“Losing a child is as bad as it gets,” says Thom Vines, author and public school educator from Lubbock, Texas. “Sometimes I can look at the long term and other times the pain is too much. It’s like trying to pick up jelly.”
On September 2, 2008, Kelsey, one of Vines’ twin daughters, was killed instantly when a dump truck with faulty steering veered into her lane as she was driving home from school. Kelsey was 18 at the time and a senior at Lubbock High School. Her family remembers her as being a talented photographer and captain of the basketball team, with a goofy side and a mischievous giggle.
“I still have to convince myself that it really did happen. That the whole thing isn’t just a bad dream,” Vines explains.
Vines knows all too well what it’s like to deal with grief and the tough road that he, his wife and other two children have navigated in the aftermath of losing their family member. “To say it has been hard is an understatement,” says Vines. “I still grieve everyday.”
To push through the grieving, Vines penned a book (see below) where he tells of the family’s journey through shock, denial, grief, anger, confusion and apathy. The family hopes their story can help others who face similar tragedies to survive their own struggles. “We’ve learned how to handle it as best we can. The grief is not as acute now, but it’s still there. It’s more of a dull ache, but there is still a hole where Kelsey should be.”
“I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t rewind life prior to that moment and change the outcome,” Vine’s wife Becky adds. “You just try to move forward.”
Grief as a Part of Life
Change, loss and grief are an unavoidable part of life. Whether it’s a death, divorce or natural disaster, dealing with the emotions brought on by grief and loss can be difficult at every age.
Vickie Reynolds has been a marriage and family counselor for more than 20 years, specializing in child development. In her practice in northwest Oklahoma City, Reynolds has helped many families like the Vines.
Reynolds urges parents to help children to cope with loss, not to protect them from the grief and difficult emotions that may follow. “The methods that children learn for coping with loss and grief form in early childhood and continue throughout life,” Reynolds explains. She stresses that it is important to clarify, especially for young children, that the event is in no way tied to their behavior and that they are not responsible. She also explains that children often grieve in spurts. “Their mind cannot tolerate the emotions for long,” she says. “Just because they aren’t crying all the time doesn’t mean that they are not grieving.” Grief and loss can also cause children to regress to a former stage of development. “Often, they revert back to a stage of life where they felt comfortable,” she says. “It is a key sign of a child under trauma and is very normal.”
Lastly, Reynolds advises parents not to lie to children about what has happened, no matter how uncomfortable. Instead provide honest answers and avoid euphemisms or vague terms (such as telling children that a loved one who died “went away”). “Often trying to shield a child from death just adds more confusion,” she adds.
Coping With Grief
Serving approximately 3,000 children, youth and adults each year, Calm Waters Center for Children and Families has a mission to help children and their families cope with grief caused by death, divorce or other significant loss. At Calm Waters, children find a safe and supportive place to share their feelings and experiences in a group of peers who have all experienced similar loss. “Support groups can help remove feelings of isolation and can help children of all ages to understand that their feelings are normal,” says Maribeth Govin, Program Director. “It can help children to understand that feelings can be managed and they can learn good coping skills from other children.”
The most effective coping skills vary greatly depending on the child’s age and developmental stage. From preschoolers to teenagers, Reynolds and the staff of Calm Waters share some tips for guiding your child through grief and loss.
“When children at this age experience a death of a loved one, it can cause confusion. They can be ultra-sensitive, where things that haven’t bothered them before will suddenly be a problem,” explains Barbara Butner, Executive Director of Calm Waters. “ It causes them to have trouble in their regular routines and they might also demonstrate a regression in behavior.”
Reynolds suggests engaging in play therapy. “Kids don’t know how to express what they’re feeling, so it’s easier for them to act out scenarios through play,” she says. “Whether you use dolls or building blocks, you can gain insight into how they’re feeling through how they play.”
Other tips for young children:
- Give them perspective. Explain the factors behind what happened to help give them some historical perspective and an understanding that the same death or disaster is unlikely to happen to them.
- Ask them what they think most kids are scared of. Whatever they reply will give you insight into their biggest concerns. “Especially in the face of death or natural disaster, don’t say ‘it won’t happen’ to your child because they saw that it just did,” Reynolds cautions. “Instead, talk specifically about how you are working to keep them safe.”
- Provide consistency. A routine “can provide reassurance and security, as well as a sense of normalcy,” explains Govin.
- Keep it simple. Children this age don’t understand the permanence of death, so don’t try to over-explain. Keep it honest and straightforward.
School Age Children
Children at this age may feel that they’re the cause of the death, divorce or loss. “They may feel that they weren’t ‘good enough’ or that the loss is happening to them as punishment,” Govin explains.
Other tips for older children:
- Limit exposure. “When visiting the hospital, prepare the child for what someone in the hospital will look like and what types of medical equipment might be attached to them,” Reynolds says. “Make the visit brief—10 minutes or less. Kids can get really overwhelmed, both at the hospital and at funeral services.”
- Listen. Reynolds reminds us that children of this age often just want to express their feelings, and parents and caregivers need to read between the lines. “Remember that we are teaching young children how to cope,” Reynolds says. “If they’re asking for sympathy, give it to them.”
- Share. When they’re ready to talk, share stories about the loved one and do things to commemorate the person. “Don’t be afraid to explore these feelings and memories,” Reynolds urges. “It can actually be comforting to children. It’s important not to deny the child’s feelings or to inadvertently make them feel like they need to hold these feelings in.”
- Communicate with teachers. Reynolds suggests letting teachers know what the child is going through and what types of behaviors you are observing at home. “It’s not uncommon for grades to drop,” she says. “They may not do as well as before, but they will bounce back.”
Tweens & Teens
“Teens are experiencing a tougher environment at school and they’re under lots of social and academic pressure,” Reynolds says. “Then to add in stress at home from a death or divorce and often their grief turns into anger or sadness.”
Tips for helping teens deal with grief:
- Understand the coping behaviors. “The main thing that teens do in response to stress is to become very negative and irritable and it’s hard for parents to acknowledge that as grief,” says Reynolds.
- Know who you are dealing with. Reynolds explains that teen boys often turn grief into anger. “In our society, males are not given permission to cry for fear of being called a ‘sissy.’ Conversely, girls convert anger into sadness, as it’s not culturally acceptable for them to express anger or hostility.”
- Keep talking. Reynolds recommends trying different approaches to get them talking until you hit the source of their emotional turmoil. Once identified, take the appropriate steps to start dealing with emotions in a healthy way.
- Look for meaning. Govin says that children at this age may still be confused about the loss. ”Especially if the loss was another teen or a parent, they may struggle with the unfairness of it,” she explains. “Work with the teen to find some meaning behind the event, if possible.”
Emerging from Grief
Vines acknowledges the time it takes to deal with a significant loss. “[With loss,] the status quo has been destroyed, and one either emerges from the grief stronger or weaker. For us, we emerged stronger, but it was not quick and was far from easy.”
In addition to writing their book, Vines and his family have found meaning and closure by setting up a memorial scholarship in Kelsey’s honor. “Don’t focus on the loss,” Vines concludes. “Focus on the years that you did have together. Those memories are with us and will be with us every day.”
Reynolds says that both children and adults can emerge from grief with stronger character and better coping skills, ultimately becoming more caring, empathetic and compassionate. “Many children and adults who survive through loss have a keen understanding of the gift that life is.” Reynolds concludes. “They often have more purpose and direction in their lives. Just remember to give yourself and your child time.”
Facebook Reader Feedback:
MetroFamily recently asked our readers to weigh in on how they recommend helping a child to deal with grief:
- “I know when we have had deaths in our family, it worked best to just be honest with my children about it. We let them go to the funeral and see the person so they could better understand what was going on.”—Jenny D.
- “Answer only the questions she asks—she will let you know what information she needs. I find that children rarely grieve such a loss for a long period or with great emotion. They get that life goes on more than we adults get it!” —Kim T
- “ I lost my Dad when my son was 3 yrs old. I was very honest with him, answered his questions, told him it was ok to be sad, that I was sad too. Through this honesty, he felt like he could be honest about his feelings and come to us whenever he needed to. I also wasn't worried when I was feeling emotional because he knew it was a normal part of loss.” —Joy H.
About Calm Waters
Calm Waters helps children and families in their grief journey caused by death, divorce or other significant loss. For more than 20 years, Calm Waters has provided support groups for grief and divorce for children ages 3-18, as well as adult support groups, school-based grief and loss groups, and parenting through divorce seminars.
Creating New Traditions is a one-day workshop held during the holiday season for families that have experienced a death. The next workshop will be held on Wednesday, November 30 from 6:30-8pm. For more information and to register, call 841-4800.
For more information about the support groups and programs offered by Calm Waters, visit www.calmwaters.org.
Tragedy and Trust: Can You Still Trust God After Losing a Child?
By Thom Vines with John Michael Vestal
To work through his grieving, Vines penned the story of his 18-year-old daughter Kelsey’s tragic accident. Joined by Kelsey’s former boyfriend, John Michael Vestal, Vines tells of the family’s journey through the loss of a loved one.
After Goodbye: How to Begin Again After the Death of Someone You Love
By Ted Menen (Running Press, $12.95)
The Grief Bubble: Helping Kids to Explore and Understand Grief
By Kerry DeBay (Limiless Press, $11.95)
Lifetimes—The Beautiful Ways to Explain Death to Children
By Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen (Bantam Books, $6.95)
When Someone Very Special Dies: Children Can Learn to Cope with Grief
By Marge Heegaard (Woodland Press, $9.95)
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine