child”

In exploring ways to get my poetry chapbook, Psalms for a Child Who Has Lost Her Mother, “out there,” I’ve discovered that there are today many programs for children who have lost a parent, or someone else close to them.

A pioneer in the field is the Dougy Center in Portland, Oregon, founded in 1982, which sponsors peer support groups for children and their families, trains individuals and organizations, and issues a whole series of publications for adults and children. In the last few decades, many other programs have sprung up around the country.

I find myself so moved by the fact that these programs exist and by how they work, with care and passion and compassion, to help kids. The idea of childhood bereavement itself seems revolutionary–that a child needs to be heard and understood and have things explained to them and be comforted. It’s a kind of belated gift.

A tenet of the Dougy Center’s work is that there is no standard timeline or form for grief, and that “You never ‘get over it.'” That’s not meant as resignation or acceptance of misery, but to counter the prevalent view that, if you’re just strong and buck up, you will “get over it.” Maybe it’s not as prevalent today as when I was a child, back in the ’50s, but it’s still a common American attitude toward misfortune.

Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent, by Donna Schuurman, longtime director of the Dougy Center, is written for adults like me who lost a parent in childhood. It explores what it means to lose a parent, the things that might have influenced your experience, and how you might address it now. With great sensitivity and common sense, Schuurman writes about things that struck a powerful chord: what–and whether–a child is told about the death, whether they’re allowed to express themselves, how the people around them behave, whether they’re included in rituals.

I am moved by the very title 35 Ways To Help a Grieving Child. The brief entries, illustrated with children’s drawings, go from “Listen” and “Listen some more,” to “Answer the questions they ask. Even the hard ones,” to “Don’t force kids to talk” and “Remember: ‘Playing’ is ‘Grieving,'” to “Help children know they are not alone in their grief.” I am comforted by knowing this can happen, imagining how it can happen.

The remarkable After a Death: An Activity Book for Children is open and welcoming, with illustrations and quotes from other children, letting kids know they are not alone. It’s a safe zone for their “jumble of thoughts and feelings,” with plenty of space for children to record their memories and express what’s on their minds and in their hearts. They can write down what they were told (or not told), what happened after the death, what they like to do to remember–or forget.   There’s a spread where they can draw in the “outside mask” they show other people and the “inside mask” they feel inside. This description can’t do it justice. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever encountered.

How fortunate that there are today supports for parents and children in the midst of all the pain and confusion that surrounds a loss. These books don’t pretend it’s an easy, straightforward, linear process–which is part of their strength.   But they are filled with compassion and with practical ways to help bestow that compassion to others, and to oneself. They offer wise, thoughtful, creative tools to help make it possible that even though you may never “get over it,” you can heal.

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