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How To Help Kids Handle Death And Grieving

In the aftermath of death, many adults struggle with how to talk to kids while dealing with their own grief. Often, the instinct is to protect children from pain and loss. That can sometimes leave kids out of the family grieving process, which can leave them feeling lonely and misunderstood.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. The loss of a parent or sibling is a devastating event for any child. In the aftermath of death, many adults still struggling with their own grief don't know how to help a child cope with their feelings of sadness and pain.

Often the instinct is to protect children by not talking about dying and death, but that silence can leave children feeling confused, lonely and misunderstood. If you lost a loved one as a child, or if you've gone through grief with your kids, tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how you can help the Oxford English Dictionary. But first, growing up with grief. Melissa Loveless-Boynton and her four-year-old daughter Chloe were at home in Oregon on Memorial Day, 2006, when the National Guard knocked on the door. Melissa's husband, Chloe's father, Corporal Jeremy Loveless, had been shot and killed by a sniper in Iraq.

Melissa and Chloe have since relocated, and Melissa joins us by phone from her home in Buckeye, Arizona. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Melissa.

MELISSA LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Thank you, Lynn.

NEARY: And let me just say how sorry we are for your loss, and thank you so much for being here to share your story with us.

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: No problem. We enjoy keeping Jeremy's memory alive.

NEARY: Well, maybe you can take us back to that day. You know, you'd gotten this worst news of your life, really, and your four-year-old is standing right there with you. How did you deal with that?

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Yes, when they knocked on my door, I assumed they were just there to promote the military on Memorial Day morning. But as we soon came to find out, they were there for a different reason. Chloe was scared. She ran upstairs to her room. So I soon followed her and, you know, said that, you know, daddy had a big owie and the doctors weren't able to fix him. So now he's in heaven.

And being four years old, she didn't quite understand that daddy wasn't coming back home. So that was something that we had to work on, those months to come, that we would bring back up. You know, she would say: Well, isn't daddy here yet? And I would have to say: No, remember, he had an owie, and he can't join us anymore, but we'll see him later.

So that's something that a four-year-old can't quite process. But Chloe's now 10. Over the years we have rediscussed this.

NEARY: In different terms, using different language and different - her understanding has become not terribly sophisticated at 10 but obviously more sophisticated than when she was a four-year-old.

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Exactly. She was probably five or six, then she would ask me: What happened to daddy? You know, how was he hurt? And so I could get into more details the older that she got.

NEARY: You know, I'm wondering how you had the instinct to deal with your daughter at that same moment that you were coping with your own terrible grief. How do you leave yourself behind for the moment and begin - and have the right instincts for helping a child cope with the loss?

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Well, I think as a mother, for one, you never want to intentionally harm your child, especially their emotional well-being. So for me I just knew what Chloe could handle at that moment, and being four, and not quite understanding what death was about - we had never lost anybody before Jeremy. So I just left it as very simple, just, you know, that it was just going to be the two of us now, and, you know, to work through that just on a daily basis with her.

Jeremy was in Iraq for almost a year before he was killed. So we were kind of on our own already. But then just dealing with my own grief, I would let her see me cry. I was open about I was sad and I missed daddy and that she could be sad too and that it was OK to cry or to have a good day too, and to say you know what, I miss daddy, but I don't have to cry today, I can think of a happy moment that we remember.

NEARY: And I know she, as I understand it, you felt it was important that she go to the funeral as well, even though she was so young.

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Yes, she was my little companion. She went everywhere that I went, and I wanted her to see all the love and support that we had with all of our friends there, our family there. And even though it was a solemn day, and I don't think Chloe really understood what was going on, she knew that we were there because of daddy and that there was people there to support us.

NEARY: Now, it's been six years. You've remarried. Chloe's a little older. You know, it seems to me like the grief will - does the experience of grief change as the years go by? And how do you deal with whatever is going on with her developmentally at the same moment that she's perhaps experiencing her father's death in a different or new way as she gets older?

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: Right, and as children grow up, they hit new milestones. And those milestones do reflect grief with Chloe. You know, as she's - actually was in her first rodeo last weekend. You know, she can think: Oh, I wish daddy would have seen me riding a horse because he knew how much I loved horses, you know. And I'm sure in the future when she graduates high school, when she gets married, when she has children of her own, she will, you know, think about the time that she was with Jeremy and remember those memories of having him.

NEARY: Does she talk about him? Does she remember him?

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: She does talk about him. She has a hard time remembering because she was only four when he passed, but she remembers pictures that we have talked about and movies that she's seen of him. And just because he was such a vibrant part of our community, our small little town in Estacada, that people just, you know, talk about him, and she remembers things like that.

So she just loves remembering things about him.

NEARY: Well, Melissa, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.

LOVELESS-BOYNTON: No problem. It was a pleasure.

NEARY: Melissa Loveless-Boynton lost her husband, Corporal Jeremy Loveless, in 2006 when her daughter Chloe was four years old. She joined us from her home in Buckeye, Arizona.

Now, one place that helped Melissa and Chloe after they lost Jeremy was the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families. It's in Portland, Oregon, and joining us now is Donna Schuurman. She's the executive director of the Dougy Center, where she has worked with families for over 20 years, and she's with us now from a studio there in Portland. Donna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DONNA SCHUURMAN: Thank you very much.

NEARY: Now listening to Melissa's story, I'm really struck by the fact that an adult grieves - when an adult finds out that they've lost someone, they have a terrible sense of grief, but they're an adult, and they can process that information as an adult. But a child is going to find out that information and then go through so many different stages in life having to deal with that information.

How do children different ages process grief?

SCHUURMAN: Well, I think one of the challenges is people use terminology like getting over it, putting this behind you, and those - that kind of terminology. And what they really need to do is continue to sort of make sense of what happened, the loss and how it impacts them, at different phases of their life. And as Melissa pointed out, Chloe will re-process and re-experience her father's loss from her life throughout her life at different times, at key times but sometimes just sitting around having ice cream.

And our society doesn't do a very good job of fostering remembering. So we tend to push people to move on, to forget, to put it behind you when really what they want to do is remember. They want to remember Jeremy and honor his memory, and that doesn't mean you can't still have other relationships and a productive life; it just means you don't have to forget in order to move forward constructively.

NEARY: How do you foster that kind of remembering, as opposed to maybe an unhealthy dwelling on the sadness - you know, remembering in a good, positive way, as opposed to something that can send you into a depression perhaps?

SCHUURMAN: Well, I think a lot of kids, one of the biggest needs they have is to know that they're not alone, they're not the only one this has happened to, it's, as Melissa said, again, it's OK to feel sad and it's OK to feel happy. So kids like to look at photo albums, to do things like oh let's go have a root beer float - remember, your dad loved root beer floats.

Let's do positive things as well in his memory so that we can honor him. And I don't find - you know, I think that most people are not dwelling in a negative way. I mean, I know when I die I want people to be sad, and I want them to remember me. I think most of us do. But we're in a society that's urging us to put it behind us, and I think that that actually is what complicates things for children and often makes it more difficult for them to grieve and mourn in healthy ways.

NEARY: Well, do you think there are sort of common misconceptions about how kids experience loss?

SCHUURMAN: Yes. I think one of the common misconceptions, and I hear this frequently: Oh, they'll get over it. Kids are resilient. And they're not resilient in a vacuum. We know with all of the studies that have been done on resilience that there are factors that contribute to resilience, like feeling understood, having opportunities for expression, being part of a community, having positive role models of adults, specifically parents or parent figures, but other adults as well who model healthy grieving.

So I think the idea that they will be fine is not borne out in reality without certain other conditions being met.

NEARY: We're talking with Donna Schuurman. She's the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Family. She's also author of "Never the Shame: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent." And we're talking about kids and grief. If this is something that you've experienced as a parent or as a child, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Or you can email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Lynn Neary. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. We're talking about how parents talk with kids about death and grief and how children can handle that experience. The New York Times last month ran an article on the changing attitudes about this, outlining some of the ways parents, doctors, even funeral homes are bringing kids into these conversations.

Still, reporter Catherine Saint Louis wrote: Unlike the sex talk, the death talk hasn't been enshrined in the book of parenting musts and many people need a push. We'll talk more about that in a moment, and you can read that full article online. We've posted a link at npr.org.

If you've lost a loved one as a child, or if you've gone through grief with your kids, tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Donna Schuurman, executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Oregon. She also wrote a book on the subject: "Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent."

I want to take some calls now. We have a number of people waiting. We're going to go first to Garret(ph), who is calling from San Francisco. Hi, Garret.

GARRET: Hi, how are you?

NEARY: I'm good, how are you?

GARRET: Not too bad.

NEARY: Go ahead.

GARRET: Well, I lost my mother to suicide when I was 12 years old, and what - I think what helped me was that my father and my family members kind of spoke to me eye-to-eye about it. It wasn't as if they were really talking to a child. They didn't really talk down to me. We just discussed it as if I wasn't 12 years old, and that really helped me.

NEARY: And so nobody shielded you from it at all, there wasn't that sort of tension?

GARRET: There was - I mean, you know, they were - it wasn't insensitive, but, I mean, they didn't, you know, put it into, like, terms (technical difficulties) to like a six-year-old or anything. It wasn't dumbed down for a child. It was pretty straightforward which helped me because I had a brother who was four years younger than me. So it kind of gave me a sense of strength that I could be strong, you know, because my brother was not going to be able to take it the same way.

NEARY: Right, and did that help you as you got older, the fact that you had been able to deal with it that honestly at the age of 12, that then as you got older, do you think it helped you come to terms what occurred?

GARRET: Yeah, I mean, being able to, you know, stand kind of strong for my brother, and it was - I came to understand it as I was 12 that, you know, as your guest said, you're not alone. This is going to happen to everybody. So it kind of put things in perspective early on, and I think that's helped me with a lot of different things in my life.

You know, there's tragedy that happens every day to everybody, and it's kind of something you have to hold your head high and take.

NEARY: Well Garret, thanks so much for calling.

GARRET: Thank you, it's a great discussion.

NEARY: Yeah, go ahead.

SCHUURMAN: I'd just like to underscore the importance of what Garret just shared, which really is that please don't dumb things down for kids. They constantly say we want the truth, we want it honestly even when it's difficult. In the 20-some years that I've been listening to kids talk about how adults have interacted with them after a death, I literally never have heard one say I'm really glad they lied to me, or I'm glad they withheld really important information.

But we hear all the time from kids they didn't respect me enough to tell me the truth, and that makes it even more difficult.

NEARY: Yeah, and you've also said that often adults sort of may underestimate or not understand, not give kids credit for what they can fully understand in a difficult situation like that.

SCHUURMAN: Exactly. They are trying to make meaning of it in their developmental age, but they want to have the details as they ask for them. You know, and they can handle it. That's what they say all the time: I want the truth; I want to know. And they know when they're not being told the truth. They can tell. They can hear people whisper, go in other rooms. They want to be trusted.

They also want to know that the people that they entrust with truth will be honest with them because if you're not going to tell me the truth about this, what else are you withholding from me? And I think it's difficult, often because we don't want to see our children hurt. But again in this day and age, with Twitter and all of the social media, it's very hard, if not impossible, to keep secrets like it might have been possible 50 years ago.

So the reality is they probably know more than we think they know anyway.

NEARY: Let me ask you this: There are so many different personalities in the world. There's as many people - personalities as there are people. And people may grieve differently. And I wonder, some kids may want to talk a lot about it, may need to share, that's the way they operate in the world. Others might need to go off in their room quietly and be alone.

Is one better than the other? I mean...

SCHUURMAN: There's no right way, wrong way. There are certainly healthier ways or unhealthier ways, but often the unhealthy ways happen because they're not receiving the kind of support they need. But everybody does grieve differently based on the kind of relationship they had, unresolved issues.

You know, the last conversation I had with my dad wasn't a good one, and now I can never make it better. Was I somehow responsible? All kinds of issues that they wonder about. And what seems to be important is that they feel that they're not alone, someone understands what they're going through and that they have opportunities for expression.

Every child will differ based on their own personality and a lot of other issues as to how they actually express that. Some kids are talkers; some aren't. Some kids express themselves better through music, through art. At the Dougy Center, we have a room called the Volcano Room, and it's just an active room where you can get energy out.

It's a playroom where you can get all that tension expressed out of your body like you would on a playground. So we have kids at the Dougy Center who don't ever really talk all that much, but they might draw profoundly. And listening also is part of it. So there isn't a formula for this other than helping children know they're not alone, that they're supported and that they have opportunities for expression.

NEARY: We're talking about kids and grief with Donna Schuurman, she's the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families. We're going to take a call from Nicole(ph) in Rapid City, South Dakota. Hi, Nicole.

NICOLE: Hi.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead.

NICOLE: Well, I wanted to talk about the perspective - growing up, my father is actually the one who lost his father when he was 10 years old. And I saw that it had a huge impact on him throughout his entire life to the extent that he didn't understand the complexities of an adult-child relationship with their parent.

When things would get complicated, my brother might want to distance himself, or I might want to distance myself, or I wasn't calling, you know, as frequently as he would like. He couldn't understand that because, you know, as a 10-year-old idolizes and worships their father, and then he didn't have that, and so that's where he got stuck as far as a relationship between a parent and a child.

And so as a parent, you know, he expected his children to be like a 10-year-old.

NEARY: Interesting. What do you make - what's your reaction to that, Donna?

SCHUURMAN: Well, I think it's an incredibly important piece of information, which we use terminology that I don't think really applies, like unresolved loss. I'm more interested in terminology that says unaddressed because I don't think there's a magic moment where it's all tied up and resolved.

I don't think most of us would have to look very far in our family trees to find among our parents and other relatives, there was a baby that died in between my brother and I, and we never spoke about it, but my mother was always depressed; or my father, as you said, my father lost his father when he was a child.

And I think when we don't have the opportunity to address those things generationally, they do have an impact on us. So absolutely.

NEARY: Thanks so much for your call, Nicole.

NICOLE: Yes, thank you.

NEARY: OK, we're going to take another call, or we have an email here, this is from Martha(ph) in McLean, Virginia: My children were five and seven when their wonderful daddy died suddenly of a heart attack. The kids' responses to everything grief-related were totally different. It made it so much harder as a parent because we couldn't do grief work together.

After seeing an amazing individual grief therapist for a while, my daughter wanted to quit. My son would've preferred that the therapist move in with us so he could talk to her every day. The one thing they agreed on was after the first year, both kids when to Camp Erin/Camp Forget-Me-Not, the weekend camp run by the Wendt Center. It was a huge turning point, especially for my daughter.

Mommy, I'm normal when I'm there. Heartbreak, but true. Kids who've lost a parent just don't feel normal a lot of the time, and all they want is to be normal. I think we're getting better as a society dealing with death, but we still have a really long way to go.

So there's - addressing some of the issues that we've already talked about, the different ways people respond to grief and some of the things that can be done to help kids get through. I - when I was reading, getting ready for this show, I heard about these camps where kids who have lost a parent can go. I'd never heard of that before.

SCHUURMAN: Yes. There are camps - Camp Erins throughout the country that was started through the Moyer Foundation, Jamie Moyer, who was a baseball player, and his wife. And there's another camp, Comfort Zone, and there are other camps throughout the country that tend to be - they're weekend ones or longer ones.

I think, again, one of the things that accomplish - is accomplished through those camps is kids actually get to have fun with each other even though they've all had a tragic loss or losses in their lives, and they get to be able to know they're not alone.

There are also programs. There's a National Alliance for Grieving Children that has a listing on their website of hundreds of programs that reach out to children and their families throughout the country that are - some are independent. Some are associated with hospitals or hospices.

But they - I think over the last 15, 20 years, people have begun to recognize more that when - kids will not just necessarily be OK without support. And I'm not saying by that everybody needs professional help or everybody needs to go to someone, but everybody needs to know they're not alone and that they're going to be OK.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call from Genevieve(ph) in New York. Hi, Genevieve.

GENEVIEVE: Hi there. Thank you so much for this program. I lost my dad when I was six-and-a-half. I actually was on my way to school in the morning, going to say goodbye to him in his bedroom, and found him having passed away from a heart attack.

I understood at six-and-a-half that he was dead, maybe from movies I had seen. I don't know why I understood that. I just didn't understand the longevity of it. I didn't understand the future, so I didn't cry. I just had this intense responsibility to go down and tell my mom.

And that was really awkward and weird for me to have to grow up that quickly. And I dealt with her grief intensively for years. After school I'd come home. She'd be crying, and I would wrap my arms around her. It wasn't until I was 12 in summer camp that I cried for the first time.

And my wonderfully supportive school in New York City, Chapin, and my summer camp in Maine really helped me get through that. And my grades started to improve. I wasn't as angry. I wasn't lashing out as much after I finally was able to grieve at 12 and understand that I wasn't getting him back.

But I was very angry about it for years, and I kind of - at 35, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, kind of a watered-down version of it. I'm on the sort of easier end of things, but it stems from an abandonment issue, and I've had to work through. Every significant male relationship I've ever had has been troubled by my fear of abandonment. So...

NEARY: Did you feel at the time - this was at a time, I guess, when a lot of times people maybe didn't talk too much about it. I mean...

GENEVIEVE: It was 1978. Yeah. I mean, my mom - we talked. We have a very open family. We talked. My big sister understood it in the moment because she was 12. So we did talk about it. I had a uber-support system around me of my school, my day school and also my summer camp.

Everybody was aware of it. I did go to see a psychiatrist in third grade when I was really lashing out a lot and not doing well in school even though I was tested to be intelligent enough to do well in school. I just was depressed and lazy, I guess. I don't know what was going on. But, yeah, it wasn't as clear, I think, in 1978 maybe what to do.

And I didn't discover my abandonment issue, as I said, till six years ago, that it actually has a name. It has a diagnosis. I'm not living by that diagnosis. I'm not, you know, labeling myself, but it enabled me to get proper help as an adult to go back and handle these emotional - emotionally troubling relationships I've had because of my loss of my dad. Yeah.

NEARY: Well, Genevieve, thank - yeah. Thank you so much for calling and sharing that.

GENEVIEVE: You're so welcome. Thank you so much.

NEARY: Appreciate that.

GENEVIEVE: OK.

NEARY: And before we respond to that, I just want to remind you that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Donna Schuurman, I think here in that story we hear how grief, even if you talk about it as a child, even if you have therapy, even - you know, this follows you through life.

SCHUURMAN: Yes, it does, and it's not a one-time event. I think, again, a lot of people think, well, this happened. Now we'll just do this, and then it'll be over and you can move on. I'm reminded, when she was telling her story, about William Styron's book, "Darkness Visible." And he says in there he realized in his, I believe, 70s that he had been depressed his whole life.

And he went to get help at his wife's urging and realized, through talking with a professional, that he probably had been depressed since his mother's death when he was, I believe, 10 and how he really didn't do anything with that, to integrate that loss on a continuing basis.

And when you talk about things like anger and abandonment and - those would be normal responses. It isn't fair. It - that my father has to die and I don't get him anymore and that I'm not going to necessarily learn how to be a daughter and how to be in relationships with men. I mean, the ramifications of early childhood loss - also deaths of siblings - has its own losses. A lot of kids talk about, I feel like I lost my parents when I lost my sibling as well. So it has lifelong implications. Not all of those implications have to be negative.

We hear a lot about post-traumatic stress. We don't hear enough post-traumatic growth and the idea that we can transform traumatic experiences into positive growth. That doesn't meant we're glad they happened, but it can mean that we can make them transformational and have better relationships with people as we work these issues out.

NEARY: And we heard a caller earlier say something to that effect that he was proud of the strength he had, the ability he had to help his younger brother. And he's carried that with him through life.

SCHUURMAN: Yes.

NEARY: Donna Schuurman, thank you so much for being with us today.

SCHUURMAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

NEARY: Donna Schuurman is the executive director of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families. She's also author of "Never the Same: Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent." Coming up: If you know when the word or phrase FAQ was first used or where the term baked Alaska came from, the Oxford English Dictionary wants to talk with you. We'll find out how their crowdsourcing etymology next. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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