When I first heard the news, I felt what we all felt… a searing pain, anger and most of all, a resolve to do something tangible. Anything.
24 years ago in my former life as a filmmaker, I wrote and directed a short film “Echoes… Conquering Loss Through Remembrance” to help children talk about death and cope with their grief. Approved by the U.S. Department of Education, it was distributed to school systems throughout the U.S. and Canada in the early 90s. I researched and wrote a study guide that accompanied the film.
I never ever imagined it might one day be used for this.
What follows is an edited version of that guide, offered to support our children to heal and grow from their loss, and in that process, perhaps we as adults and caregivers can heal through our own grief as well. This guide does not really address the issue of death due to violence. Rather my intention is simply to offer this as a resource to open a heartful, mindful dialogue with our children around death and help them heal through their loss.
Death is a Power Teacher:
Death education is for everyone because it connects us to our common humanity and can help us feel deeply about the meaning of life. When we can talk openly about death we aid children and adults alike in their emotional and psychological survival of loss and their appreciation of life.
This involves providing a safe, compassionate atmosphere in which one feels free to express their thoughts, feelings, confusion and pain. Death education does not avoid grief, but it can help us to cope with grief in creative, life-affirming ways, where we can authentically experience joy again.
The death of a family member, classmate or teacher, especially under unimaginable traumatic circumstances, can become easier to cope with if the whole family and/or classroom is able to support one other and openly talk about their feelings together. Shared sorrow is easier to bear than repressing the pain and confusion of losing someone you’ve known and loved. Most troubled are those who do not have an adequate support system.
Common Reactions to the Death of a Loved One:
The following reactions to the death of a loved one are seriously escalated when people, especially children, are not allowed to talk about or work through their feelings or experiences. Repressing their pain and confusion often results in serious psychological consequences.
How children (and adults for that matter) may react to their loss…
>>Depression: physical exhaustion, loss of appetite and lethargy
>>Dependency: Fear of being alone; extreme attachment to parents, friends and/or teachers
>>Emotional Roller Coaster: Caught up in a cycle of emotions ranging from sadness, anger, guilt, fear
>>Preoccupation with the person who has died: everything around the child reminds him/her of deceased; distancing from family and friends, introversion
>>Hyperactivity: talking incessantly, physically hyperactive, laughing when they feel like crying
>>Destructive behavior: Hostility, lashing out toward others, temper tantrums out of character, “acting out” (typical of children who are forced to repress their emotion)
>>Regression: a common reaction in children, i.e. wetting the bed, feelings of being overwhelmed.
Five Stages of a Child’s Grieving/Healing Process:
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ seminal work the Five Stages of Grief has become a keystone for caregivers to the grieving. Children can experience and fluctuate between any of the stages, as they do not always occur in the order listed below and may include other emotions and phases as well. Understanding these basic stages can help us guide our children through their healing process.
1. Denial: Refusal to accept the death / Denial of pain.
2. Anger/Hostility/Guilt: Can include hostility towards decreased and/or family members and peers. Unresolved issues between deceased and child can cause anger and/or guilt.
3. Panic/Replacement: Fear of one’s own death and/or death of parent or other loved ones. Extreme attachment to parents and/or loved ones.
4. Protest/Bargaining/Idealization: The child may need to talk a lot about the deceased, describing in detail all of his/her qualities, how tragic it is that the loved one’s life was cut short, and how important the deceased was to the child. Making magical pacts to bring the person back.
5. Pain/Depression/Withdrawal: By this time, the child realizes that the person is gone forever and, as reality sets in, he may be overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness and depression. Physical lack of energy.
6. Acceptance: During the acceptance stage, a person is able to put the memory of the deceased into perspective and move on. Children at this stage realize that no matter how much they loved the deceased and no matter how much they feel hurt, they can continue living without the deceased. Here, the process of reorganizing their lives begins. The child feels an acceptance of the death and acquires a newfound hope that he/she will survive emotionally and experience feelings of happiness again.
How we can help children heal from their loss:
• Be an excellent and patient listener.
To work out their feelings, children need someone they trust to talk to. Different children need different types of care and attention when grieving. It is important understand each child’s particular needs, concerns and reactions. When listening to children, remember that it’s important to make sure that we hear what they’re actually saying, not what we think they should or should not be saying. Speak to children at their own level—avoid talking down to them.
Encourage children to express their viewpoints and perceptions about death, including their own feelings, stories and experiences of their own loss. The child who faces the death of someone they love needs to talk about how he/she misses that person. Entering into an open, loving dialogue with a child about death may provide them with tools to navigate the stages of their grieving process.
• Tears are therapeutic.
Sharing the broad spectrum of grieving emotions helps the child heal. Right from the beginning, let children know that it is OK to show emotion. Showing emotion should be stressed as a strength as opposed to a sign of weakness. But if they don’t feel like crying, that is OK too. There are many ways to grieve.
• Laughter is healing.
In the midst of it all, group activities that the child typically enjoys might help. Humor can be medicine. Even though it may take them time to feel happiness again, show them the magic and beauty that surrounds them, without forcing them to respond in any particular way. Trying to stop a child’s process by requesting them to be “strong,” “brave,” “big boys and girls” falsely minimizes the loss and puts an unreasonable psychological burden on the child.
• Children need to know that they’re not alone.
In the case of loss of a classmate or teacher, being close to and sharing their feelings with their peers is essential. It is important that children have affectionate, supportive social contact with family, teachers and friends. During this delicate time more than ever, children need to feel that they are accepted and loved for who they are—including bad feelings, moodiness, anger, confusion, fear and tears.
• The arts provide extremely effective creative outlets
for children to express themselves i.e. painting, drawing, story telling, dancing, music making… etc. This allows a child to cathect, release emotions and articulate feelings that are sometimes impossible, even for adults, to put into words.
• Nature heals.
Taking children on encounters in nature and giving them contact with friendly affectionate pets awakens a sense of wonder, an intimate, embodied connection to the world around them, and supports feelings of belonging to life.
• Create interactive ritual memorial spaces,
where a child can honor the memory of the loved one who has passed on. Altars co-created by the child where they can put flowers, candles, photos, drawings, messages and special items gives them a personal space where they can visit, meditate and process their feelings.
• Healing loss through remembrance:
emphasize the importance of memories as gifts that the deceased has left behind. By bringing all the memories to the conscious surface, the child will gradually come to terms with the loss, realizing that life continues and that although the loved one may have died, they will never be forgotten.
• Lastly, hugs hugs and more hugs.
There are many ways to grieve, to heal and to transform poison into medicine. We do so together, as part of the human family mandala, remembering that life is so very precious.
In loving memory of the little ones of Sandy Hook… We will not forget you.
SOURCE MATERIAL AND RECOMMENDED READING
1) Carroll, David, Living With Dying, McGraw-Hill, NY 1985 2) Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Children & Death, Macmillan, NY 1983 3) Schaefer, Dan & Lyons, Christine, How Do We Tell the Children, Newmarket Press, NY 1988 4) Schowalter, John; Patterson, Paul; Gullo, Steven, editors. Death and Children: A Guide for Educators, Parents & Caregivers. Tappan Press, NY, 1958 ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READING
Kubler-Ross, Elizabeth, On Death & Dying
Karst, Patrice, The Invisible String (for children)
Levine, Stephen, Who Dies
Micheline Berry: A multi-media artist and yogini, Micheline is known for empowering teachers and artists alike. She teaches you how to source transformational states of creativity and flow through a cohesive fusion of vinyasa flow yoga, world beat music, ecstatic dance, literature & meditation in urban shala and exotic nature alike. Her Liquid Asana™ Vinyasa Yoga integrates fluidity with asana structure, flow with dynamic stillness, strength with deep release, ecstatic sound with fertile silence, spontaneous creativity with intellectual tapas. She is based in Venice, California at Exhale and leads Yoga+Arts teacher trainings, retreats and workshops, internationally including her 2nd home Brazil. MichelineBerry.com
Ed: Kate Bartolotta