What do Prince Harry, an actor's daughter & Barbara from Harrogate all have in common?
At the age of just 12 Prince Harry’s mother was killed in possibly the most famous car crash in the world. Princess Diana’s funeral was one of the world’s biggest media events in history and we can’t begin to imagine the agony of her death for Harry and his brother William – two boys suddenly & utterly, bereft and in the eye of a media storm.
The name Leslie Landon Matthews may be less familiar to you but the death of her father when he was just 54 years old had a devastating impact on her young life. Any of us is likely to be devastated when a parent dies and often the pain is more intense when the parent is young and is robbed of what would be considered a normal life span.
Carole Henderson offers
some do's and don'ts when talking to children about grief and loss.
Children are left with unrealised dreams and expectations of what the future with their parents may have held. There was another dimension to Leslie’s grief.
Her father was Charles Landon, the actor known to nearly everyone from films and TV programmes like Bonanza, Highway to Heaven and in particular as the father in Little House on the Prairie. Leslie’s Dad’s fame made it nearly impossible for her and her family to deal privately with her emotions about his death.
Barbara (not her real name) was just 7 when her Mother died aged 33 from cancer and her Father, deep in his own grief really didn’t know what to do with his only daughter. “Sadly Dad’s response was to pretend everything was ok with him – he never talked about how he felt and would try to “cheer me up” when I was sad. I quickly learned not to show my sad and painful feelings either and we both existed in a world of private pain. I know this has impacted on all my relationships in later life, I’m certain it also is the root of the depression I’ve battled for most of my life.”
Unresolved grief is often the result of undelivered communications. Fortunately, both Leslie and Barbara found help with their loss at a Grief Recovery workshop where they learned how to complete all those “if only, would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” thoughts and feelings that were keeping them trapped in their pain.
At the time Leslie arrived at the Grief Recovery Institute she was already a Marriage & Family therapist. Following Russell Friedman’s and John W James’ encouragement she went on to do her Ph.D on children and grief.
When Prince Harry spoke to the BBC a couple of days ago about his regrets that he didn’t speak out earlier about his grief following his Mother’s death many people will have breathed a sigh of relief or even cheered. Too long the subject of grief and loss has been ignored and it is damaging to both children and adults. Sadly, there are thousands of children in the UK who experience the death of a parent, those left behind, struggling with their own grief are often left feeling completely lost as to how to help themselves and their kids move forward. So we’ve come up with a few important hints and tips to help you talk to children about loss taken from the book “When Children Grieve” co-written by Russell & John the Grief Recovery Founders with Leslie following that Phd.
The Dos and Don’ts of talking to children:
1) Do Go First. As the adult you’re the leader. Tell the truth about how you feel. Telling the truth about your own grief and about how you feel will establish a tone of trust and make your child feel safe in opening up about his or her own feelings. This does not mean you have disclose information that would be too difficult for them but it is essential you tell the emotional truth about what happened and about your own feelings. Children need to know that it’s ok to be sad.
2) Do Recognise that grief is emotional, not intellectual and that sad or scared feelings are normal. Avoid the trap of asking your child what is wrong for they will automatically say “nothing”.
3) Do Listen with your heart not your head. Allow all emotions to be expressed without judgment, criticism or analysis.
4) Do Remember that each child is unique and has a unique relationship to the loss and the person who died.
5) Do talk about the person who died regularly and encourage them to remember shared events and memories so that the child doesn’t feel that person has been forgotten.
6) Do be patient. Don’t force your child to talk. Give your child time. Make sure to plant healthy ideas about talking about feelings.
7) Don’t say “don’t feel scared.” Fear is a common and normal response.
8) Don’t say “don’t feel sad” Sadness is a healthy and normal reaction. Sadness and fear, the two most common feelings attached to loss of any kind, are essential to being human.
9) Don’t ask your children how they are feeling. Like adults, fearful of being judged, may automatically say “I’m fine” even though they are not. Instead you could ask “what’s happening with you today?”
10) Don’t act strong for your children. They will interpret your “non-feeling” as something they are supposed to copy.
11) Don’t compare their lives or situations to others in the world. Comparison always minimises feelings.
12) Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Instead of saying “everything is going to be OK” try “we’ll do everything we can to be safe.”
13) Don’t forget that your children are very smart. Treat them and their feelings with respect and dignity as you would like to be treated by others.
The book was so popular with parents that the Grief Recovery Institute created a programme called “helping children deal with loss” based around it. There are now an increasing number of Grief Recovery Specialists around the UK offering this 6 week course in communication with Children about loss no matter what the nature of the loss is. Aimed at both parents and professionals this is a 6 week class on giving children the best tools to move forwards. To find your nearest programme click here.
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