When children have just lost a loved one—whether parent, sibling, or dear friend—we usually expect a wave of grief, a time when a community can and should step up to help in any way possible.
But, say experts, beware: if the death was expected, feelings of mourning may have set in long ago. Especially if the loved one suffered a long illness, “anticipatory grief” can leave whole families feeling at once baffled and ravaged. If you, or someone you know, is facing such a loss, read on. Your help can make a huge difference.
So what, exactly, is this “anticipatory” grief? Therese Rando, PhD., renowned clinical psychologist and author of How to Go on Living when Someone you Love Dies, points out that when a death is expected—as, for example, with a terminal cancer diagnosis—families have an invaluable opportunity to “place the death in the context of events that (are) predictable and make sense.” Kids can join in saying “I love you,” in finishing “unfinished business” emotionally, and in saying a loving farewell.
Still, however, explains author and professor Kenneth J. Doka, PhD., the word “anticipatory,” which implies “looking forward,” is something of a misnomer. While adults are consumed with daily caretaking tasks, kids “are left dealing with all the changes they’re experiencing right now.”
Suddenly, for example, parents may have become more distracted, or anxious; otherwise healthy kids may be living in “houses of chronic sorrow.” Loss, for them, is already here, and it’s only getting worse. Such kids may retreat into silence, or may act out in anger; others may suddenly seem to soar in competence, taking on heavy family responsibilities. Don’t be fooled: they may all still be feeling deep grief.
So what can family, friends, schools and community members do to help? A lot! Here are suggestions from Doka and from Jennifer Allen, a practicing psychotherapist and author of Bone Knowing, a memoir about her husband’s death from cancer:
Share the load. Caretaking can be relentless, and no one person or family can handle it alone. In particular, counsels Doka, “Parents should make schools aware.” In addition to offering warmth and understanding, teachers, parents, and other community leaders can be invaluable help to healthy kids who yearn for “normalcy” and who worry profoundly, “who will take care of me now?” Warm meals, rides to soccer practice or school, playdates, and even laundry can all provide great comfort, especially when neighbors and friends offer these services and don’t even wait to be asked.
With questions, let kids take the lead. Long before an actual death, says Doka, kids can be flooded with worry and fear. After all, he says, “it is loss that is happening,” and it’s huge. In our efforts to help, however, it’s crucial not to promise falsely. When a kid asks, for example, “Can she die”? Doka says, we must not pretend that it can’t happen. Instead, we might say, “We’re doing everything we can and we hope not. But she could.” Allen adds, “Always end conversations with reassurance that their needs will be met. When applicable be specific,” such as “Aunt Sheryl will be taking you to practice on days I am at the hospital with Dad.”
Invite kids to help with care, but don’t force it. “Keep in mind,” explains Allen, “their age and development.” A little kid, for example, might bring a water cup to Grandpa, a twelve-year-old might help prepare a meal; meanwhile, a seventeen-year-old might drive to the grocery store for food. “Forcing a caregiving chore to prompt contact between child and loved one is bound to backfire,” she warns, however. Instead, “Follow children’s lead, and they will reap the potential benefits of quality time with their loved one.”
Help kids balance grief and hope. Especially under stress, kids tend to think in “black and white”: life is either all bad, or all good. Over the long haul, one of the most important gifts we can nurture is an ability to balance the two. In her work with grieving children, Allen makes the lesson concrete by drawing a big “worry cup” and inviting kids to fill it with thoughts. The list, says Allen, is “almost always the very things they have already begun grieving,” such as “worry my dad won’t be able to talk,” or “worry about mom not being able to braid my hair anymore.” Then, on a new paper, Allen draws a big heart for the child’s hopes—which are usually the exact opposite of her fears. “It shows,” says Allen, how “both grief and hope happen at the same time.”
In the end, of course, all the love and support in the world cannot eradicate the pain of losing a loved one. One common misconception of “anticipatory grief” is what Doka calls a “hydrostatic view of grief”—that “the more tears you shed before they die, the less you’ll cry later." Unfortunately, says Doka, "It just doesn't work that way." Even with deep, compassionate caring all the way through a long illness, a family will be rocked by loss, and a community must rally then, too.
Still, says Allen, the process of reaching out and understanding long-term loss carries incalculable benefits to everyone involved. “Illness,” she says, “is a fact of life that will impact us all at some point, either directly or indirectly. When children experience a loved one's illness and their peers witness them going through something so difficult, it can be scary. But with the support of a community, all children learn they are not alone. They also learn an important life skill about help works: it is about giving and receiving.” And, with careful leadership from adults, it is about setting secure foundations, even in the face of life’s greatest uncertainties, that can last for generations to come.