Busting Myths and Being Human
A few years ago, Myth Busters was a popular television show in which a special effects team attempted to debunk urban myths by testing them (aka they generally blew stuff up).
At Bernie’s Buddies, one of our goals is to be childhood grief myth busters – without the pyrotechnics, of course.
These myths exist for many reasons, perhaps most importantly because children have different ways of expressing their emotions that adults may be uncomfortable with or not recognize. We ourselves may be grieving the loss of the same person. Cultural beliefs, religious practices, or our own childhood experiences can also influence how we believe children should grieve.
You can help us achieve our myth-busting goal. Let’s identify three well known myths, why they’re ultimately not helpful (even though they’re usually well-intentioned), and a simple way to help support grieving kids and youth in our care.
“JUST KEEP BUSY”
As adults, we may have learned that keeping focused on a task (or a list full of them) can distract us from the pain of grief. If we don’t stop for too long, it won’t hurt as much. It seems to make sense this works for youth as well.
In reality, just as for adults, relying on distractions keeps kids and youth from processing and expressing their emotions, delaying heathy integration of grief into their lives. Without time and space to safely “feel their feelings”, children may be left wondering if these emotions are wrong. This can result in additional shame, guilt, confusion, anger, and frustration.
Suggesting a child be strong, for oneself or for others, can rob that child of the opportunity to have a childhood. Taking on adult responsibilities has the potential to minimize the grieving child’s experience and reinforces that dealing with their own grief does not deserve to be prioritized.
Bereaved children often step into roles left vacant by the death of their significant person, either because they feel it’s necessary, or are told by others it’s their duty. Sometimes kids and youth pitch in to help with adult activities as it’s the only option a family has as they learn to live with their new reality. This doesn’t leave much time to acknowledge or work through their loss, negatively impacting self-esteem at a time when everything in their world is chaos.
“HE SHOULD BE OVER IT BY NOW”
Unfortunately, there is no timeline in grief - nor are there steps to check off one by one in a certain order. There’s a misconception that completing a linear progression means a child will finally be “over” bereavement. If that was true, it would be one of the greatest magic wands ever invented.
Grief is actually a shape shifter. Our relationship with grief and our loved ones who’ve died changes over time, but doesn’t disappear. As perspectives develop from life experiences, that relationship changes again and again during the milestones of our lives as children and continues into adulthood.
SO HOW CAN WE HELP OUR GRIEVING KIDS?
Children may not show their grief in ways adults expect. For example, childhood bereavement may be expressed in behaviour changes such as having a temper tantrum because they don’t know how to communicate the anger they’re feeling. Perhaps they’ll regress to a previous stage of development like thumb-sucking as a form of self-soothing. These are all valid and normal responses that often go unrecognized by caregivers as grief-related episodes.
Children also may or may not cry. Just because a child doesn’t cry as much or as often as we think is normal, doesn’t mean that child isn’t feeling their bereavement deeply. Their emotional and physical systems are wired to only handle so much intense emotion before they need a break. It’s important to be mindful that the child isn’t “over grief” simply because they’re not exhibiting traditional signs on a regular or constant basis.
To top it all off, grief resources are not one size fits all and can be a challenge to find. Then there’s the nature of the child’s relationship with their person who died and the circumstances of the death.
It is heartbreaking to witness a child experiencing grief. We’re only human, and we want so badly to help that child’s hurt go away. But not even a special effects team can fix this.
What’s a caregiver to do? The good news is even those of us who do not have formal training in this area can support a bereaved child – in fact, the only requirement is the courage to be human. Being vulnerable by sharing our vulnerability can be a daunting task, especially if we’re uncomfortable with our own grief or concerned we’ll further upset our bereaved child. Fortunately, children recognize and respond to sincerity and authenticity and can spot them a mile away.
One of the most organic things we can do is to sit or walk beside our child and let them take the lead. Ask them if they have a favourite story, or song, or meal that reminds them of their loved one. Pay attention to their words so you can ask questions that encourage them do most of the talking.
If the death was someone important in your life too, let the child know how you feel about it. And if you happen to cry, it can be a relief for your child to know it’s OK for them to cry too.
While this seems too simple to be effective, it offers a place to start. This grief road will be a work in progress. We’re not perfect - and maybe that’s the point. Oftentimes children just need to know their grief is heard and accepted, much like Christopher Robin walking alongside Pooh when he needed support, not solutions.
Bernie’s Buddies is a kids and youth peer support grief group. Our intent is not to replace conventional therapy or counseling, but instead to provide grief resource alternatives. If a child in your care is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact 911, The Distress Centre, or Kids’ Help Phone immediately.