Picking up the Pieces

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 5, 2001

Parenting is by far the most important, most rewarding and longest lasting occupation imaginable.

Monday, February 05, 2001

Parenting is by far the most important, most rewarding and longest lasting occupation imaginable. Ideally, once a parent always a parent – and then a grandparent.

Email newsletter signup

Mixed with the love, joy and pride of parenting are also the worries caused by physical, mental and emotional problems. For just about anything that ails the body and mind, there are specialists to consult. But what can we do for the grieving child?

Mariann Law is the executive director of the Parenting Resource Center in Austin. This is the place where parents and other child care providers can seek support and guidance. And there is Parenting Specialist Norma Klaehn, who has been tending the center’s Warm Line telephone since 1978 and has a treasure of wisdom under her hat. She also has a heart and mind for helping people, especially parents of troubled children. In her professional, yet warm tone, she does her best to console and reassure the caller.

As in most cases of emotional turmoil, there is no patent resolution to how to deal with a grieving child. "It depends on the age of the child," Klaehn said, "and what causes the child’s grief. And of course, children react differently, so it depends on the child."

Klaehn points out the importance of allowing a reasonable time for mourning. If the grief is caused by the loss of a parent or other family member, it’s important to be truthful about it. Some people mistakenly think they are making it easier for the child by saying something like, "Grandma is sleeping."

First off, this is untrue, she said. Parents need to instill trust in the child, and that can never be done by teaching something the child later has to unlearn.

Contrary to their intent, they might induce in the child the fear of going to sleep. Grandma didn’t wake up again. What if I don’t wake up?

"Death is difficult to explain to small children, but we must tell them that a person who died is not coming back," Klaehn said. Though it’s hard for them to accept, older children can understand that everyone will have to die some time, probably when they get old.

What, if anything besides a death in the family, can cause a child to grieve? Separation from a parent or sibling, the loss of a pet, or a close friend who has moved away are some reasons for grief and anxiety in children. Since the very young adjust to changes rather quickly, they require less time to overcome their loss. To them, a new pet, a trip to the Burger King playroom or visiting playmates help ease the pain. Talking about parents’ and children’s mutual feelings of sadness and a good cry can help tremendously, Klaehn said. It’s all right to talk about it; it’s comforting for children to know that grownups can get sad and cry, too.

After that, it’s time for the good part – sharing wonderful memories of the lost one, Klaehn said.

Older children, on the other hand, may take a long time getting over the pain of their loss. It’s up to the adults, mainly parents, to be sensitive to their children’s reactions and be on the alert for opportunities to conversation. Children need to talk about their grief, and if they don’t bring it up, the concerned adult should. They need to know that it’s not only okay to cry, it’s normal. Weeping releases pressure and promotes emotional healing.

"To watch for depression, especially in older children and teens, is important," Klaehn points out. "In two or three weeks, their symptoms of grief should have decreased. If a child after that time still doesn’t show any improvement, there is cause for concern."

Signs of depression might show up either as excessive weight gain or loss, withdrawal from friends and family, anger and fatigue, to name a few. Any obvious change in behavior that doesn’t reverse back to normal within a reasonable time calls for professional intervention.

When parents themselves have difficulty in coping with a loss or separation, they may not be able to help their grieving child. In that case, talking to a loving relative or trusted friend, school counselor or pastor could help both parents and children. A child can also benefit from talking with a peer who has been through a similar tragedy. The two often end up helping each other.

At the Parenting Resource Center there is a library of reference books, pamphlets, etc., on many subjects regarding parenting. There are also trained people like Klaehn, who is willing to listen and readily shares her expertise in parenting problems. In difficult cases, she often refers the clients to their family doctor for consultation.

Austinites live in a child friendly, family oriented community. Help for parents with troubled children can be found in many locations. The public and private schools, Parenting Resource Center, Austin Medical Center and many churches have counselors prepared to serve young people and their families. There is no need for a grieving child to go on hurting for an unreasonably long time, nor for parents to feel hopelessly alone in their struggle. Everyone will some time in their lives want to hold a helping hand, or hear a consoling voice at the other end of the phone line – and it might well be Klaehn, the parenting specialist, on the Warm Line

Parents looking for assistance or ideas in how to deal with the grieving child need not hesitate to call Parenting Resource Center, 437-8330, or the Warm Line, 584-2204. The Parenting Resource Center is located in the lower level of the US Bank building, 301, Main Street N, Austin.

Recommended reading on the subject of grieving children: "What on Earth Do You Do When Someone Dies?" by Trevor Romain and "Help Me Say Good-bye" by Janis Silverman.