Building Bridges

Dealing with Loss
PART II (continued)

Helping children understand what is happening

It is easier to invite and to answer your children's questions about the changes that are happening in your family's life if you have answers to your own questions. You may have detailed, definite answers to some questions, but there might be others for which the only answer you have is, "I don't know." There may be some questions for which you have only partial or tentative answers. 
    Having only some of the answers to your own questions does not have to prevent you from talking with your children about what is happening. Almost certainly, they know that something is different, or will soon be different. They may not know what to ask, how to ask, or whether to ask.
    You are probably as distressed as you've ever been. Exhausted. Having trouble concentrating. Worried about how your emotional state, and the facts themselves, will affect your children. Wanting to protect them from pain. 
    You may be concerned that others will want you to "wait until later to tell the children." To make up a story. To remain silent. 
    But you know that the children know that something is the matter. That you are upset. That things are different. That there's some kind of secret in the family that's probably not a happy surprise.

5. Take the initiative.
The decisions that have already been made are adult decisions. It is for you to tell the children what is happening. 

6. Decide on the purpose of the conversation.
You are upset. You may be angry, hurt, anxious. Almost certainly, you are sad.
The children need to know why you are upset, why they are upset, why others are upset.
They need to know whether you are unhappy because of something they did or they did not do. 
They need to know what is likely to happen next.

The purpose of the conversation is:
  • to tell them what they need to know,
  • to ask them if they have any questions,
  • to make it clear that there will be many more opportunities to talk about what is happening, and, above all
  • to let them know that this is not their fault and is not something that they can fix, and
  • to let them know that you love them and will continue to love them no matter what happens.

7. Decide on the structure of the "telling the children" conversation.
Many of the suggestions in this guidebook can be carried out while you and your children are engaged in some ordinary family activity, structured or unstructured. For most families, the "telling the children" conversation is best conducted with everyone seated, and with specific planning and attention to detail.

Who is present? (All, if this can be done with love and respect.)
How much advance notice? (Preferably as little as is practical.)
What time of day? (Preferably not immediately before bedtime.)
Who sits where? (Preferably no child is isolated across a table.)
How long is this conversation? (Preferably short, but slow.)
How do we start? ("We are both sad because . . .")
What explanations do we give? ("We have decided that the two of us will not keep living in the same house any more, because we are not able to get along well no matter how hard we try. It took us a long time to decide this, and it was a hard decision, and it is final. We are sure that we are making the right decision, even though we are sad.")
Then what? (Proceed according to Item 6 above, and offer hugs.)
What else? (Transition to some activity other than bedtime.)

Note: This is likely to be the hardest thing you'll ever have to do in your life. The pain will probably be a little more bearable if you've discussed this conversation in advance with some other adult you trust and respect, and can talk with this person soon afterwards, even briefly, perhaps by phone.

8. Expect to answer the children's questions over and over again, on their schedule.
Children grieve and re-grieve. They sometimes go long intervals without showing any apparent interest, and sometimes they want to deal with nothing else. Sometimes they ask the same questions repeatedly. Usually, at a later stage of their own development, they ask more sophisticated questions.

9. When you don't know, say, "I don't know."

10. Make sure the children understand that their actions will not affect the permanence of the divorce.

11. Help the children understand what they are losing and what they are not losing.
After the initial numbness begins to wear off, it is important to help the children recognize "what is not here any more." This may be difficult, especially if it is hard for you to accept the reality of the losses that you are having to face. You, and they, are losing familiar routines. You are losing the feelings of safety and stability that come from a sense of family permanence. You may be losing a familiar home, neighborhood, school community. They are losing familiar ways of being attended to, of being taught, of being cared for. You and they are losing a way of life that has become familiar.
    People close to you may seek to ease your pain by distracting you from understanding all of the secondary losses that you and the children are experiencing. In the same way, they may urge you to shield the children from pain by pretending to them that life can go on essentially unchanged, even though you know that so much is different: finances, chores, food, recreation, schedules, holidays, conversations, transportation, school life, sports, special trips, bedtime, and on and on. 
    It is not easy for children, just as it is rarely easy for parents, to accept the fact that their world has changed and to understand how it has changed. It takes time, and patience, and love, and persistence for the family members to understand that their options cannot be the same as they were before. Expecting yourself, or your children, to be able to come to grips with everything all at once is likely to be an exercise in frustration and futility. At the other extreme, it is equally fruitless to pretend that nothing important has changed at all.

12. Give your children choices whenever possible.
When you have to say "no," give the child the opportunity to choose between two reasonable and attractive alternatives. For example: "Instead of going to the mall now, we can either go tomorrow afternoon or save it for the weekend."

13. Let your children help each other.
Children often know exactly how to comfort or reassure one another. Without relinquishing your role as parent, be sure to honor their impulse to help.

14. If you possibly can, end each discussion lovingly and peacefully.
The more you've been able to allow yourself to acknowledge and express your own feelings, to accept them as normal, and to let go of them and move on, the more freely you can help your children do the same. But you're only human; and even though you may be experiencing a great deal of pain and you know that your own grief work takes time, you still want to do whatever can be done to help your children deal with their distress.
    However, don't expect yourself to be able to bring about the outcomes you'd like to see in every instance. In this domain, as in so many others, trusting in the process is more important than manipulating it. 

15. Remember that children will express their feelings in their own way and at their own pace.
You may feel frustrated when your children aren't expressing feelings, or frightened when they are saying or doing things that upset you. This is a time to be patient. If you are accepting and supportive, they will be able to do the work they need to do. Your firm and loving guidance gives them the reassurance that the process will continue to unfold in a healthy way.

16. Remember that children need to know that they are safe.
Remind yourself that when:
  • children's lives have become seriously disrupted, and
  • they sense strong emotions inside themselves and in others, and
  • they do not know what will happen next,
  • they are likely to feel terrified and vulnerable.
    If they express their inner turmoil in ways that are emotionally hurtful to others, or physically dangerous to themselves or others, it is important for the people who love them to intervene, promptly and with firmness appropriate to the situation. You can acknowledge their distress ("I can tell that you are upset"), let them know that you care ("and I care about you and your feelings") and are available ("and we can deal with this in a way that will help"). At the same time, you can make it clear that you will not let them hurt themselves or others ("but I will not let you hurt yourself or someone else.").
    Almost always, this will give the children exactly what they need most at such a moment: the assurance that they are loved and that they will be kept safe. By letting them know that they can rely on you for love, modeling, and firmness, you help them discover that their world is really not in total chaos. They can breathe comfortably again.
    Some children who previously functioned reasonably well may need more help during and after divorce than they can get from one parent or two parents. If they are surrounded by models of abuse instead of compassion, exploitation instead of love, and pandemonium instead of firmness, they may indeed feel themselves falling apart as they feel their family falling apart. Children who persist in hurting themselves or others need professional help. 

17. Remember that unexpressed painful feelings tend to persist, and to interfere with healing.
You can usually do more good by providing safe opportunities for your children to express their feelings of distress, and then being attentive, accepting, and supportive, than by communicating a message that says, "Don't feel the way you are feeling."
    No matter how wise it may have been to decide to dissolve the marriage, the children will sometimes be as likely as you are to feel sad, angry, hurt, guilty, worried, fearful. At other times, they may be carefree, happy, rambunctious. And at still other times, you may have no way of knowing what they are feeling, and they may have no interest in letting you know.

18. Let your children know that you have strong feelings, and let them see that you can express them safely.
Although your expression of your own feelings of distress may add to your children's concern, it can provide them with a chance to see that it is normal for people to be upset when they are dealing with loss. Your modeling of honest, non-destructive expressions of 
strong feelings can be of value to your children, especially if you:
  • take responsibility for your own feelings (without blaming them on someone else);
  • maintain healthy boundaries (remembering that your child is not your mother or your buddy);
  • express your feelings without attacking anyone or injuring yourself;
  • describe your understanding of what is happening and what you want; and
  • end with a return to feelings of safety and love.
    This is not always possible. You are human. You will not always function in ways that please you. You will sometimes be embarrassed by what you've said or done. You will sometimes apologize. How valuable it can be for your children to see how you, their own personal important grownup, deals with such events!

19. Remember that the children's feelings belong to them.
At a time when children have lost so much that was familiar and important to them, and are aware of having only a partial understanding of what is happening, they need to be reassured that their own authentic feelings are normal. They need to be helped to discover that their feelings will not be stolen from them; that having their feelings will not result in loss of your attention, acceptance, or affection; and that you have confidence in their ability to do the work that they are doing.

20. Honor your children's feelings.
Most children are not in the habit of talking readily about their feelings. Their feelings are private, powerful, and, perhaps, secret. Children may have a vague apprehension that revealing their feelings might result in a grownup becoming uncomfortable or angry. Especially at a time of great loss, they may fear that their feelings might magically cause harm to someone important to them, or even that their feelings might have caused the present events. Some children may deal with loss by returning to an earlier level of functioning, to a time before the loss occurred. 
    In the child's eyes, parental divorce, unlike the death of a parent, is the result of the parents' choice. That's why children in divorce so often experience so much anger. Parents can help by describing what is happening: "I know that my choice was one that caused pain in your life. . . I'm sorry about the pain. I want to hear about the pain. . . That's OK with me. I understand."
    How can you create safe conditions for expression of feelings by your children when they are probably functioning as though they were younger than they are, probably not ready to talk about the subject, and probably scared? And probably already doing it in their own way, in the language of play? Gently. Carefully. And indirectly. 
    Your children can listen to you reading to them: old and new story books, poetry, biographies; readings about children, about animals, about make-believe characters. You can select readings that give you a chance to ask, gently, with pauses, such questions as these: "What happened to Ann?" " What does Bobby want?" "How is Carl feeling?"
    You can sit at a table with your children, set out paper and crayons (or color markers or oil pastels), and invite them to make a picture of anything. Gently, with pauses, you can ask questions like these: "Anything else?" "Do you want to tell me about this?" "What is happening here?" "What's its name?" "What does Debbie want?" 
    You are being present for your children, in settings like this one and in less formal settings too: after the movies, driving home from practice, or talking about school. You are providing the opportunity for them to let you into their private place, and to reveal their secrets to you. This is not a time for you to be correcting them, advising them, telling them to think or talk or feel differently. This is a time for you to support their healing by loving them for who they are. 

21. Create a climate of safety.
What do you do after your child has made a picture of a tearful little blue sailboat in a ferocious storm under scary dark skies with an angry red lightning bolt, and you've just finished hearing about "scared" and "mad" and "sad", and you've watched the careful printing of the date and the artist's name in the corner, and you've asked for the name of this picture, and you've said, yes, you'll save this picture with all the other pictures?
    Now, you can provide a safe place, just by being with your child. Your child can discover that in your presence, it's not dangerous to express being "sad," or "mad," or "scared". Your quiet presence (and, perhaps, your quiet words) can say, "I know this can be hard. And you are safe. You're OK. I care. I'm here."
    One day, your child may make a picture of a big boathouse in quiet waters, where the little sailboat can be safe. But for now, it is you who provides the sheltered space your child needs for feeling and expressing anguish safely, without fear of smothering or destruction.
    And you do this over and over again, in many different ways.

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