The term Discounted Grief has been replaced in professional circles with Disenfranchised Grief. Basically, this refers to issues such as divorce, the break-up of a relationship and moving, to name but a few, that others may not recognize as grief producing experiences. In this article, we want to focus on those events that happen in the lives of our children that, as adults, we often totally discount as painful emotional losses. What most of us never think about is that when we have discounted grief in children, we are inadvertently sending them signals on how to deal with grief the rest of their lives.
A little background
Children begin establishing their belief systems on how to deal with the issues of life at a very early age. Basic psychology tells us that 75% of the reasoning skills that our children will likely use for the rest of their lives are established by the age of two to three years old. In other words, before they have fully developed their verbal communication skills, they are already establishing a mindset on how to deal with events in their lives.
Most of this information is essential to their survival! They learn to look before crossing a street and to not touch a hot stove. Unfortunately, however, some of this information that they store may include elements of misinformation. This is often the case when it comes to how to deal with issues of loss.
Children rarely begin to develop an understanding of coping with the pain of emotional loss with the death of significant person in their lives. The losses that they face are ones that adults often see as totally insignificant. It might be the loss of a balloon in the park or a favorite toy. When this happens, they normally display their emotional pain with tears. This is when, as adults who do not wish to see our children suffer, that we offer them the first two bits of “misinformation” on how to cope with this emotional pain. We tell them:
- Don’t feel bad.
- We will get you a new one!
On the face of it, both of these things sound like logical responses. As adults, neither of these losses sounds significant on any level. They are things that are easily replaced. What we do not realize or understand is the emotional connection our children may have to these objects. Once these things are replaced, our children may quickly adapt to the change. Unfortunately, they have also begun to establish an understanding that the display of sad emotions is not the correct response to loss, and that the best way to cope is with a replacement or replace the loss.
If this only happened once or twice in their formative years, children might not absorb this as the correct approach for dealing with emotionally painful events. Instead, they tend to hear this on a continuing basis. With each new loss of something that, as adults, we see as relatively meaningless, we repeat these same communications to our children. We do not do this to purposely implant misinformation in our children, but simply because we do not realize that is what is happening.
Another thing we fail to realize is that if we repeat the same behavior patter 30 to 40 times, it becomes an established habit.
Why is this misinformation?
The best way to understand this is to look at how we deal with grief and loss as adults.
When we deal with a major life changing event, the best and most natural way to begin to process the feelings of grief is to express that emotional pain: to put voice to it. If we have continually been instructed to “not feel bad” when dealing with a loss, we instead tend to suppress those feelings. Trying to not feel bad rarely makes us feel better. We hold those feelings deep inside, where they continue to bother us, but do not feel comfortable sharing them with others. This does nothing to relieve and release that pain. As a result, we tend to relive those loss experiences each time we see something that reminds us of that relationship.
Most of us, after the death of a spouse, would never immediately consider “replacing” that person with someone else. Studies have shown, however, that men have few tools to deal with this emotional pain and frequently remarry or enter new relationships fairly quickly. When a long term relationship ends in divorce, this is also the case. Unconsciously, these people are simply following that established behavior pattern of replacement to deal with their emotional pain.
How do adults reinforce this and other misinformation on coping with loss and grief in our children?
One of the comments that I frequently heard, when I was very young and was crying about something that my parents deemed inconsequential, was, "If you are going to cry like that, I will give your something to cry about." In truth, my parents never beat me, but that threat was enough to encourage me to "man up" and stuff my emotional pain. I have frequently been told by others that they heard this as well.
I remember very well when my first “girlfriend” and I broke up in grade school. I was miserable! Rather than encouraging me to put voice to those feelings, and take the necessary grief recovery actions to successfully move beyond that pain, I was told, “Don’t feel bad, there are a lot of fish in the sea!” I remember wondering at the time how this solved my problem, but I trusted that my parents knew what they were talking about. I stored that emotional pain inside and was much more reluctant to share my heart with the next girl I liked.
While I am sure that my parents knew childhood friendships come and go, they did not realize that they were establishing in me behavior patterns that I would continue to repeat over and over as I got older. As I moved into my twenties, I continued to share less and less of my heart with those girls to whom I was attracted, which ultimately doomed those relationships as well. I often tell people that it is only thanks to ultimately learning how to successfully grieve and “complete” lost relationships that I became a good candidate for a lasting and loving marriage.
As part of this learning process, I also had to learn to let go of other bits of misinformation that I had stored in my belief system. I learned that “being strong” was yet another way I had learned to suppress my emotional pain. I learned that “keeping busy” to sidetrack me from any emotional loss I experienced was simply a way of seeking distractions, rather than facing and solving the problem.
There is a better approach than discounting early losses!
As adults, we need to remember that we once walked down many of the same paths that our children are taking today. We need to remember how we felt when those adults around us discounted our first grieving experiences. Instead of discounting them, we need to learn the necessary tools to allow our grieving children to express their feelings without analysis, criticism or judgment. It is about helping them to deal with painful events in the moment they occur, so that they can move through those events and not carry that pain into their future relationships.
“When Children Grieve” is a book that parents can use to help them in preparing their children to successfully move through emotionally painful events. It is not a book to give to children, but rather an educational guide for parents. It is not an intellectual instruction manual. It is written from the heart and from the perspective of one parent walking with another in this journey of offering children positive assistance in dealing with emotionally painful events. It gives assistance for helping adolescents, tweens and teenagers find a more effective way of dealing with any loss experience.
This is a book that parents can use on their own, or they can learn to utilize its techniques in a group situation. There are Certified Grief Recovery Specialists who have been trained to facilitate parent support groups in putting these methods into practice.
As parents, we have a choice. We can continue to instill in them the same information that has crippled us in dealing with loss events, or we can offer them tools that will be of value for the rest of their lives. We can continue to discount their early losses, or we can find better ways to help them, that will support them as they move to adulthood.
Photo Credit: 123RF Stock Photo - Wong Yu Liang