In 1980, a grieving 15-year-old girl wrote a poem about the finality of death and the impact her beloved grandmother’s passing had on her. It was 15 years before Michelle Taylor, author of the poem and coordinator of Pathfinders grief support group of Bangor, would share the poem with other people. She accomplished the feat Thursday during a special event at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Network news commentator Cokie Roberts summed up Thursday’s bereavement teleconference accurately by saying it dealt with “a very difficult and painful topic — how kids deal with the loss of a loved one.”
Roberts moderated a panel of grief experts in Washington, D.C., in a presentation that balanced intellectual talk with pure emotion. The teleconference was linked by satellite to 1,500 locations throughout the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. EMMC was one of the sites.
The teleconference was supported by Hospice of Eastern Maine and Pathfinders, a local grief-support group that, Taylor said, would have enabled her to share her grief earlier “with others who would understand” if it had existed in 1980.
“Children Mourning, Mourning Children,” brought together about 60,000 social workers, counselors, parents and health-care professionals — and 80 people locally — who wanted to know more about healthy ways to help children grieve.
Death in a family is hard on everyone. Children often need, more than ever, the consistent support and caring of their closest relatives, but often they are overlooked in a rush of adult grief and funeral planning that accompanies the death of a loved one.
“Often our society prohibits a child from grieving,” said Catherine Sanders, a panelist and grief expert from North Carolina.
It is important to listen to a child’s perception of death and to answer questions he or she wants to know in a way they understand, according to Sanders, who has a doctorate. Dealing with death in an open way will facilitate the grieveing process, but stoicism and an uncommunicative attitude about death will enhance the anxieties of children and prolong the stages of grief they must go through, according to the panel.
Experts went over the way death is perceived by children of different ages, from toddlers to teens. They then discussed topics that ranged from a child’s response to life-threatening illness to mourning the loss of a child.
When a child asks about death, they’re usually dealing with several complex issues, according to Charles Corr, a panelist and leading bereavement educator from Illinois. The issues include:
Universality, all inclusiveness, inevitability and unpredictability. Questions a child could ask on these topics might include: “Does everyone die?” “Do you have to die?” “When will I die?”
Irreversibility. Questions might include: “How long do you stay dead after you die?” “If I gave someone a pill (called 911, etc.) who is dead, will they come back to life?”
Nonfunctionality. Questions might include: “What do you do all the time when you’re dead? “Do dead people continue to eat, play or go to the bathroom?”
Causality. Questions might include: “Why do people die?”
Belief in some continued type of life form. Questions might include: “What happens after death?” “Even though my body dies will my spirit go on to a better life?”
Punctuating the panel presentations were the soulful ballads of Paul Alexander, a New York hospital social worker who also is a composer and performer of songs about bereavement.
Songs like, “Can I Hold You While I Say Goodbye,” about a dying child’s wish to keep love and vitality around him and “Who Am I Without You?” about a surviving child’s identity problems after the death of a loved one caused some tears in the audience.
Children react to the death of a loved one in different ways and a child’s age does not always indicate his or her level of understanding about death, according to Corr.
Many child-development books say age 6 is the minimum age for children to understand death but Corr said “we need to be cautious agout age lines.”
Ronald Barrett,a psychology professor in Washington, D.C., said he works with children who have witnessed homicides in the inner city who display advanced developmental attitudes about death.
General differences — like the fact very young children may perceive death as temporary and reversible while older children grasp the finality of death — may be observed “but it’s important not to stereotype children and their reactions to death,” Corr said.