DEALING WITH YOUR CHILD’S GRIEF
by Antje Martens-Oberwelland
Nicholas has tears in his eyes while hammering his fists on his mother’s chest. “Why do you hide Abby from me?” he cries.
Nicholas is four years old. He doesn’t understand why his baby sister is not in her room. Where is she? Why did his parents take her away? He doesn’t know what it means that Abby has died. When will she come back?
“Between the ages of 2 and 5 children develop a first idea of death,” says Melissa Lambert, Executive Director of Bereaved Families of Ontario - Midwestern Region. “Children at that age have no comprehension of time, therefore they don’t understand what ‘forever’ means. They still ask when the person will come home. They believe that death is reversible.”
Preschoolers have sufficient language to ask questions and express basic feelings. “Often children return to earlier development behaviours, like bed wetting or thumb sucking,” Lambert explains. “For parents and caregivers it is important to be consistent with their answers regarding the reality of the death,” advises Lambert. “Children at that age need the repetition.”
Anna, the mother of six year-old Sophie remembers, “I was five years old when my grandmother died of cancer. My parents didn’t take me to the funeral, because they believed I was too young. I was mortified by the ideas I made up of what people might do to my granny’s body that day.
“Children can almost always cope with what they know; it’s trying to handle what they don’t know that’s the big problem,” says Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., C.T. from the Center for Loss and Life Transition. “Children make up stories to fill in the blanks, stories that are much worse than the truth.
“Allow children to participate in the funeral,” advises Wolfelt. “Tell them what to expect. Explain that the funeral is a time to honor and remember the life of the person who died. Even though children may not understand everything about the funeral, they will always remember that you thought enough of them to include them.”
“When a friend of our family died from a heart attack, we took Sophie with us to the wake,” continues Anna. “I believed that if we prepared her beforehand of what to expect, it would help Sophie to accept death as a part of life. Sophie was very good the whole time. Only when she stood at the open casket starring at Teddy, it was heartbreaking. When asked, Sophie said, ‘I thought when I only stared long enough into his face he would wake up again.”
“5 to 7 year-olds begin to learn that death is real,” says Lambert. “Typical questions and worries include: How did the person die? Will I die? Who else will die? Who will take care of me? What is dead? What happens to the dead person?” Try to answer their questions as best as you can and encourage your children to ask.
“Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers,” says Wolfelt. “It’s more important for you to treat their questions with the same respect as you would another adult’s questions, than it is for you to know all the right answers.”
Most children experience the death of a pet first. Is it okay though, to mourn an animal the way you mourn a person?
My five year-old daughter, Emily, wanted nothing more than to have a bunny. When she got her beloved pet she was the happiest girl in the world. Shortly after, the bunny died, while Emily and I went grocery shopping. I remember Emily crouching in front of the cage, telling me she would never go grocery shopping again. Even though her father and I explained Emily that she didn’t do anything that might have caused the bunny’s death, Emily believed it was her fault, because she’d left him alone. Later we found out that the bunny was infected with a disease the breeder had in her barn.
“Sometimes children think that their thoughts [or behaviour] cause things to happen,” explains Wolfelt. “Explain to the child how somebody died. Assure them nothing they did caused the person [or animal] to die.”
“We at BFO (Bereaved Families of Ontario) do not compare grief,” says Lambert. “We say that everyone’s grief is the worst, because it is theirs and they must learn to cope with it. If a child is grieving a pet than it is serious, because their emotions dictate that. We would never compare different deaths and their importance or significance.”
When you tell your child about somebody’s death, it is important not to use expressions that require children to understand complex concepts. “We tell parents to tell children the facts,” says Ms. Lambert. "The person has died. If you can name a disease do it, saying illness or "because they were sick" puts fear of sick into children. Children do not get cancer from school or stay home from school because of cancer. When someone dies their body stops working, their heart stops beating, their lungs stop breathing, they cannot hear, see, feel, eat or talk anymore. Now that their body has stopped, it will not start working again.”
Here is a breakdown of Stage of Development for Healthy Children by BFO
Babies and toddlers have no understanding of death. They will respond to emotions they sense from the parent or caring adult. They protest through crying or temper tantrums.
Children at that age develop a first idea of death, but have no comprehension of time. They still ask when the person will come home and believe that death is reversible. They express basic feelings and might return to earlier development behaviour (i.e. bed wetting, thumb sucking, etc)
School age children begin to learn that death is real. They can think they did or thought something that caused the death and might feel guilty. Even though they have a better understanding that death is irreversible, they often view death as only affecting old people. Don’t get confused if your child exhibits only short periods of sadness. They can only cope with intense feelings of grief for short periods and then return to normal play.
Middle grade children know that both young and old people die. They are capable of seeing death as biological, universal and inevitable. They can develop a fear that family members might die and may keep feelings inside for fear of upsetting parents. This age group can describe their feelings of guilt and might believe in ghosts.
Teens are able to problem solve at a more complex level of thinking. They can develop a fascination with death. They may not be in touch with finality of death and be engaging in risk taking behaviours. They understand and think of funerals. Teenagers may internalize their feelings, therefore you need to encourage them to talk. Many talk to their peers or have a teacher they can confide in, instead of their parents.
“Don’t assume though, that every child in a certain age group understands death the same way or has the same feelings,” warns Wolfelt. “Healing in grief is a process, not an event. The child needs for you to understand that it will take a long time for them to grieve and that they must face the pain to heal.”
“It can be very hard on parents who have young children to care for while they are grieving,”says Lambert. “Society can expect that children bring people comfort and help them cope with their grief. This is not always the case. Children have their own grief, their constant needs and demands. It is especially overwhelming for parents who have lost a spouse to suddenly have to do the work of two parents, while raising the children, caring for the house and coping with their grief.”
If you feel overwhelmed with your or your loved one’s grief, check out these websites:
Does your sweater have a tag that reads “Pure Wool”? It means that your sweater is the same material as a sheep’s fleece; although it probably looks a lot different.
Lambs are born with a perfectly warm and snuggly fleece. It feels a bit greasy though. That’s from lanolin, the grease in the wool that protects sheep from sunburn, rain, or cold. Wool is the only fiber that will keep a sheep and you warm even when wet. But how does the sheep’s fleece make its way into your clothes?
When lambs grow older their wool grows longer, too. Therefore sheep need a hair cut once a year. That’s called shearing. If nobody sheared them their skin would get sore. Imagine wearing the same stinky wet socks for a week! That’s how sheep feel after a long winter in their thick pelts.
I’m asking a sheep shearer to shear my sheep. He uses electric clippers (the kind a barber uses only bigger) and peels off the fleece in one whole piece. Then he rolls, ties, and stuffs the fleece into a bag with other fleeces. The fleeces are shipped to a wool mill.
Angelika Hammel is the owner of the Lindenhof Wool Mill. When she receives raw wool (fleece) she hopes it’s been already skirted.That means that straw and manure have been removed.
She inspects weighs and sorts the wool and puts it into a big washing machine. The wash water warms up to 140 degrees F to clean the wool from grease and dirt. It takes long to wash wool. It gets washed and rinsed and washed and rinsed some more.
The clean wool has a nice lemon smell. That’s from citrus soap the Lindenhof Mill uses instead of harsh chemicals. It doesn’t harm the environment or the skin.
“A lot of people think they are allergic to wool,” explains Kristine, Angelika’s daughter, “but actually they are allergic to the chemicals put into the wool to destroy small particles of straw. We don’t use these chemicals. That’s why skirting is so important in our mill.”
“Now it’s a good time to dye wool,” says Angelika Hammel. “But wool absorbs dyes in any stage. We can also dye yarn or even finished fabric.”
She spreads the wet wool clumps on racks. “The wool needs about a day to dry,” she explains. “Then it goes through the “picker” machine.”
The picker pulls the fiber clumps apart. Then it blows the wool into the picker room which looks like a huge closet. The piled up wool feels soft and fluffy now.
Kristine collects some fluffy fiber and takes it to the carding machine. The carder has a system of wire rollers that align the fiber in the same direction. The carded wool is called “roving” and looks like a string of web.
Mrs. Hammel places spools of rovingon a machine called draw frame. The draw frame blends several roving together and stretches them further to make one evenly roving.
Then a spinning machine twists the final roving to give it more strength. The roving becomes yarn. A spinning machine can also ply (twist) some yarns together to make one thick yarn.
At last the yarn is gathered on spools and taken to the skein winder. “We usually wind skeins of 350 yards,” says Mrs. Hammel. “That’s the amount you’ll need for knitting a pair of socks.
At the Lindenhof Mill I can receive the yarn from my own sheep. But large wool mills with huge spinning machines are not interested in just a few fleeces. They need hundreds of fleeces to run their mill. The yarn is then used in the textile or clothing industry and might become sweaters like yours. And while your wool sweater keeps you warm during the cold season, the sheep are always growing new fleeces for many more sweaters and winters to come.
1st Published in Stories for Children.com