Helping a Child with Anticipatory Grief (page 2)

Helping a Child with Anticipatory Grief

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Updated on May 14, 2010

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.

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