Children, Coping With Loss, Are Pandemic’s ‘Forgotten Grievers’

× Children, Coping With Loss, Are Pandemic’s ‘Forgotten Grievers’

By: Dr. Tom Wicks, Editor, Mind Body Green and contributor to Fox News Health

More than three million kids a year in the United States die from heartbreaking, preventable causes. They die of injuries, end-of-life symptoms, cancer, mental health disorders, suicide, even household fires. By age 15, nearly every boy in the country has experienced at least one of these terminal illnesses.

The biggest killer of teenagers is heart disease. Yet, we know virtually nothing about it.

Death is almost inevitable in the developing world. In Mexico, for example, more than a quarter of kids 15 and under are illiterate. Nearly a third of the death rate from childhood cancers is entirely preventable. Yet, we know very little about the best ways to detect childhood cancers and treat them in a cost-effective way.

Kids’ individual pain for parents and siblings is subtler than a parent may think. They begin their lives as resilient little nuggets who bounce off the walls and explode in screamy misery if they live with a bad mood, a malnourished, chronically-ill sibling, or a stifling, toxic home. They flinch when someone says something cruel, pass on guilt their own childhood suffered as no other child should be forced to, and generally refuse to treat each other with genuine concern. Their hurts are palpable, and their much-altered relationships—an unhealthy one with parents, a healthy one with siblings, a lifetime of interpersonal detachment—never recover fully.

How can parents help children heal? Treating their sense of loss as important helps them keep their sense of wholeness and belonging. Ignoring, burying, or dismissing their grief can cause them to become overemotional, become aggressive, etc. Their own fears and fears about losing their parents remain. While children with grief treat adults—as both do, since that is how childhood happens—family support is the key.

Children especially need the support of a caring parent, and they will often choose their parent as their caregiver if mom and dad seem to be psychologically healthy themselves. However, even if parents get help for themselves, too often they lack the necessary professional training to be an effective caretaker. Caregivers must also accept that they are not living in the future. Every day they encounter young people who have grown up with cancer or who have had a loved one lose a battle with it. This should not change in the months or years after they have become caregivers for a loved one who has lost their life. The person in charge of these children’s care changes. In other words, the dead person’s child, the child’s aunt, cousin, grandparent, sibling, or extended family is not themselves the “dead person.” They, too, are in the present. They are still children, sharing the experience, trying to find meaning, grappling with their grief. These relationships are as demanding and taxing as any parent’s.

Caregivers’ near constant presence increases children’s natural tendency to withdraw or withdraw deeply. But children resist withdrawal—if a caregiver can find a way to connect with them—and to present them with opportunities to thrive. These include, but are not limited to,: activities they are anxious about doing, or which challenge them, or which make them sad (also known as “zoned out”).

Adults can help children feeling trapped by encouraging creativity, allowing exploration of their feelings, and reminding them that they are not missing much. Parents can offer regular hug checks. Adults can ask questions to help children feel heard and understood. Parents can praise their children for being compassionate and kind. Adults can help young children’s bereaved relatives bring the memories to a place of safety, comfort, and resolution.

Childhood deaths can happen to anyone. We can’t change them—they are the inevitable result of the complicated interplay of genetics, the environment, risk factors, and the responsibility of each person to take good care of themselves. But we can give children the support they need to bounce back and thrive. And, we can do it without letting ourselves get derailed.

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