When observing a child, one can typically see playfulness, smiles, laughter and sheer joy in the world around them. Children live in the moment; every thought, every feeling, easily readable upon their faces. That is why they are such a pleasure to watch. We adults can relive those carefree, playful moments through them. The child does not yet realize that the world can be a harsh and demanding place. Until someone they love has died. Their expressions are no less readable then. When a child is grieving, one can typically see tears, fear, sadness and anger. The world where they had once been carefree now has been shaken, and the unfailing trust they had in the world, has now been irrevocably altered.
As a grief counselor, I feel for all of my clients in their pain, but it is the young people that affect me the most. Logically, I know that children are not exempt from the pain of losing a loved one, but it still does not seem fair that their innocent world should be changed in such a way. It saddens me to see a child who is so depressed that they seem to be physically trying to draw themselves inward, away from the world. Or so sad that they cannot muster a smile, or enthusiasm, for the things that once brought them happiness. Also, to see a child so angry; anger that can be seen in their eyes, in their defiant manner, in their abusiveness to their siblings and friends. Children are often frustrated by these feelings because they do not like feeling this way, but are unable to stop or understand it.
Depending on the age of the child, they are often unable to put their thoughts and feelings into words. This inability to express their emotions can lead to behavioral and health issues. Many of the children that come to us complain of headaches and stomachaches, and the parents, or teachers, usually describe a decline in study habits and acting out behaviors. It is critical that a child has support and help to be able to externalize these internal thoughts and feelings.
Art therapy is an excellent way to connect with children and give them an opportunity to express their emotions in a safe and healthy way. Our support groups and individual counseling sessions are designed to offer these opportunities to young people. Through the use of creativity, the children can become involved in a variety of art projects that help give voice to what they are feeling. It never ceases to amaze me when a young person is very reluctant to talk to me, yet when they become involved in an art project, I can see them visibly relax and they are able to open up and share. For the very young, I think they even take themselves by surprise when they realize they are offering more than they had intended.
Any time I work with young people, I am humbled and privileged by the act of their choosing to trust me with their most painful and personal thoughts and feelings. I know it can be difficult for a parent to be able to offer honest information regardingdying, death and grief, so often it is just avoided in the home. I try to offer an environment where the young people know this is the place where they can come and ask anything they need to without fear of being shut down or judged. Through my experiences, I feel that children are capable of hearing the truth, in an age appropriate manner – and even appreciate being given the information.
I would like to share a recent case that was very rewarding to me. I have been working with an eight-year-old girl who lost her father to cancer. Through our sessions, and the use of art therapy, she has been able to share her anger toward God, her frustrations at being the eldest sibling and her inability to focus at school due to her sadness. During one of our most recent sessions, we were making beaded bracelets. Most young people make bracelets for family members, friends or in memory of their loved one. She made a bracelet for me! The bracelet stood for “creativity”, “love”, and “strength.” When I asked why she picked out those words for me she explained, “Creativity – because you are creative and always think of fun things for us to do. Love – because you have to have lots of love to be able to do this kind of work and want to help other people who are hurting. And Strength – because you gained strength after your mom died.” Wow! Her mother also shared that she is using the same concepts she learned in our Children’s Support Group to help a friend who is struggling with a loss. Wow!
This is what it is all about. Helping a young person put a smile back on their face. Helping them learn resiliency and to regain the ability to reinvest in life. Helping them learn to identify and externalize their thoughts and feelings. Helping them learn healthy coping strategies. If you get a bracelet and a hug also, well that just sweetens the pot.
Until next week, please be gentle with yourself.
P.S. If you have found this posting or previous postings helpful, please consider making a donation to The Bereavement Center. We are a non-profit organization that serves the community, and we operate solely on donations from families, clients and the community. As always, your donation will be greatly appreciated and acknowledged.